The Silver Spoon
Middlesex opens with Cal Stephanides (also known as Calliope) introducing herself/himself. Cal was born a girl in January of 1960 in Detroit, Michigan to a Greek-American family. (S)he is a 5-Alpha-Reductase pseudohermaphrodite, which he discovered when he was sixteen. Cal calls upon the Greek muses to help him tell his story of self-discovery, birth, and family history. He embarks upon the story of his gender prediction by his grandmother, Desdemona Stephanides.
Desdemona, Cal's grandmother who immigrated to America from Greece with her brother Eleutherios "Lefty" Stephanides, calls the family together to predict the gender of her daughter in law Tessie's unborn child. She instructs Chapter Eleven Stephanides, Cal's older brother, to go into the attic where she and Lefty live and retrieve the silkworm box from under her bed. Chapter Eleven finds it amid mothballs and birdcages and runs back downstairs. Desdemona takes a silver spoon out of the box, ties a string to it, and dangles the spoon over Tessie's pregnant belly. Until now, Desdemona has gotten twenty-three out of twenty-three guesses correct, and, after a little hesitation, she declares that the child will be a boy. Tessie's husband, Milton Stephanides, disagrees with Desdemona, insisting that scientifically, it must be a girl.
Tessie and Milton conceive the child wanting a girl. Milton asked Uncle Pete, a family friend who was a chiropractor, for advice on how to conceive a girl, and Pete tells him that male sperm (Y sperm) swim more quickly than female sperm (X sperm), so the best way to conceive a girl is to have sex twenty-four hours before ovulation. Consumed by the 1960s cultural obsession with the new-found possibilities of science, Milton believes that the male sperm would rush off and die before the egg dropped, but the female sperm would reach it just in time. Despite Tessie's reservations that the child should be conceived spontaneously through love and not through this scientific method, she agrees to try for a girl using Uncle Pete's method. After Tessie speaks with their family friend, Father Mike, an assistant pastor at their Greek Orthodox church, she sees a mysterious and precocious young girl who convinces her that she really wants a girl.
Milton and Tessie conceive Cal on Greek Orthodox Easter and (s)he is born in January of 1960. The same day, Cal's grandfather, Lefty, suffers a stroke and loses the ability to speak. According to Cal's grandmother, he collapses after reading his fortune in his coffee grounds. Desdemona is upset that she incorrectly guessed Cal's sex, and she stops guessing babies' sexes as the Stephanides lose a little more of their old culture.
Cal has taken the idea to write a memoir from other famous hermaphrodites, and points out the brilliance of his struggle with gender from a research standpoint. Although Cal has a biologically male brain, until the age of sixteen, he was raised as a girl, a veritable case of nature vs. nurture. He maintains that the proper way to tell his and his family's story is through a feminine, circular manner, instead of a masculine, linear manner, and so he goes back to the beginning, to his grandparents in Greece.
It is 1922, and Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides are sister and brother living on the slope of Mount Olympus, operating their family silk cocoonery. Their parents were killed in the recent war with the Turks, which the Greeks won. Desdemona and Lefty live in Bithynios, a tiny village above Bursa, the center of the silk trade. Convinced that she is internally ill, Desdemona wastes away inside her cocoonery, trying to ignore her dreams. Lefty, quickly becoming Americanized, shocks Desdemona with his oiled hair and outlandish clothes. They have been close all their life, and Lefty's new passion alienates and isolates Desdemona. Their tension finally erupts into an argument, and Desdemona asks Lefty why he goes into Bursa all the time. Lefty admits that he wants a woman.
Lefty's new-found sexuality shocks Desdemona, and she yells at him, accusing him of wanting a fat, ugly Turkish woman. Lefty counters, reminding Desdemona that there are only two other Greek girls left in their village, Victoria Pappas, who has a mustache, and Lucille Kafkalis, who smells. Lefty storms out and Desdemona sighs, counting the worry beads that her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather counted before her. She feels that she must step into her parents' place, and decides to become a matchmaker for her brother and make the other girls more attractive.
Meanwhile, Lefty wanders through the cocoon market, hurriedly selling the cocoons - he didn't inherit his father's mercantile spirit and doesn't like bargaining. Then he goes into a church and prays to Christ, asking for strength to hold up against his unnatural sexual desires. After he leaves the church, he visits the coffee house for ouzo, a liquor, and hookah. He dazedly makes his way to a brothel, where he chooses Irini, a prostitute who looks fairly similar to Desdemona. During sex, while he is stoned, he calls out Desdemona's name a few times. When Lefty wakes up in the morning, he finds himself alone and penniless, and resolves that he has to change. He will let Desdemona set him up with one of the two girls.
Desdemona is prepared for Lefty's change of heart and, using a lingerie catalog that her father used to peek through, Desdemona makes over each girl and parades them in front of Lefty. Lefty feigns enthusiasm because he wants to move on from his desire for Desdemona, but instead they share an intimate moment that causes Desdemona to blush and feel a change in her body. Cal notes here that a certain Dr. Luce presented a study on this phenomenon, which he called "periphescence." It constitutes the giddiness, drugged sense of being in love, coupled with increased blood flow and tingling feelings. Desdemona feels all of this but quickly shuts it down, insisting that Lefty must now go and pay court to the two girls.
As Turkey and Greece continue to wage war in the background, Lefty approaches Victoria's house. Although Victoria is dressed up like a lingerie model, seductively standing in the doorway, Lefty cannot go through with his courtship and dashes away. He next approaches Lucille's house, but again, he cannot continue. Neither of them can live up to his boyhood ideals and his love for his sister. Meanwhile, Desdemona is putting on her wedding corset, weeping because she will grow old alone and her brother will find a new wife. She falls asleep and dreams that she and Lefty are sharing a bed together as husband and wife. As she wakes up, Lefty races home and tells her that he chose neither girl. Desdemona yells at him but is secretly happy. She bets him on a game of rock, paper, scissors that he will marry one of those girls but she loses twice. Lefty then semi-jokingly proposes to her and they embrace, justifying to themselves the rightness of their relationship. In the distance, the Greek Army is retreating.
Cal ends the chapter with a debate on destiny and chance, between genetics and choice. Did the mutated gene expressed in Cal override other genes, other choices, so that it would one day be expressed? Who or what is responsible for Lefty and Desdemona's romance?
An Immodest Proposal
It is now the present. Cal is living as a man in Berlin, Germany. As he boards the U-Bahn to work in the morning, he spots a beautiful Asian woman on a retro bike. He is about to go talk to her when she gets up, meets his eyes, and exits the train. Cal takes out a cigar from his double breasted suit and begins to smoke it to calm himself. He tells us that despite his early upbringing as a girl, he is not androgynous at all and can easily pass in society as male, even using male restrooms and locker rooms. He occasionally slips into mannerisms that he had as Calliope, like flipping his hair or checking his nails. It is like being possessed.
Cal switches his narration back to the past; the Greek Army has just surrendered. Desdemona is howling angrily as she gazes at the wreckage the war left behind. Together, Desdemona and Lefty leave their tiny village for their cousin's home in America, packing only a few family belongings. Elsewhere, in Smyrna, the Greek general has gone insane, believing that he is already dead and his legs are made of glass. Also in Smyrna, Dr. Philobosian, an Armenian doctor, is walking through the streets, concerned about the safety of his family and his home. As protection, he has a letter saying that he once attended to the Turkish leader, Kemal. He encounters a refugee rooting through the garbage for food and gives him money. That refugee is Lefty, who has been starving himself to give Desdemona the little food he has. The two have almost gotten over their reservations concerning being with each other and are slowly making their way to America.
Desdemona is still a little hesitant, and when Lefty snuggles up to her with bread she shudders away. Angry at her and angry at himself, Lefty storms away and walks through Smyrna. He walks past the richness of Smyrna into a deserted casino, where a few refugees are playing for fare home. Although he doesn't understand the game at first, he quickly learns, winning a large pot. He wants to leave, but the rough men threaten him, and after slipping some money in his sock, he proceeds to lose "all" of his money. The other men laugh at him as he leaves, but he returns to Desdemona triumphant, telling her that they now have money to board a ship.
In a nearby ship, Major Arthur Maxwell of His Majesty's Marines watches the Armenians and Greeks, refusing to get involved in the struggle. His commentary is racist and unfeeling, and he remarks more on the fineness of the city than on the sorrows of its inhabitants. Lefty tries to buy a ticket to Athens since the Turkish army is only thirty miles away, but the price has gone up. The Greek government retreats from Smyrna, and the Greek citizens begin to lose all hope. Mustafa Kemal arrives and the Turks begin to torch the city, hunting and killing Greeks and Armenians. In the destruction and chaos, Lefty makes a promise to Desdemona that, if they live through this, they will get married to each other. Turkish soldiers storm in and slaughter Dr. Philobosian's family while he is helping someone else. Using his rudimentary French, Lefty cons his way onto the French ship, bringing Desdemona and a dazed Dr. Philobosian with him. They sail away as Smyrna burns behind them and bodies, alive and dead, swarm the water. The world pays attention for a few days, but the tragedy is quickly forgotten.
The Silk Road
Cal narrates the Chinese legend of the discovery of silk, how a Chinese princess sitting under a tree noticed that the silkworm cocoon that fell into her teacup had begun to unravel, and when completely unraveled, it was a very long and very fine thread. He compares himself to the Chinese princess, as an unraveler of stories. Cal picks up where he left off, with his grandparent's departure from Greece. As the ship Giulia leaves port, passengers hold strands of multicolored yarn linking them to their loved ones on land. Desdemona and Lefty pretend not to know each other, and Lefty stays with a suicidal Dr. Philobosian in the the male section of the ship. Desdemona and Lefty start to stage interactions, cordial at first, as Lefty asks the other men on board about her. The news of their courtship sweeps the ship, as passengers debate their relationship. They slowly escalate their relationship, making it seem plausible, so that they will be able to get married. Cal speculates that this charade was not actually necessary, only really necessary to convince themselves that what they were doing was all right. After eight days, Lefty proposes to Desdemona to applause from the other passengers. The wedding is held on deck with rope crowns instead of flower stephana, and Desdemona and Lefty perform the Dance of Isaiah, walking in a circle three times in a transforming dance. Later that night, the two of them sneak onto a lifeboat and consummate their marriage, guiltily at first, but then lovingly, longingly, and with abandon.
Lefty and Desdemona spend time inventing family trees, thinking about the future and America (he wants to start a casino, she wants a cocoonery), and making love at night. They plot how to enter Ellis Island, which forbids criminals from entering, including those guilty of incestuous relations. To avoid the quota on southern and eastern European immigrants, they draw on the sponsorship of their cousin Lina. They learn a few lines of English from the Bible to fool the authorities into thinking they are fluent. Finally, they arrive in America, stunned by the view and the enormous Statue of Liberty gleaming over the harbor.
Book One introduces several of the themes that will shape the course of the novel, including the conflict between choice and fate. Wrapped up in this discussion is the subject of genetics, clearly an important subject to the genetically mutated Cal. As Cal recounts the story of how his grandparents fell in love, he represents elements of both choice (Lefty's decision to walk away from his two courtship dates, the couple's intentionally fake courtship period on the ship to America) and fate (the game of rock, paper, scissors in which Lefty agrees not to marry the two other girls, the anonymity of their circumstances as refugees). While Cal seems hesitant to take a stand on whether the genetic mutation passes down because of choices or fate, he reframes the question. By attributing the survival of the gene to a hypothetical “override” within the gene that ensures its own survival, he combines the seemingly opposite choice and fate. The choice becomes the genes and, as neither Desdemona nor Lefty is aware of the gene nor can control it, their lives seem ruled by fate.
Another of the major themes introduced in the first book is the problem of gender. As an intersexual person, Cal is concerned both with the interplay of genders within himself and within society in general. Although Cal is the only intersex member of his family present within this narrative, Cal presents Desdemona as a masculine figure. Desdemona’s long, thick, heavy braids are erotic symbols of both traditional femininity and masculinity. As something she keeps hidden, the braids reflect feminine sexuality. As strong, thick, phallic symbols, however, they also give her “a natural power” (24). This power that Desdemona enjoys as the master of her own house in Greece is stunted in America when the ladies at the YWCA cut off her hair. In Greece, as Desdemona counts the Stephanides family worry beads, Cal writes that she comes in a long line of Stephanides men to do so, allying Desdemona with the masculine side of the family. Despite her femininity, Desdemona inherits the traits more closely associated with the Stephanides men, blurring traditional gender roles further.
Cal also brings the reader’s attention to shifting understandings of nationality. Cal himself is a rootless expatriate, working for the Foreign Service in Germany while he narrates his story. Several times throughout the first book, Cal points out the decreasing distinction between different nationalities and ethnicities. Whereas you used to be able to tell people’s origins by their smell, and then their shoes, it is no longer so easy. Desdemona and Lefty switch nationalities when they leave Smyrna, pretending to be French citizens so they can board the boat. In the genocidal struggle between the Greeks, the Turks, and the Armenians, nationality becomes a crime punishable by cruel and violent death. And later, in America, Cal points out how nationality, ethnicity, and culture are slipping away from the next generations in describing Milton's rejection of Desdemona's silver spoon prophecies. Through his often regretful tone, Cal conveys his conflicted feelings about nationality and culture. He often seems to mourn the loss of all these cultural connections, which are clearly very important to his family. At the same time, Cal seems most comfortable divorced from his own culture, in self-imposed exile in Germany.
A last important topic introduced in the first book is the nature of narrative. Structurally, Cal plays with how narratives function, working both relatively straightforwardly and linearly through his grandparent's story and circularly through anecdotes about his own life. Cal begins almost every chapter with a small anecdote about his life, usually based in the present. This works to frame the other narrative of his grandparents, which can be viewed as essential to understanding Cal's present. In The Silk Road, Cal tells the story of the discovery of silk, how a Chinese princess found that the cocoon that dropped into her tea could be unwound to a beautiful delicate fiber. This story symbolically involves both linear narratives (the silk thread, winding its way across China) and circular narratives (each cocoon starts with a knot in the thread, a miniature loop, and is then wound into more loops). Cal and Eugenides seem to suggest the importance of both kinds of narrative for a full depiction of truth. Neither is complete without the other, and each type of narrative makes the other richer.