Study Guide

Middlesex Themes

  • Fate and Free Will

    Calliope Stephanides may have been named after one of the Muses, but as we watch her life unfold in Middlesex, it's the Fates that seem to be guiding her path from childhood to adulthood and male to female. It's amazing how many world events come together at exactly the right time in order to make Cal: the Turkish invasion of Greece, race riots in Detroit, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Maybe the only reason she's named Calliope is because Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos are all terrible names for a child. Or pet. Or anything.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Was it fate that Cal was conceived? How much free will went into the choices of his parents and grandparents?
    2. Does Cal have free will, or is he still controlled by fate? How many of his actions are the result of his conscious choices?
    3. Cal explicitly mentions the phrase deus ex machina. How does this concept factor into his life?
    4. Desdemona thinks she can predict the sex of the child, and her predictions are always right. Does she predict the future, or do her predictions cause the future?

    Chew on This

    Just as Cal is a mix of both male and female ideals, he is a perfect balance of fate and free will coming together to create something new.

    Fate and free will aren't that different. Cal has free will and makes conscious choices that affect his fate.

  • Gender

    A book called Middlesex just has to deal with issues of gender. It's not Essex or Wessex or Sussex: it's freaking Middlesex. Born intersex with primarily male features but raised female, Cal is right smack in between two genders, and he has to learn to rationalize them both. Through a lot of introspection (and a stop-over at an underwater sex carnival in San Francisco) Cal ends up becoming the best of both worlds.

    Questions About Gender

    1. How are Cal's genes at odds with his gender conditioning?
    2. In what way do Cal's parents and grandparents adhere to gender stereotypes? Do they ever defy them?
    3. Does Calliope adhere to gender stereotypes? In other words, does she act like girls are supposed to act?
    4. Why does adult Cal try to hide the female aspect of his childhood? How does he end up incorporating Calliope into his adult identity?

    Chew on This

    Because Cal is raised in a rigid gender stereotype (girls should wear dresses and play with dolls) it makes it that much harder for him to transition into a male gender.

    Because Cal was so "girly" as a girl, he tries extra hard to be uber-masculine as an adult man.

  • Family

    If you've seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding or ordered a gyro at your local Greek sandwich shop, you know that Greeks are not only big into family archetypically speaking, they're just big families. And loud families. Cal's family in Middlesex is about as Greek as you can get—by the time he is born, his grandparents, parents, and brother all live in the same house together. And being from a country that gave birth to some of the greatest philosophers and plays of all time, they love drama, too.

    Questions About Family

    1. How is Cal's family a traditional family? How is it non-traditional?
    2. Much of Cal's family is kept, how shall we say, in the family. (Read: incest.) How does Cal's family treat the people that aren't blood related? Think of Jimmy Zizmo and Meg Zemka as examples. 
    3. Will Cal's family line stop with him? How will his family go on if he can't/doesn't have children?

    Chew on This

    Cal's family seems dramatic, but they ultimately love and support each other when the going gets tough (and cities are on fire).

    Cal's family isn't as large as your typical Greek family because they keep marrying their own relatives. When Cal finally finds someone to settle down with, he'll find a new family to be a part of.

  • Sex

    Whether or not you want to think about it, your family wouldn't exist were it not for sex. Middlesex is a novel about generations, kind of like the parts of the Bible where someone begat someone, and that person begats [sic] someone else, and so on and so forth. Thankfully for our reading pleasure, Jeffrey Eugenides can write passages that are a heck of a lot steamier than "begat." It's a little easier to think about your parents having sex when you see just how hot it is. Or does that make it creepier?

    Questions About Sex

    1. Is the sex between Lefty and Desdemona creepy or romantic? Does this ever change?
    2. How do Cal's first two sexual experiences (with the Obscure Object and her brother, Jerome) compare to one another?
    3. Is sex ever destructive in the novel, or is it always used to create something?
    4. How do Tessie and Milton's attitudes toward sex influence Cal's attitudes toward sex at a young age?

    Chew on This

    Through his writing, Jeffrey Eugenides makes sex scenes that should be uncomfortable into something steamy, which kind of makes them more uncomfortable.

    Cal is a product of his parents's traditional attitudes toward sex and the looser attitudes toward sex of the 1960s.

  • Love

    It's pretty hard to concisely summarize the plot of Middlesex, but one way to boil it down would be to call it an epic quest. It's Greek, after all, and they love their quests. The characters of Middlesex aren't looking for the Golden Fleece, though, they're looking for love. And their love crosses all bounds: family, gender, war… you name it, and the love of the Stephanides family triumphs over it.

    Questions About Love

    1. What different types of love are present in Middlesex? Romantic love? Family love? Sisterly love that turns into brotherly love?
    2. Does Cal really love the Obscure Object?
    3. What does Cal need to do in order to find a love of his own?
    4. Are there any characters in the novel who don't experience love? What are their lives like?

    Chew on This

    We talked about sex being necessary to make a family, but love is too. All the members of the Stephanides family are born from sex that results from love.

    It sounds cheesy but it's true: Cal has to learn to love himself before he can love somebody else.

  • Old Age

    In a family epic like Middlesex the characters age and grow old every time we turn a new page. The young lovers Lefty and Desdemona are swinging young newlyweds on one page (it's hard to imagine someone named Desdemona as young, we know) and on the next they're doddering old grandparents. They can't stop time. All they can do is use it to take a moment and reflect on the past, and use what they've learned to affect the future.

    Questions About Old Age

    1. How do Lefty and Desdemona change with age? How do they stay the same?
    2. Do Tessie and Milton become like their parents as they grow older, or are they different? Does Cal become like his parents when he grows older?
    3. What life lessons does Cal learn when he gets old that he'd never have understood when he was young?

    Chew on This

    As Cal gets closer to middle age (a.k.a. over the hill), he learns to appreciate the perspective his years have given him. As it turns out, the view from the hill is pretty good.

    The thing about being over the hill is that you go back down it. Lefty does this literally when he starts reliving his childhood instead of just ruminating about it.

  • Mortality

    We talked about old people in the part of this section focused on old age, but we didn't address this one critical issue: old people die. Well, everyone dies at some point, whether they're old or not, and there's a lot of death in Middlesex. There are deaths off-page during wars and riots, there are deaths of minor characters, and there are deaths of major characters whose lives we've known for a long time. So, if you're wondering why our copy of Middlesex is stained with tears… that's why. Why it's stained with peanut butter… well, we like to eat and read, okay? Nothing wrong with that.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. What minor characters die over the course of the novel? How are their deaths significant?
    2. Are there any insignificant deaths in the novel, or do they all mean something?
    3. How does Cal cope with the death of his father? How is it different than the death of his grandfather?
    4. All the major characters who die in the book are male. Do we see any female deaths?

    Chew on This

    One of the first deaths that really impacts the novel is the death of Dr. Philobosian's children. When they die, he immigrates to America, where he later delivers Cal. His oversight of Cal's true sex sets the whole novel into motion.

    The novel ends with a death. Even though his father is dead, Cal is hopeful for the future and treats it as a new beginning.

  • Wealth

    America in the early part of the 20th century was a place rife with wealth, and the wealth was growing. While Lefty and Desdemona aren't living a life on par with Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby in Middlesex, they have a lot of earning potential. And the way to make to money is through work. The work of Cal's ancestors affects who they are, whether they're working in factories, smuggling liquor into Canada, or peddling hot dogs. Since Cal is a product of his ancestors, we're surprised he isn't working in some sort of hot dog-flavored liquor factory.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. How is wealth a part of the American immigrant experience that Lefty and Desdemona have upon coming to America?
    2. Is Cal's family wealthy? Is Cal wealthy as an adult?
    3. How do economic disparities affect the racial tension in Detroit? How are Milton and his bar a part of the tension?

    Chew on This

    The men of the Stephanides family are focused on one thing: earning money to support their family. Earning money comes at the price of being close to family.

    Each generation of Cal's family is wealthier than the previous one… until Chapter Eleven bankrupts the family business, that is. We have no idea how they fare after that happens.

  • Race

    It's easy to just lump race into black and white and a few things in between and on either side. But we're talking about race here, not Oreo cookies, and one of the things Middlesex does is remind us on a regular basis how complex race is.

    Race is never simple, and this was especially true in the early days of American immigration. White could mean Italian, Dutch, Irish, English, German, Greek, and so on. Thanks (that's a sarcastic thanks) to Ellis Island, all of these people were expected to act "white," whatever that means. Often it meant changing their names, or modifying their behaviors. Through the experience of Lefty and Desdemona, we see how by trying to act the same as everyone else, they start to become more isolated from each other.

    This is heavy stuff. Can we go back to talking about Oreos?

    Questions About Race

    1. Is Cal made up of different races?
    2. How does Cal interact with people of a different race? How does Desdemona? Milton? 
    3. Desdemona is afraid of black people. What causes her to change her mind? Despite her change in beliefs, does she change her behavior?
    4. Why is Milton an advocate for segregation?

    Chew on This

    Cal spends a lot of his time in a very white world, but enters into an inter-racial relationship with Julie Kikuchi by the end of the novel.

    Cal sees how his father's attitudes antagonized the black people of Detroit. Consciously or not, Cal is more open about race because of this.

  • Religion

    We only see Cal go to church a couple of times, but religious beliefs permeate throughout Middlesex. And, like everything in this book, it all starts with his grandparents, especially Desdemona. She grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church and works in a temple for the Nation of Islam. How's that for religious diversity? She believes it all, too. Good thing Scientology wasn't around back then…

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why does Desdemona insist that Milton repair the church?
    2. How does Desdemona incorporate Islamic beliefs into her own belief system?
    3. Why does Milton shun his mother's religious beliefs?
    4. Desdemona's religious beliefs seem like crazy claptrap, but bad things do happen to her family after Milton breaks his promise to repair the church. Could that have been avoided had he kept his promise?

    Chew on This

    Desdemona's beliefs are a combination of religion and superstition, but it's a combination that works. Everything she predicts comes true.

    Cal has no faith in religion, especially in the concept of the afterlife. He believes that his ancestors are gone when they are dead, and nothing about them exists except for memories.