Following the Great Fire of Smyrna, Lefty and Desdemona must start life anew. When she is 14 years old, Callie experiences a second birth to become Cal. To become a male, Callie peregrinates across the United States and becomes a midwife of her new life by teaching herself to forget what she has learned as a female. Likewise, Cal's grandparents undergo a transformation, becoming husband and wife instead of brother and sister. Middlesex delves into the concept of identity, including how it is formed and how it is administered. The immigrant predicament is a metaphor and synecdoche for Calliope's hermaphroditic condition; Callie's paternal grandparents become Americanized through the amalgamation of the elements of heredity, cultural metamorphoses, and probability. Callie's maternal grandfather, Jimmy Zizmo, undergoes a rebirth when he transforms from a bootlegger into Farrad Mohammad, a Muslim minister.
Middlesex traces the trials and adversity faced by the Stephanides family as they pursue the American Dream. Beginning with Lefty and Desdemona, Cal's grandparents, fleeing from their homeland to Ellis Island and the United States, the novel later depicts the family living in a suburban vista at Grosse Pointe, Michigan. After they immigrate to the United States, Lefty and Desdemona find themselves in a blissful America on the brink of economic collapse. They dream about a perfect America where effort and morals will lead to good fortune. However, they must seek to attain this perfection during a period characterized by Prohibition and xenophobic anti-immigration legislation. Middlesex depicts the tribulations of attaining an identity, especially while dealing with the revelation that the American Dream is a delusion that has already disappeared.
Middlesex portrays the race relations between people of different cultures; Mendelsohn considered the handling of this theme "preachy and nervous". In the United States, a strongly nativist country in the 1920s, Greek immigrants must suffer numerous humiliations at the hands of prejudiced whites. When Cal's grandfather Lefty, a recent Greek immigrant, is working at one of Henry Ford's automobile factories, Ford investigators attempt to Americanize him. They visit his house to ascertain that he has been living as a typical American. For example, during his first English-language lesson, Lefty is taught that "[e]mployees should use plenty of soap and water in the home". The narrow-minded nativists believe that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe are unaware of the value of soap and water.
According to scholar Robert Zecker, the novel depicts African-American poverty but does not illustrate its causes. None of the characters think about how 500,000 African-Americans were placed in cramped living areas of only 25 square blocks and the bitterness and rage that stems from such conditions. The African Americans do not forget the years of oppression they have endured. However, the Greek Americans, like other whites, fail to remember that the African Americans were assaulted by whites in 1943 and faced over two decades of oppression after that. Instead, Zecker noted that the characters in the novel believe that the 1967 Detroit riots are "inexplicable cataclysms that came out of nowhere".
The novel skims over the brutal attacks, lasting a week, on blacks in Detroit during World War II. Years later, in 1967, Lefty is incorrectly told that that year's Detroit riots were started by a black man raping a white woman; this falsehood is never rectified. However, despite this misinformation, Lefty denies service to a number of white customers who partook in the riots. One dismissed customer even yells at him, "[w]hy don't you go back to your own country?", returning the spotlight of racial prejudice on him.
The relationship between the Greek Americans and the African Americans is fraught with prejudice. For example, during the Depression, Desdemona is shocked and humiliated that she will have to work in the Black Bottom, a predominantly black neighborhood. When African Americans are beaten or taken advantage of by whites, the characters in Middlesex "suddenly are nearsighted" to the racial prejudice. Despite being in the United States for only 10 years and having experienced racism herself, she can, Zecker noted, "recite at heart the slights at blacks as lazy, dirty, sexually promiscuous, and incapable of self-help". She and other whites, including immigrants whites, feel rage because they are "convinced they were somehow forced out of Detroit following 1967". While walking through the neighborhood, a group of African-American men loafing in front of a barbershop wolf-whistle to Desdemona and make lascivious comments, thus confirming the racial stereotype.
Zecker remarked that in an ironic twist, immediately after the riots, Desdemona's family is shamed by a white realtor who "doubts their fitness (whiteness)" to live in the rich city Grosse Point. In the 1970s, African Americans, instead of Mediterraneans, were discriminated against through redlining. Zecker opined that by framing African Americans as the "eternal destroyers" and white ethnics as "yet again the oppressed innocents", Eugenides "captures perfectly the dominant narrative of urban decline in the early twenty-first century American Zeitgeist". Insurance settlement from the damage caused at the riots allows the Stephanides to purchase a home away from the African Americans. The family participates in the white flight from the city to avoid the racial desegregation in the public schools, sends Cal to a private school.
When Lefty and Desdemona are forced to immigrate to the United States, they have different mindsets. Whereas Lefty embraces his new country's customs, Desdemona is adamant that she will follow her old country's ways. For example, she is angered that her "immigrant hair" is chopped off because she does not want to "look like an Amerikanidha" and decides to regrow her hair immediately. Lefty attempts to assimilate into American culture by zealously learning English. Lina, the cousin of Lefty and Desdemona, is the paragon of immigrant integration. Cal noted: "In the five years since leaving Turkey, Sourmelina had managed to erase just about everything identifiably Greek about her."
Cal's father, Milton, and his friends and family cherish their Sunday gatherings. They debate and tell stories to each other, attempting to regain their ethnic roots. A "contrarian", Milton enjoys debating Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and lamenting the steep cost of church candles. Eugenides repeatedly returns the gathering prior to Cal's conception to "manufacture a psychology that drives his narration". As the immigrants attempt to maintain their identity, the stage is set for Cal's writing even before he is conceived.
Middlesex delves into the schism and reconciling of two opposites by contrasting the experiences and opinions of males and females; Greek Americans and White Anglo-Saxon Protestants; Greeks and Turks; and, African Americans and White Americans. Critic Raoul Eshelman noted that despite these conflicts, the narrator is able to achieve "ethnic reconciliation" when he moves to Berlin and lives with the Turks, people who had murdered his forebears in the early 20th century and who had indirectly allowed his grandparents to consummate their incestuous relationship. Alkarim Jivani opined on BBC Television's current affairs broadcast Newsnight that "[o]nly a child of the Diaspora can do that, because we stand on the threshold of two rooms." The novel also demonstrates that love and family are vital not only to people with unambiguous genders, but also hermaphrodites.
The Greek immigrant family experiences a three-phase acculturation that occurs to immigrant families, according to scholar Merton Lee's research about sociologist George A. Kourvetaris' work. Each generation identifies with different nationalities and cultures. In the first generation, the family members classify themselves as having a Greek nationality. In the second generation, the children classify themselves with an American nationality and Greek Orthodox religion. In the third generation, the grandchildren, who comprise the most acculturated group, characterize themselves with "Greek-immigration status as a class".
The Stephanides lineage is from Bithynios, a village in Asia Minor where the Greek middleman minority is inclined to be in uneasy relations with the Turkish majority. The people of the middleman minority do not assimilate because of their small mercantile businesses and because their host country is antagonistic towards them. Desdemona, a first-generation Greek immigrant, reflects a fixation with not assimilating. She tells her husband Lefty that she does not want to become an "Amerikanidha" and is frightened that her cousin Lina's husband, Jimmy Zizmo, is a Pontian Greek. Desdemona considers Pontians to be adulterated Greeks because Pontians inhabited Turkey, where some became Muslims and did not follow the Greek Orthodox religion.
Daniel Soar opined that Olympus, a parallel to Bithynios, served well as the starting point of a debacle (the eventual birth of an intersex person) that is the "story's catalyst". In Mount Olympus during Justinian's days, silkworm eggs were contraband transported from China to Byzantium by missionaries.[note 7] A parallel is drawn when Desdemona, a raiser of silk cocoons, attempts to bring them to Detroit. Because the silkworm eggs are considered parasites by the immigration officials, Desdemona must dispose of them. Soar noted that "for the three generations of Greek Americans who people Middlesex, the mulberry trees of Mount Olympus are an appropriately antique beginning: they are the egg inside which everything began".
Greek mythical allusions
Middlesex has several allusions to Greek classical myths; for example, the protagonist is named after Calliope, the muse of heroic poetry. Eugenides was partly inspired by the explorations of hermaphrodism in Greek myths to write the novel about an intersex man. In Middlesex, Cal acts out the story of Hermaphroditus, the Greek deity of bisexuality and effeminacy, while eking out a living in San Francisco. While narrating, Cal enters his ancestors' thoughts and empathizes with them, an ability possessed by Hermaphroditus. The protagonist compared himself to another mythical figure—Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes; the omniscient seer lived seven years as woman because of a curse.
Eugenides and several critics compared Cal's condition to mythical creatures described by the ancient Greeks. The author alluded his protagonist's nature and heritage to the Minotaur, the half-man and half-bull creature. Cal's father is conceived after his grandparents' attendance of a theatric play entitled The Minotaur. The puzzle of Cal's genetic identity is akin to the creature's labyrinth and the thread that leads out of the maze is held here by his paternal grandmother, a former silk farmer. Frances Bartkowski, a scholar of English, named Callie in her puberty as a chimera. The mythical monster is an analogy for a complex personality, a mixture of body parts from various animals that each represents a human aspect or characteristic. Similarly, adolescent Callie is an amalgamation of her genes, neither male nor female, neither adult nor child, and yet all of them at the same time.
In her book column for Detroit Free Press, Marta Salij said that Cal's identity crisis resembles Odysseus's fate. Whereas the mythical hero is troubled by Poseidon and succored by Athena, the intersex protagonist is affected by his chromosomes in a similar manner. John Sykes, Professor of English and Religion Education, noted another Greek-hero reference. In a manner similar to Oedipus's fulfillment of Pythia's prophecy to slay his father and marry his mother, Callie validates the prediction her grandmother made before her birth by adopting a male identity. Eugenides also used the allusions to Greek mythology and modern pop music to show the passing of familial traits and idiosyncrasies from one generation to the next.
Nature versus 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." He then apologizes, saying, "Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That's genetic, too." This is an allusion to the poet Homer, who was also captivated with the nature versus nurture debate. 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."
Callie inherited the mutation for a gene that causes 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which impedes the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone. While the former hormone causes the brain to become masculine, it is the latter that molds male genitals. When Callie reaches puberty, her testosterone levels increase significantly, resulting in the formation of a larger Adam's apple, the broadening of her muscles, the deepening of her voice, and the augmentation of her clitoris to resemble a penis. Doctors determine that Callie has the XY chromosomes of a male after inspecting Callie's genitalia. 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 is sexually attracted to females, and decides to run away to pursue a male identity. When Cal has a sexual relationship with the Japanese-American photographer Julie at the end of the book, he is able to love "without the need to penetrate the object of his desire".
Mark Lawson of The Guardian noted that the cause of Cal's hermaphroditic condition is an inherited recessive gene. According to UC Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, the novel examines how an individual's traits are due neither solely to nature nor solely to nurture. Similarly, Cal's gender cannot be defined solely as male or female. Rather, it is both male and female. 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. Eugenides sought 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".
Gender identity and intersex status
Raised as a girl, Cal views himself as a girl who likes other girls. His ability to have a "feminine gender schema" despite his having male genes, substantiates the constructionist position that gender identity is fully dependent on outer influences. However, when Callie discovers that he could have been raised as a boy, he renounces his female gender, recognizing his chosen gender identity as a male. Disowning the female gender before he learned about masculine traits bolsters the argument for the "essentialist ideology of identity". Cal's embrace of his inherent male identity and renunciation of his childhood female gender identity is articulated when he reflects, "I never felt out of place being a girl, I still don't feel entirely at home among men."
Cal exhibits many masculine characteristics when he is a child. He writes, "I began to exude some kind of masculinity, in the way I tossed up and caught my eraser, for instance." In another incident, Cal discusses how his penchants were masculine. While his female classmates are turned off by the blood in The Iliad, Cal is "thrilled to [read about] the stabbings and beheadings, the gouging out of eyes, the juicy eviscerations". Cal ponders his gender identity and how males and females associate with each other, reflecting, "Did I see through the male tricks because I was destined to scheme that way myself? Or do girls see through the tricks, too, and just pretend not to notice?"
Cal also exhibits feminine characteristics, which allows Dr. Luce to classify her as possessing a female gender identity. In a home video taken when Cal was a child, his mother gives him a doll and he nurses it with a milk bottle. Luce carefully observes Callie's actions and diagnoses them as feminine, which causes him to determine that Callie has a feminine gender identity. Luce then concludes that gender identity is nurtured and etched into children at their young ages.
Determining sex is paradoxical because the characters believe that the outward view of genitalia identifies one's sex; Cal's transformation into a male shatters this belief and the methodology behind determining gender. Eugenides addresses how difficult it was for humans to devise a "universal classification for sex". Through Cal, scholar Angela Pattatucci Aragon stated, Eugenides opines that the 1876 system devised by Edwin Klebs that used gonad tissue to determine sex provides the most accurate answer.
According to intersex activist and academic Morgan Holmes, Eugenides posits that a person's sexual attraction determines his or her gender. Cal's wish to become male because he desires females demonstrates a link between gender identity and sexuality. While Callie is not permitted to love the Obscure Object openly, Cal can freely love Julie. Holmes believed that the depiction of Callie "denies the legitimate place of lesbian desire and rewrites it as male heterosexuality". Book reviewer Georgia Warnke has a similar view. She wrote that by making these choices in the novel, Eugenides agrees with the belief that being attracted to females is "masculine" and thus it is "more natural" for a male to be attracted to a female than a female be attracted to a female. Daniel Mendelsohn of The New York Review of Books argued that Callie does not have to be a male in order to be drawn towards females; she could be gay. As an adult, Cal brags, "Breasts have the same effect on me as on anyone with my testosterone level." Mendelsohn noted that this assertion will astonish "Eugenides's (presumably testosterone-rich) gay male readership". Scholar Rachel Carroll agreed, writing that teenage Callie's erotic interest in girls is "retroactively explained and legitimized, by the discovery of his 'true biological nature'". Cal's gender identity postdates rather than predates his sexual interests. Carroll posited that Cal's inability to form heterosexual relationships as an adult is founded not upon his being intersex, but on his rejection of the sexual ambiguities that form his sexual interests as a youth.
When Callie is in New York, she goes to the New York Public Library and searches for the meaning of the word "hermaphrodite"; she is shocked when the dictionary entry concludes with "See synonyms at MONSTER". Callie is not a Frankenstein; she is more like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. Bartkowski stated that Eugenides' message is "we must let our monsters out—they demand and deserve recognition—they are us: our same, self, others." Morgan Holmes, formerly of ISNA, describes how the book constructs an intersex character whose life reproduces "social fascination with the monstrous and the deviant."
Sarah Graham wrote in Ariel, a journal published by University of Calgary, that Eugenides' "persisen[t]" use of the word "hermaphrodite", instead of "intersex", alludes to Hermaphroditus. Hermaphroditus, a young man, is chased by the nymph Salmacis. She begs the Gods to bind her and Hermaphroditus together, and the Gods literally fulfill her wish. Hermphroditus' name is a compound of his parent's names—Hermes and Aphrodite. He instantaneously turns into someone of both sexes. Devastated because he is no longer fully male, he "curses" the location where he first met Salmacis. Graham stated that the use of "hermaphrodite" carries negative connotations:
Based on this origin story, the hermaphrodite's lot is miserable, associated with disempowerment, the theft of identity and an unhappy dual existence. In addition, the term "hermaphrodite" may be deemed problematic because it alludes to an impossible state of being: no-one can be equally male and female and the preferred term "intersex" indicates a blended rather than divided state. While the modern term might indicate the possibility of redefining sexual ambivalence, Cal is associated in the novel with the mythic term and all it connotes. His connection to this tragic figure is confirmed by his performance as "Hermaphroditus" in a sex show at the age of fourteen, just as he is beginning his female to male transition.
Writing that he belongs to the Intersex Society of America, Cal notes that he has not participated in any of the group's rallies because he is not a "political person". While discussing political activism, Cal uses the word "intersex", though in other parts of the novel, he uses the word "hermaphrodite". In the 1920s, Bernice L. Hausman described "intersexuality" as a "continuum of physiological and anatomical sex differences", contesting the notion of a "true sex" concealed in the tissues of the body. Though "hermaphrodite" is burdened by the implications of the anomaly, "intersexuality" is a neologism that tries to "naturalize various sexes, which themselves are naturally occurring". Because Cal uses "hermaphrodite", he indicates that the sole normal genders are the classifications of male and female. Eugenides was asked by an Oprah's Book Club member why he used the term "hermaphrodite" despite its usage being "either terribly ignorant or unforgivably callous". Eugenides replied that he reserved "hermaphrodite" for a literary character: Hermaphroditus. He further stated: "When speaking about real people, I should—and I do my best to—use the term 'intersex'." Noting that one of the initial sources he consulted was the journal Hermaphrodites with Attitude published by the Intersex Society of North America, he said that those writers have "co-opted" the term "hermaphrodite". Their action is reminiscent, Eugenides wrote, of how some members of the gay community have "reclaimed" the term "queer". Eugenides stated that it is no surprise that Cal uses "hermaphrodite" and further elaborated: "It's paradoxical: Cal can say 'hermaphodite' but I can't. Or shouldn't."
Incest and intersex
Incest and intersex is another theme in Middlesex. Eugenides examines the passionate feelings that siblings living in seclusion experience for each other. Milton and Tessie, second cousins, are conceived during the same night, hinting to the incest of Desdemona and Lefty. Desdemona and Lefty's incestuous relationship is a transgression of a powerful taboo, indicating that someone will suffer for their wrongs; in a way, Cal's intersex condition symbolizes this Greek hubris. In another incestuous relationship, Milton makes love to Tessie using a clarinet which he lovingly rubs against her; their incestuous relationship enables them to contribute mutated genes to their child Cal. Cal's mother interferes with fate by attempting to make her second child a daughter. Cal believes this interference was a factor in his being a hermaphrodite. Conversely, Cal's relationship with his brother, Chapter Eleven, is indicative of the possible dissimilarities that are products of the biosocial.
Thea Hillman, an intersex activist and board member for (the now defunct) Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), wrote in the Lambda Book Report, 2002, that the combination of incest and intersex is "inaccurate and misleading". Noting that incest is a loathed social taboo that has "shameful, pathological and criminal repercussions", she criticized Eugenides for underscoring that Cal's intersex condition is due to incest. Hillman stated that this adds to the fallacious belief that intersex people are "shameful and sick" and a danger to society's wellbeing.
Sarah Graham agrees with Hillman and Holmes, writing that Cal is paralleled with the tragic Greek mythological characters Hermaphroditus, Tiresias, and the Minotaur. She opined that other "deviant" characters in the novel such as Lefty and Desdemona are spared the "tragic or monstrous" allusions even though there are numerous examples of incest in Greek mythology. She listed the marriage of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta, as well as the son Adonis produced by the incest between Theias and his daughter Smyrna as examples. Therefore, Graham stated that comparing Cal, a hermaphrodite, to people who were "mythological monsters" is "complicit with [the] exploitation" of intersex people.