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Middlesex novel.jpg
Author Jeffrey Eugenides
Cover artist William Webb (Bloomsbury paperback)
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Novel, family saga
Publisher Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (UK)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (USA)
Publication date 7 October 2002
Media type Print (Paperback and Hardback) and audio-CD
Pages 529 pp (Bloomsbury paperback)
ISBN ISBN 0-374-19969-8 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardcover)
ISBN 0-7475-6162-1 (Bloomsbury paperback)
OCLC Number 48951262
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 21
LC Classification PS3555.U4 M53 2002

Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides published in 2002. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003. Middlesex is a family saga and Bildungsroman.

The narrator and protagonist, Calliope Stephanides (later called "Cal"), an intersexed person of Greek descent, has 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. The bulk of the novel is devoted to telling his coming-of-age story growing up in Detroit, Michigan in the late 20th century.[1] This story, however, is intertwined with elements of a family saga, meditations on the era's zeitgeist and bits of contemporary history.


Biographical background and publication

Eugenides initially thought about hermaphrodism two decades prior to writing his novel. He had read the Memoirs of Herculine Barbin about a convent schoolgirl who was a hermaphrodite living in 19th-century France.[2][3] Eugenides believed that the memoir evaded discussion about the anatomy of a hermaphrodite and that the girl could not relay her emotions. He then concluded that he would "write the story that I wasn't getting from the memoir".[2] He sought the advice of many experts and read extensively to learn about hermaphrodism, sexology, and how gender identity is formed. However, he never met a hermaphrodite, saying that "[I] decided not to work in that reportorial mode. Instead of trying to create a separate person, I tried to pretend that I had this and that I had lived through this as much as I could."[2]

It took Eugenides nine years to write Middlesex. He spent such a lengthy amount of time writing the novel because he had trouble with its voice. He said that "[t]he voice had to be capable of telling epic events in the third person and psychosexual events in the first person. It had to render the experience of a teenage girl and an adult man, or an adult male-identified hermaphrodite."[1] The book was published in 2002, nine years after the publication of his first novel, The Virgin Suicides.[4]

The novel's title is a double entendre.[5] It describes both the name of the road, Middlesex Boulevard, in which Callie lives in the 1970s, and also describes her intersexual situation.[1] About half of Middlesex details incidents prior to Callie's birth.[6]

Plot summary

The novel begins with the narrator, aged 41, recounting how the recessive gene, 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, caused him to be born with the characteristics of a female. He is christened with a female name Calliope. After learning about the syndrome in his adolescence, he changes his name to Cal. The narration periodically returns to the frame story of present-day Cal, who is bearded, male and interested in women, foreshadowing the personal revelations of Callie. The narration briefly explains how Desdemona, Cal's grandmother, predicted her grandchild to be male while Calliope's parents had already made preparations for the birth of a daughter.

The story starts again further back in time, in a small village in Asia Minor, with the protagonist's Greek paternal grandparents. In the aftermath of the 1922 war between Greece and Turkey, and amid graphic scenes of the Great Fire of Smyrna, the orphaned siblings Eleutherios "Lefty" Stephanides and sister Desdemona seek refuge by emigrating to America. With great ambivalence, but with few other options, Desdemona agrees to marry her brother, who has been increasingly regarding her not as a sister, but as a potential lover. Fleeing incognito by ship, they are free to marry without risking the legal and social prohibitions of marriage between siblings. While traveling to the United States, they plan and carry out a feigned courtship in which they genuinely attempt to suppress (or at least deny) memories of their former life together as brother and sister. Having successfully deceived their fellow passengers, the ship's officers, and to some extent themselves, Lefty and Desdemona are married by the captain in as traditional a Greek Orthodox ceremony as can be improvised. They reach the United States, and settle in Detroit, Michigan, home of their cousin Sourmelina ("Lina"), their American sponsor, and her husband Jimmy Zizmo. Learning the ups and downs of the American culture, Desdemona and Lefty run into many hardships. Lefty soon goes into an illegal business run by Jimmy. After Lina and Desdemona become pregnant on the same night, Jimmy becomes suspicious. Increasingly paranoid, Jimmy starts to question Lefty on Lina's pregnancy while driving across thin ice to Canada. Realizing that both men could die if the car plunged into the ice, Lefty jumps out the car, leaving Jimmy driving. After a while, the car is heard plunging into the ice with Jimmy still inside. In time, Desdemona gives birth to a son, Milton, while Lina gives birth to a daughter, Theodora, called "Tessie".

Desdemona is made aware of the potential for disease in children due to consanguinity and becomes anxious about her pregnancy. After the death of his brother-in-law, and with the quality of his marriage declining, Lefty decides to open a bar and gambling room, calling it the Zebra Room. The Zebra Room is a great success for the family until the Great Depression, which forces Desdemona to get a job as well. Only having experience with sericulture, she is hired by the early Nation of Islam and hears the leader, Wallace Fard Muhammad, speak through the building ventilation system. Since Desdemona is white, she is restricted from hearing or even participating in the teachings of Islam. After the church is closed down because of FBI accusations, curiosity gets the best of her and she decides to examine the restricted area. She accidentally bumps into Fard who identifies himself as Jimmy Zizmo, Lina's husband and Lefty's business partner in running liquor in the 1920s. After she yells at Jimmy for leaving Lina alone to care for their child, Jimmy tells her that he faked his death out of his distrust of Lina, Desdemona and Lefty. He believes that the three of them used him to get into the United States and that Lefty later impregnated Lina. After Jimmy and Desdemona's argument, Jimmy leaves, never to be seen again.

Lefty and Desdemona's son, Milton, marries Lina's daughter, Tessie. Milton and Tessie, who are second cousins, have two children. "Chapter Eleven" (a reference to the fact that he eventually becomes bankrupt)[7] is a biologically "normal" boy but Callie is intersexed (5-alpha-reductase deficiency). However, the family doesn't know this for many years, and Callie is raised as a girl.

At fourteen, Callie falls in love with her female best friend (referred to in the novel as "The Obscure Object") and has her first sexual experiences with both sexes, a brother and sister. After an accident, a doctor discovers that Callie is intersexed, and she is taken to a clinic in New York where she undergoes a series of tests and examinations. Faced with the prospect of sex reassignment surgery, Callie runs away and takes the male identity of Cal. Cal hitchhikes cross-country, finally arriving in San Francisco, where he becomes an attraction in a burlesque show.

Milton, back in Detroit, repeatedly receives phone calls from an anonymous man saying he knows where Callie is, and will release her for a ransom of $25,000. Milton questions the man on family details, to which the man replies correctly. Milton drops the money but changes his mind, figuring that something isn't right, and finds the ransomer to be his priest brother-in-law and his wife's former fiancé, Father Mike. This leads to a car chase to the Canadian border, where Milton is killed in a pile-up, and Father Mike is arrested.

The club where Cal works is raided by police, and Cal is returned to Chapter Eleven's custody in time for Milton's funeral in Grosse Pointe. Desdemona sees Cal as male for the first time, and the book ends when Desdemona confesses to Cal that Lefty was her brother. Cal stands in the doorway to the family's Middlesex home (a male-only Greek tradition thought to keep spirits of the dead out of the family home) while Milton's funeral takes place.

As an adult, Cal becomes a diplomat and is stationed in Berlin. He meets Julie Kikuchi, a Japanese-American woman with whom he has a relationship.[6]

Autobiographical elements

Several people and events from Eugenides' life parallel those of the fictional Calliope. Born in 1960, the same year that Calliope was born, Jeffrey Eugenides is the son of a Kentuckian mother and a Greek father. He, like Calliope, had to learn about Greek customs in order to understand his grandparents' way of life. Eugenides' grandfather resembles Calliope's grandfather in that each owned a bar. Eugenides named the bar in Middlesex Zebra Room as a "secret code of paying homage to my grandparents and my parents".[2] Both Eugenides and the narrator have lived in a street called Middlesex Boulevard.[1]

Throughout the writing of the novel, Eugenides did not worry about how his family would react to the book. However, he admitted that when he was revising the book, he removed some information that would be potentially offensive to his relatives. Eugenides remarked, "I keep filial respect out of my mind until I'm done. And then compunction rushes in. During the editing of Middlesex, I took a few things out that might have stung my relatives. There may still be things in there that will sting."[8]


[T]he writing itself is also about mixing things up, grafting flights of descriptive fancy with hunks of conversational dialogue, pausing briefly to sketch passing characters or explain a bit of a bygone world.

—Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly[9]

Middlesex is written in the form of a memoir.[10] The book, when it discusses Cal's family before he was born, is written with a "limited" omniscient point of view in an androgynous voice.[11][12] Cal is knowledgeable of all that is occurring and that has occurred, but sometimes acknowledges that he is fabricating some of the details.[12] The book shifts back and forth from third person to first person.[3] Eugenides explained that "The voice had to be elastic enough to narrate the epic stuff, the third-person material, and it had to be a highly individualized first-person voice, too."[8]

As Cal transitions from being a female to being a male, the voice does not change significantly. The reason for this is that Eugenides does not believe that males and females have inherent disparities in their writing styles. That is, he believes that there are greater disparities between the ways that individuals write than between people of the opposite sex. Furthermore, the voice does not change significantly because throughout his entire life, Cal possessed a male brain and was a heterosexual male, and he wrote the saga when he was an adult.[8] However, Cal was female at one point, so Eugenides sought to get "emotional stuff right". He consulted his wife and several other women who told him that the emotion was accurately portrayed. The women also helped him with the more feminine aspects of the novel such as toenail polish.[8]

The tone of the narrator is considered to be "sardonic empathy".[13] Critics have characterized the beginning of the novel about Lefty and Desdemona as having a comedic element.[13][14] The Stephanides' relationship with the blacks, as well as America's race issues, have been criticized as being "preachy and nervous".[14]

Middlesex also has an ironic tone. Cal's parents go on the journey of immigrants' children, leaving their small ethnic groups and moving from city to suburb.[15]


Although we tend to take its genetic makeup for granted, the novel is a hybrid form, epic crossed with history, romance, comedy, tragedy. Sometimes the traits of other shadowy ancestors appear: confession, folk tale, sermon, travelogue.

—Adam Begley in The New York Observer[16]

Middlesex is characterized as a Bildungsroman with a "big twist"; the coming-of-age story is revealed to be the incorrect one.[14] The book is said to have "two distinct and occasionally warring halves".[14] The first part is about hermaphrodites, while the second is about Greeks. The latter aspect of the novel is considered by critics to be more effectual because Middlesex is largely about how Cal inherited the momentous gene that "ends up defining her indefinable life".[14] The book is also considered a family saga, covering the lives of three generations of the Stephanides family.[1]

The start of the novel is considered a tragicomedy about the Stephanides family's migration from Greece and assimilation into America. As the story progresses, Middlesex shifts into a social novel about Detroit, discussing the seclusion of living in the 1970s suburb.[12]


Rebirth is one of the themes in Middlesex. Following the Great Fire of Smyrna, Lefty and Desdemona must start life anew. When she is fourteen years old, Calliope experiences a second birth to become Cal. To become a male, Calliope peregrinates across the United States, becoming a midwife of her new life. She attempts to forget what she has learned as a female.[17] Middlesex delves into the concept of identity, including how it is formed and how it is administered.[15] The immigrant situation is a metaphor and synecdoche for Calliope's hermaphroditic condition; Calliope's grandparents become Americanized through the amalgamation of the elements of heredity, cultural metamorphoses, and probability.[10]

Using modern pop music and Greek myths allusions, Eugenides depicts how family characteristics and idiosyncrasies are passed on from one generation to the next. He also employs leitmotifs to depict how chance affects the family's way of life.[18]

The incidents that occur to Cal's family parallel the historical events of the day. For instance, Milton's family business is destroyed in a conflagration in the 1967 Detroit riot. When the Watergate scandal occurs, Milton empathizes with President Richard Nixon. At the same time, his son, Chapter Eleven, frets about the draft to fight in the Vietnam War.[18]

A central theme in the novel is the schism between two opposites. The book contrasts the differing experiences and opinions of males and females, Greek Americans and WASPs, Greeks and Turks, and African Americans and Caucasians.[6][16]

Nature vs. nurture

The novel examines the nature versus nurture debate in detail. At the beginning of the novel, Cal writes, "Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome."[19] He then apologizes, saying, "Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That's genetic, too."[19] This is an allusion to the poet Homer who was also captivated with the nature vs. nurture debate.[6] In fact, Cal himself confesses, "If you were going to devise an experiment to measure the relative influences of nature versus nurture, you couldn't come up with anything better than my life."[20]

Calliope has inherited the mutation for a gene that causes 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which impedes the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone.[21] While the former hormone causes the brain to become masculine, it is the latter that molds male genitals.[21] When Callie reaches puberty, her testosterone levels increase significantly, resulting in the formation of a larger Adam's apple, the broadening of the muscles, the deepening of her voice, and the augmentation of her clitoris to resemble a penis.[22] Callie's parents bring her to New York City to see Dr. Peter Luce, a foremost expert on hermaphroditism, who believes she should retain her female identity. Luce plans a gender reassignment surgery to make her a female. However, Callie knows that she has a sexual attraction to females and decides to run away to avoid mutilation and to pursue a male identity.[22]

Science may cause people to be restricted by heredity, whilst the true cause of Cal's hermaphroditic condition is due to DNA.[13] According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, the novel examines how an individual's traits are due neither solely to nature nor solely to nurture. Likewise, Cal's gender cannot be defined solely as male or female. Rather, Cal's gender is both male and female.[23] Addressing how genetic determinism may have renewed the antediluvian beliefs about destiny, Eugenides refutes the post-Freudian beliefs that a person's traits are mainly due to nurture. Thus, the novel pits evolutionary biology against free will.[1] Eugenides seeks to find a compromise between these two views. Explaining that gender is a "very American concept", he believes that "humans are freer than we realize. Less genetically encumbered".[8]

Greek mythical allusions

The novel constantly alludes to Greek myths. Cal frequently compares himself to Tiresias, the male prophet who also switched genders. Cal is also compared to the Minotaur, a creature that was also half and half — part man and part bull.[12] The protagonist is named after Calliope, the muse of heroic poetry.[10] The book also discusses Sapphic love; Callie has sexual relations with the Obscure Object, her closest friend.[15][24]

Book reviewer Frances Bartkowski identified Calliope to be like a Chimera — a monster composed of multiple animal parts — in that in the end, she would transform into her own sibling of the other sex.[24] When Callie is in New York, she goes to the New York Public Library and searches for the meaning of the word "hermaphrodite".[25] She becomes shocked when the dictionary entry concludes with "See synonyms at MONSTER."[26] Callie is not a Frankenstein; she is more like the Big Foot or Loch Ness. Eugenides' message is that "we must let our monsters out—they demand and deserve recognition—they are us: our same, self, others."[25]

Incest is another theme in Middlesex. Eugenides examines the passionate feelings that siblings living in seclusion experience for each other.[14] Milton and Tessie, second cousins, are conceived during the same night, hinting to the incest of Desdemona and Lefty.[17] Desdemona and Lefty's incestuous relationship is a transgression of a puissant taboo, indicating that someone will suffer for their wrongs. In a way, Cal's intersex condition symbolizes this Greek hubris.[17] Cal's mother interferes with fate by attempting to make her second child a daughter. Cal believes this interference was a factor in him being a hermaphrodite.[18] Conversely, Cal's relationship with his brother, Chapter Eleven, is indicative of the possible dissimilarities that are products of the biosocial.[24]

Jeff Turrentine of the Orlando Sentinel was impressed with Eugenide's knowledge of mythography. Turrentine wrote that Eugenides was filled with "heroic energy, keen wit and genuine compassion" when addressing the Greek riddles.[15]

Reception, awards, and nominations

Daniel Mendelsohn of The New York Times Book Review praised Middlesex for its "dense narrative, interwoven with sardonic, fashionably postmodern commentary".[14] However, he criticized the novel for being a disjointed hybrid. He believed that Eugenides mishandles the hermaphrodite material, which is characterized as "unpersuasiv[e]", but is successful with the story of Greek immigrants, which is described as "authenti[c]".[14]

Critics were dissatisfied with the scope of the novel. Mendelsohn wrote that thematically, there was no reason that a Greek should be a hermaphrodite or a hermaphrodite should be a Greek, but that Eugenides had two disconnected stories to tell.[14] Caly Risen of Flak Magazine believed that the immigrant experience was the "heart of the novel", lamenting that it minimized the story of Calliope/Cal who is such a "fascinating character that the reader feels short-changed by his failure to take her/him further".[10] Risen wished to read more about the events in between Cal's adolescence and adulthood, such as Cal's experience in college as a hermaphrodite as well as the relationships he had.[10] Eugenides purposefully devised this asymmetry.[27]

Andrew O'Hehir of praised Middlesex for being an "epic and wondrous" novel filled with numerous characters and historical occurrences.[12] Several critics have called the book a candidate for being a "Great American Novel".[10][28] Tim Morris, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, wrote that the novel was "the latest in a long line of contenders for the status of Great American Novel".[28]

David Gates of Newsweek contrasted Eugenides' debut novel, The Virgin Suicides with Middlesex, writing that the first novel was "ingenious", "entertaining", and "oddly moving", but that Middlesex is "ingenious", "entertaining", and "ultimately not-so-moving". Despite this criticism, Gates considered Middlesex to be the novel where Eugenides "finally plays his metafictional ace".[29] Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly agreed, calling the novel a "big-hearted, restless story" and rating it an A-.[9] Lisa Zeidner of the Washington Post opined that Middlesex "provides not only incest à la Ada and a Lolita-style road trip, but enough dense detail to keep fans of close reading manically busy."[27]

In 2003, Middlesex was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[11] It also received the Ambassador Book Award, Spain's Santiago de Compostela Literary Prize, and the Great Lakes Book Award.[30]

In 2007, Oprah Winfrey chose Middlesex to be discussed in her book club.[4]

Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Book Review considered Middlesex one of the best books in 2002. In spite of this acclamation, its sales have been underwhelming.[2]

In July 2009, HBO announced that it would create a one-hour drama series based on Middlesex.[31] The script is written by Donald Margulies,[32] and the project is produced by Rita Wilson and Margulies.[31]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Bedell, Geraldine (2002-10-06). "He's not like other girls". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-01. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Goldstein, Bill (2003-01-01). "A Novelist Goes Far Afield but Winds Up Back Home Again". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-01. 
  3. ^ a b Eugenides, Jeffrey. Interview with Moorhem, Bram van. 3am Interview An Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, Author of the Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides. 3:AM Magazine. 2003. Retrieved on 2010-02-06.
  4. ^ a b Schwyzer, Elizabeth (2010-01-08). "Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex". Santa Barbara Independent. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-18. 
  5. ^ Freeman, John (2002-09-29). "'Middlesex' plumbs depth of displacement". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-15. 
  6. ^ a b c d Miller, Laura (2002-09-15). "'Middlesex': My Big Fat Greek Gender Identity Crisis". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2010-03-02. Retrieved 2010-03-02. 
  7. ^ "Q&A with Jeffery Eugenides: What does Chapter Eleven mean?". Oprah's Book Club. 2006-01-01. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-01. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Eugenides, Jeffrey. Interview with Foer, Jonathan Safran. Jeffrey Eugenides. 2002. Retrieved on 2010-02-23.
  9. ^ a b Schwarzbaum, Lisa (2002-09-13). "Review: Middlesex". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on 2010-02-26. Retrieved 2010-02-26. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f Risen, Clay (2002-10-21). "Review of Middlesex". Flak Magazine. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-18. 
  11. ^ a b Gilpin, Sam (2003-09-28). "Paperback pick of the week: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides". The Times. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-15. 
  12. ^ a b c d e O'Hehir, Andrew (2002-09-05). ""Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides". Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-04. 
  13. ^ a b c Lawson, Mark (2002-10-05). "Gender blender". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-12. 
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mendelsohn, Daniel (2002-11-07). "Mighty Hermaphrodite". The New York Times Book Review. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-10. 
  15. ^ a b c d Turrentine, Jeff (2002-09-01). "She's come undone". Orlando Sentinel. Archived from the original on 2010-03-02. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  16. ^ a b Begley, Adam (2002-09-08). "Hermaphrodite's History Is a Storyteller's Bonanza". The New York Observer. Archived from the original on 2010-03-05. Retrieved 2010-02-26. 
  17. ^ a b c Wheelwright, Julie (2002-10-19). "Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides". The Independent. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-15. 
  18. ^ a b c Kakutani, Michiko (2002-09-03). "The American Dream Seen in a Child's Nightmare". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2010-02-26. Retrieved 2010-02-26. 
  19. ^ a b Eugenides 2002, p. 4
  20. ^ Eugenides 2002, p. 19
  21. ^ a b Lippa 2005, p. 119
  22. ^ a b Lippa 2005, p. 120
  23. ^ Lyubomirsky, Sonja (2010-01-09). "Where Does Happiness (and Everything Else) Come From? Lessons from Literature". Psychology Today. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-11. 
  24. ^ a b c Bartkowski 2008, p. 40
  25. ^ a b Bartkowski 2008, p. 41
  26. ^ Eugenides 2002, p. 430
  27. ^ a b Zeidner, Lisa (2002-09-15). "She Said, He Said". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2010-03-05. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  28. ^ a b Morris, Tim (2009-03-19). "Lection: Middlesex". University of Texas at Arlington. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-17. 
  29. ^ Gates, David (2002-09-23). "The Gender Blender: 'Virgin' Author Jeffrey Eugenides's Unisexy Saga". Newsweek. Archived from the original on 2010-02-23. Retrieved 2010-02-22. 
  30. ^ "About Jeffery Eugenides". Oprah's Book Club. 2006-01-01. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-01. 
  31. ^ a b Grego, Melissa (2009-07-06). "HBO to Develop 'Middlesex' as One-Hour Series". Broadcasting & Cable. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-21. 
  32. ^ Idelson, Karen (2009-08-27). "HBO looks to Michigan for 'Middlesex'". Variety. Archived from the original on 2010-02-21. Retrieved 2010-02-21. 


External links

Preceded by
Empire Falls
by Richard Russo
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Succeeded by
The Known World
by Edward P. Jones

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