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Middlesex | Themes


Fate, Destiny, and Genetics

Middlesex is the story of a mutated chromosome making its way through a family until it manifests itself outwardly in Cal Stephanides. By introducing the narrative as the story of the "rollercoaster ride of a single gene through time," Jeffrey Eugenides introduces the idea that genetics are destiny. Cal feels compelled to write his story, to write about "Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again ... across the sea to America."

As Cal tells the story of his grandparents' decision to transform themselves from siblings to spouses, he suggests that the gene itself, yearning to be made visible, propels Lefty and Desdemona to marry—until finally, even in America, with a gene pool as wide as the country itself, the recessive mutation 5-alpha reductase deficiency survives in Cal. As Cal says of his conception, "Delay the act by an hour and you change the gene selection."

The deus ex machina that keeps Milton out of combat ensures that Cal's genetic destiny will be met. Later, Chapter Eleven rails against fate; it is the lottery that keeps him out of Vietnam. He rebels against the idea that his entire life is controlled by such a lottery.

By calling his brother Chapter Eleven from the moment readers meet him, Cal makes another statement about predestination. Although it isn't explored, it is mentioned near the end of the novel that Chapter Eleven bankrupts Milton's Hercules Hot Dogs. Is Eugenides suggesting that he was destined for this as a child by never referring to him by his given name? Or is Cal, writing in retrospect, suggesting that Chapter Eleven somehow named himself by bankrupting their father's business? As readers never have the opportunity to see what types of decisions Chapter Eleven makes that result in Chapter Eleven, the question is unanswerable. Perhaps there were a series of unexplained natural disasters besetting roadside stands in secondary cities in the Midwest and South. Or perhaps Chapter Eleven, of his own free will, made catastrophic choices that shuttered 64 roadside hot dog stands. It may have been inputted into his DNA.

Eugenides wrestles, as does Cal, with the idea of free will versus destiny. As Cal begins to tell of his experience in San Francisco in the 1970s, he introduces a new possibility: "Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback." In reconnecting with Julie, making himself vulnerable to her, he opens himself to the possibility that he has real agency in where his life goes.

Science and Medicine

Eugenides explores the dualities embraced by accepting the "progress" of science and medicine. Cal jokes about being Homeric—it's in the genes, he claims—suggesting an interplay between the language of science and medicine and the language of storytelling. Eugenides frequently mixes "Homeric" language—language of the ancient Greek poet—with that of medical journals. The tension between science and humanism plays out dramatically in Middlesex. It can be seen in the postmodern ideas that reject the essential idea of truth, while embracing skepticism, relativism and a general questioning of reason.

As Dr. Philobosian entrances and horrifies his listeners with tales of obsolete "scientific" beliefs, he remains confident in its progress. His robust belief in science, in rationalism, is tested when his family is murdered; he was so confident that he'd be protected by his evidence (of treating Kemal) that he failed to take into account either the illiteracy or brutality of the Turkish soldiers. His faith in his own practice is tested when Callie is sent to him after her visit to the emergency room near Petoskey. For Dr. Philobosian though, there is always new science to explain things; he can look almost nostalgically back at disproven theories of ages past with full confidence that his own knowledge is inviolate.

It is the medical man's full confidence in his own theoretical worldview that sets the conflict between the absolutes of "science" and the grays of literature. If left to Dr. Luce, Cal would remain Callie. Supremely confident in his definitions of gender, Dr. Luce feels no compunction about lying to the Stephanides about the extent of Callie's "procedure." He cannot see nuance in gender; his training has led him to understand boys as boys and girls as girls.

In this case science using surgery and hormone shots would fundamentally change who Cal is. While she may have been happy as Callie, her story would be vastly different. The telling of the story, of the rollercoaster ride of the fifth chromosome, might be a footnote in a medical text, a triumph for science. Additionally, Cal's running away at the insistence of his maleness is also, in many ways, a triumph for science. His running is evidence for the "genetics is destiny" camp. The spinning of his tale, however, further still muddles arguments on both sides of the nature versus nurture debate.

Callie's father believes that medicine can fix her. He sees no ambiguity: Callie is a girl. Tessie, more observant and attuned to her child, revisits moments in her past in which Callie did not seem altogether and wholly female. She is capable of understanding the nuance in Callie's being. Early in the book, Tessie begrudgingly accepts the "scientific" method of having a girl—a method that Milton wholeheartedly embraces. She feels that some matters are better left to fate, or chance, or God. In the marriage of Tessie and Milton, Eugenides explores the tension between science and faith in Milton's relationship with Tessie and the Church.

Eugenides also explores the conversation between faith and science with Lefty and Desdemona as interlocutors. As Lefty, diminished by strokes, realizes that his brain is just an organ, he rules out the soul and the afterlife that is promised in religion: "he finally arrived at the cold-eyed conclusion ... that the brain was just an organ like any other and that when it failed he would be no more." Desdemona, with her fanning, and her spoons, and her entreaties to St. Christopher, never gives up her faith. When Callie returns home as Cal, proving her spoon correct after 14 years of doubt, Desdemona is finally happy.

Transformation and Reinvention

All of Eugenides characters go through some sort of transformation or reinvention. They aren't sudden, necessarily, but they are dramatic. Father Mike goes from humble priest to cruel blackmailer. Lina reinvents herself first as a heterosexual, then as an American, and finally, as a middle-aged lesbian with a "friend." Jerome transforms himself with makeup into a vampire, which gives him courage and a sneer. It is the primary characters that have the most startling transformations.

Lefty and Desdemona transform themselves, aboard ship, from brother and sister to husband and wife. They do this through an elaborate courting ritual that they invent. They could have boarded the ship as husband and wife and no one would have been the wiser. However, it takes time to transform, and the time on board gave them the opportunity to both reinvent themselves and then get used to the reinvention.

Milton transforms from a gangly Greek kid to an American businessman, not tied by ancient loyalties to Greece.

Jimmy Zizmo reinvents himself as a prophet. "You never knew me," he shouts to Desdemona. His constant reinventions precluded anyone from really knowing him, even his wife. His transformation into Wallace Fard makes sense; it is foreshadowed by his reluctance to come to the defense of Greece, by his abstemious behavior and food prohibitions. However, by getting people to trust him, to adore him, to be willing to murder for him, Zizmo must undergo a radical transformation.

Finally, Cal goes through the most and least dramatic reinvention. He has never been entirely female, or at least never felt entirely comfortable as a girl. However, as a man, he does not feel entirely comfortable either. Even through the stunning transformation from female to male, he remains essentially the same.

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