Middlesex Summary and Analysis of Book Two, Chapters 1-3


Henry Ford's English Language Melting Pot

Cal is nine years old and going with her father to the top of the Pontchartain Hotel. Although Milton is afraid of heights, he points out the window to the city planning of Detroit below them. It was once a wheel with spokes, but industrialization has caused the city to sprawl, as Detroit industries have shifted from carriages to cars. Flash back to 1922, as Lefty and Desdemona speed into Detroit on a train, out of Ellis Island, into their new American lives.

At Lina's house they meet her husband, Jimmy Zizmo. He's twice as old as Lina and from the Black Sea. He's coldly pragmatic, and treats Lina more as a daughter/housekeeper than a wife. Jimmy does, however, get Lefty a job at the Ford Motor Company, working in the assembly line. Desdemona stays home and cooks, but she refuses to enter the grocery stores because she is too confused and homesick for Bursa.

Lefty learns English quickly, and is asked to be in a pageant at his school. Meanwhile, two men from the Ford Sociological Department visit the house. They investigate everything and make recommendations for the two couples to get real toothpaste, get a lid for their garbage can, and use less garlic in their cooking. They also recommend that Desdemona and Lefty move out into their own home as soon as it is possible. Lefty buys a blue suit for his school graduation, and Desdemona has Father Stylianopoulos at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church come over and bless their home. At Lefty's pagaent, students in stereotypical national dress come down the gangplank of a ship and enter the Ford English School Melting Pot, are stirred around by teachers, and emerge wearing gray and blue suits and waving American flags. Lefty triumphantly turns to the two Ford men who are waiting in the wings, but instead of congratulating him, they hand him a pink slip. They've found that Jimmy has a criminal record and have decided that they can't hire someone connected to that. As Lefty walks dazedly into the crowd, Desdemona hugs him tightly and tells him that she and Lina are pregnant.


Cal tells us that he, like many hermaphrodites, can't have children, which is one of the reasons why he's never married. Cal instead joined the Foreign Service, moving around, keeping to himself, and not sharing much about his nature. Cal is somewhat ashamed of his condition, hiding beneath double breasted suits and large muscles, but he doesn't condone his shame and wants to overcome it. In other news, he has found the Asian girl he saw earlier, and they are going on a date Friday night.

In 1923, Lefty, Desdemona, Lina, and Jimmy are going to see The Minotaur on stage. The play is not the full Greek story, however, merely scantily-clad chorus girls and a man charging around ferociously in a paper-mache bull head. Desdemona dislikes it, and makes the four of them leave. At home, in their beds, each person is affected by the eroticism of the play, and both couples have sex, resulting in the conception of Cal's parents. Cal believes that the circumstances are significant - his grandfather sneaks up on his grandmother under the cover of night after being aroused by a play about a hybrid monster. Soon the two women are pregnant and suffer from overwhelming nausea, forcing their husbands out of the house.

Jimmy, conscious that he caused Lefty's dismissal from work, involves him in his import business. Jimmy illegally imports alcohol from Canada and sells it in America, and, although Lefty is worried about being deported for this crime, Lefty joins Jimmy in his line of work for eight months. Meanwhile, Dr. Philobosian tracks down Lefty and Desdemona in Detroit to thank them for helping him. He gives the two women advice on their pregnancy and tells them fanciful stories of monstrous children with the warning that intermarrying within families is the actual cause of monstrosity, unaware of Lefty and Desdemona's true nature. Desdemona begins to worry about her future child, afraid that they will have missing limbs, bug eyes, or overly furry bodies. She divines the gender of Lina's child using the silver spoon and tells her to, to Lina's joy, Lina's child will be a girl. Meanwhile, Jimmy, suffering from new-found jealousy of his wife's imaginary lovers, starts getting distracted at work and becomes careless.

Dr. Philobosian delivers Lina's baby girl first, prematurely. Jimmy squints at it, perhaps trying to determine its paternity. He comes up with final scheme. He invites Lefty to come with him on one last run, across the ice to Canada to pick up alcohol. As Lefty tries to watch for black ice, Jimmy careens the car reckless, badgering Lefty with questions about why Lina left Greece. He finally accuses Lefty of sleeping with Lina, of impregnating her, and planning both "fake" marriages and immigrations. Lefty, shocked by this accusation, begins to fear Jimmy and hurtles from the car on to the ice. Jimmy, out of control, speeds away until suddenly, the car crashes down through the ice, taking Jimmy with it. Meanwhile, Desdemona is rushing to the hospital with Lina, ready to deliver her child. Dr. Philobosian delivers what appears to be a perfectly normal boy, named Miltiades after an Athenian general. Lina, now a widow, names her daughter Theodora after a scandalous Byzantine empress. Both children, however, carry the genetic mutation.

Marriage on Ice

As the Stephanides hold Jimmy's funeral (his body is never found, having crashed through the ice), Desdemona begins to worry about the possibility of future children affected by her and Lefty's incestuous relationship. As a result, she becomes colder to Lefty, denying him physical affection to protect herself from getting pregnant. In his frustration and loneliness, Lefty reinstates traditional Greek separation of genders within their home and searches for a new way to spend his time. He starts a speakeasy in their basement called The Zebra Room to keep himself from worrying about his wife's growing coldness and to provide their family with money. Meanwhile, Desdemona takes over the task of raising Milton and Theodora, who grow up in much the same way as Desdemona and Lina. Desdemona slips up in her resolution to stay away from Lefty, and in 1928, she gives birth to a healthy daughter name Zoe Helen Stephanides (Cal's "Aunt Zo").

In 1929, the Great Depression hits America, and like many Americans, Desdemona and Lefty suffer. Lefty's speakeasy declines in attendance, and he has to work longer hours to make up for it. Frustrated by his life and Desdemona's avoidance of him, Lefty finally breaks and yells at Desdemona, telling her that she must get a job. With Lina's help, Desdemona finds a job in the Black Bottom ghetto. When she first arrives there, Desdemona is shocked by the poverty and excessive number of people in the black ghetto. Lost, she turns around to see two young men in fezzes guarding the doors to an impressive building. Dismayed by the fezzes and chadors that she sees (since the Turkish invaders wore those garments), Desdemona is ushered into the building by a woman dressed in a white chador named Sister Wanda. Sister Wanda is hesitant at first to hire Desdemona, since she doesn't want to hire any white people, but after learning that Desdemona is from Turkey, a Muslim country, she agrees to hire her. Desdemona and Sister Wanda enter the converted mosque, started by a mysterious man named Minister Fard. According to several historical documents, Fard was a mysterious (probably Arab) figure who showed up in Detroit and began preaching to the black community about Islamic culture. He eventually founded Temple No. 1, which contained, among other things, lectures, a school, and a silk clothing factory. Sister Wanda brought Desdemona into help them raise their silkworms since fabric is scarce and the urban girls don't have any experience with the creatures.


As Desdemona and Lefty transition to life in America, the idea of nationality is brought to the forefront. Lefty attends Henry Ford's English school, and upon graduating, participates in an extremely problematic performance of Americanization. The pageant acts out the destruction of old national identities, and the conformation to the stereotypical "American" identity promoted by Ford Motor company. Instead of celebrating cultural differences, the pageant promotes homogenization. At the same time as the pageant's celebration of "American" culture, two men from the Ford corporation criticize Greek culture, invading the Stephanides' home and dictating what they can and cannot do. Through this process, the Stephanides become the ostracized ethnic "other," in much the same way that Cal will later become a gendered "other."

Another sweeping change brought by the Ford Motor Company in these chapter is the idea, as Cal describes it, of a person being "a machine." Henry Ford is famous for inventing the assembly line, a process where each person does one small motion over and over again, cutting out the need for expertise in manufacturing and decreasing production time drastically. Cal's description of it argues that the process robs workers of their humanity for stretches of time, reducing them to little more than cogs in the machine. This presents a problematic view of industrialization within Middlesex. On the one hand, the Ford Motor Company is presented as bringing life to the city of Detroit, as giving it a reason to be on the map. Without its factories, it would have never been able to provide enough jobs to draw people there and develop into a city. On the other hand, these jobs reduce the humanity of their workers, killing them slowly and destroying their culture. This confused relationship with Detroit will persist throughout the novel.

Related to the reduction of human bodies into machine parts is the complicated presentation of bodies within this section. As Lina goes through her pregnancy, she struggles with how her body makes her feel like an "animal," with the lack of control over her body. She uses the radio to "escape her body." Cal echoes this separation of body and self in his present, describing how he wears double-breasted suits and works out all the time to create an armor around his body, protecting his inner vulnerability. What can we make of this separation? Middlesex often presents bodies as confusing things, and this debate on the separation of bodies and selves foreshadows the later discussion on whether Cal is a boy or a girl.

Tied to this struggle with bodies is the idea of monstrosity, introduced in this section by The Minotaur, the play that Lefty, Desdemona, Lina, and Jimmy see. The Minotaur is, in some ways, symbolic of the shifts in the Stephanides life at that moment. Originally a Greek legend of a monster born when a queen and a bull copulated, the play has been Americanized and sexualized with the introduction of flashy chorus girls and hypersexual choreography. This mirrors the Stephanides' struggle with Americanization, trying to hold onto their Greek routes despite the introduction of American vices. Also the reason for Lina and Desdemona's pregnancies, The Minotaur foreshadows and symbolizes the "monstrosity" of their offspring, who both carry the 5-alpha-reductase gene that causes Cal to be a hermaphrodite. While we are tempted to read The Minotaur as a characterization of Cal as sexually monstrous, we also read pity and misunderstanding in this characterization. The play that the Stephanides' see is presented as a misunderstanding of the original Greek tragedy, and we must also assume that this simplistic monstrous view of the offspring is also a misunderstanding.

A final, important element in this section is the historization the Cal weaves into the story. Cal takes his story from the strange and specific to the universal by telling the story of America through the Stephanides' existence. He incorporates elements of Detroit's past (the development of the city as a wheel, the history of the Ford Motor Company) and of America's past (immigration, Prohibition, and the Great Depression). Through these comparisons, Cal's story becomes more than just an esoteric description of sexual disorder, it is the universal struggle to find an identity within the shifting sands of American culture.