Middlesex Summary and Analysis of Book Two, Chapters 4-7



Desdemona starts working at Temple No. 1 for the Nation of Islam, adjusting relatively easily to the Muslim atmosphere, which reminds her of Turkey. The temple is financially successful, offering the downtrodden black community culture in a period of oppression, and Desdemona helps them with their silk-weaving. While she likes the girls she teaches, Desdemona is constantly surprised by black people and the poverty they live in. As a white person in a black community, Desdemona tries to be discrete and hides in the Silk Room all day.

The voice of Minister Fard, however, comes wafting up through the heating grate, and Desdemona cannot help but listen in on his sermons. She finds herself being drawn into the message, despite its anti-white tone, and tries to listen to it everyday. Cal supposes that the reason Desdemona is so suggestible is because she is still feeling guilty about her and Lefty's incestuous crime. Thanks to Minister Fard's preaching on the devilish nature of white people, Desdemona becomes aware of the unfair treatment that Detroit blacks are getting and begins to feel even more guilty. Eventually, she decides to get surgery to prevent herself from having children again.

Shut out by Desdemona, Lefty begins a side business helping Plantagenet, an aspiring photographer, take erotic photos of girls with cars. Lefty realizes that automobiles have replaced the harem as the center of erotic escapism, and so he escapes his own troubled marriage with these models, dressed in lingerie and sprawled across cars.

In 1932, a black man is accused of killing another black man for human sacrifice and Minister Fard is brought to trial for his preaching. He agrees to leave Detroit in exchange for all charges being dropped. He leaves Temple No. 1 while the Nation of Islam begs him not to go. Right before he leaves, Desdemona sees him for the very first time. He seems to know many intimate details about her life, including her and Lefty's transgression. He reveals that he is, in fact, Jimmy Zizmo, alive and well. Shocked, Desdemona scolds him for abandoning his wife and child, but Jimmy doesn't care and leaves her behind with the Nation of Islam, disappearing into legend.

Clarinet Serenade

In the present, Cal takes Julie Kikuchi out on a date to Austria, one of his favorite restaurants in Berlin. She tells him that she is a photographer and Cal realizes that he could like her - and immediately starts worrying about how Julie would react to the truth.

In Cal's narrative, many years have passed. Prohibition ended, and, using the money from the auto-erotica, Lefty bought a legitimate bar. Detroit has changed, too - suffering through race riots and now, in 1944, working as the industrial center for WWII. Milton is playing Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine" on the clarinet for Tessie, who is two backyards away from him. Meanwhile, Desdemona, beginning to suspect the growing attraction between them and fearing their "consanguinity", has lined up many potential dates to distract Milton. Milton ignores them, in love with his cousin Tessie. Their romance started recently. Before that, Milton always thought of Tessie as his puritanical cousin (Tessie is almost the opposite of Lina, her mother). One day, however, when Desdemona was out, Milton came across a beautiful, bare-legged Tessie in his house, and the way he saw her started to change. Milton, scrawny and pimply at twenty, is not as beautiful as Tessie, but his brash confidence won her over. He plays his clarinet for Tessie, tickling her various body parts with the air, charming her with the sound.

Desdemona, desperate to separate the two cousins, finally finds a suitor for Tessie: the future Father Mike, Michael Antoniou. He is short and a little too religious for Tessie, but she eventually accepts his proposal. Cal speculates that, growing up without a father, what Tessie wanted was to marry one. Michael has a life plan, and Tessie rejects Milton to be a part of it. When Milton finds out, he becomes lovesick and morose, finally enlisting in the Navy to escape his unhappiness. Desdemona and Lefty are upset, not wanting to lose their son, but they recognize the futility of trying to convince him not to do it.

News of the World

In the present, Cal is picking up Julie for another date. He enters her apartment and finally gets to see her photography. She photographs factories, a subject near and dear to Cal's Detroit heart. When Julie expresses her initial concern that Cal was gay, Cal responds by kissing her several times.

Cal compares the image of his father in a naval helmet with the image of Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president in 1988, who also rode a tank in a helmet, looking ridiculous and unprepared.

Milton soon realizes after joining the Navy that he is just that - unprepared. He regrets joining the Navy to get revenge for Tessie's betrayal and tries to find a way out of it. During a brutal practice invasion, Milton learns from the guy next to him that taking the test for admittance to Annapolis, the naval academy, could be that escape route. Tessie, meanwhile, looks for Milton's face in the pre-movie wartime news reels. She tries to convince herself of her love for Michael Antoniou, her fiance at seminary, but she cannot help but think of Milton. She realizes that he enlisted in the Navy because of her and she subconsciously worries about him while watching her films. When she writes to her fiance she lies to him, telling him that she has been volunteering nonstop with Milton's sister Zoe, when she actually has been sitting at the movies all day. Desdemona, worried about her son, prays to St. Christopher, telling him that if he saves Milton, she will make Milton go back to their village in Greece to rebuild the church.

Milton receives orders that he is assigned as a signalman in the upcoming invasion - one of the most dangerous positions in the Navy. He resigns himself to almost certain death and sends one last letter to his family. Tessie, watching film reels of the impending invasion, realizes that she doesn't love Michael - she actually loves Milton. When Desdemona reads Milton's letter, she realizes the implication and takes to her bed, grieving for her soon-to-be dead son. While Desdemona mourns, Tessie comes to her and announces that she is calling off the wedding because she wants to marry Milton. Desdemona, believing that Milton will die before Tessie ever has the chance to marry him, gives Tessie her blessing. Overseas, Milton is standing on the ship, contemplating his impending death, when one of his fellow sailors taps him the shoulder, letting him know that he's been accepted into the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Despite Desdemona's warning that he needs to go back to Bithynios to fix the church, Milton avoids going back to Greece, instead marrying Tessie and fathering his first child. Father Mike magnanimously attends the wedding, clearly crushed by Tessie's decision, and dances with Zoe for the first time.

Ex Ovo Omnia

Everything comes out of an egg - including all of Cal's interrelated family. At the Stephanides' dinner parties, Dr. Philobosian often entertained them with defunct medical theories including Preformation, the theory that all humans are preformed inside their father's sperm, waiting to be born. This inspires Cal to tell of his parent's life as if watching from inside Milton - how Milton graduates from Annapolis and moves with Tessie to Pearl Harbor. In 1951, they move to Norfolk, Virginia and Milton served in the Korean War, learning efficiency and respect for authority as well as disdain for liberalism and a love of classic American style. In 1949, after several years of courtship, Zoe Stephanides accepts Father Mike's marriage proposal and moves to Greece, bearing his four children and remaining there for eight years.

In 1950 in Detroit, the Black Bottom ghetto is bulldozed and the Nation of Islam gets a new leader: Malcolm X. In 1954, Chapter Eleven is born. In 1956, Milton and Tessie return to Detroit so that Milton can start a restaurant chain. Detroit (and Lefty's Zebra Room) are in the middle of white flight, which Milton thinks he can stop with a new diner. Milton rebuilds the Zebra room as a classic American diner, putting in red vinyl booths, a serving counter with stools, and a jukebox. When Milton realizes that Lefty has three insurance policies on the place, he yells at him but agrees to keep them. He decorates the restaurant with a hodgepodge of Greek and American memorabilia, fake flowers, and hand-painted signs. The diner is a success, and Milton and Tessie are soon able to purchase a large house in a nice section of town. Lefty, however, feels left out and unnecessary, retreating into his former vice: gambling.

Lefty begins to gamble in the black underground gambling scene, addicted to the promise of winning and desperate for something to do. He begins to consult Desdemona's dream book and spreads this obsession to his black comrades. The family neglects Lefty's problem - Milton is busy with the restaurant, Tessie is busy with Chapter Eleven, and Desdemona is blissfully ignorant - until the day Lefty realizes he has emptied his bank account. Desdemona is devastated and screams for several minutes when she finds out, ripping her clothes to shreds in grief. The two of them are forced to have a yard sale and move in with Milton and Tessie. We are now back to the beginning of Cal's story - the family is gathered and cracking eggs for Greek Easter, and Tessie has come to tell Milton that she is ovulating. Cal is about to be conceived.


The Stephanides' story is a part of the story of Detroit, and from that element we get snippets of Detroit's importance to the rest of the world. Detroit, the headquarters of Ford Motor Company, is ground zero for the assembly line, the conversion of humans into machines. It also is the departure point for a cultural obsession with the liberty and power that automobiles can promise people. Henry Ford made automobiles affordable for the common man, and this new luxury created a culture around it of the open road, drive-ins and roadside stands (foreshadowing the Stephanides' new business), and back-seat make-out sessions. When Lefty teams up with the photographer Plantagenet, he helps build this powerful myth, giving cars their sex appeal by cementing the link with beautiful, available women. The Stephanides' story matters because Detroit matters. As decrepit as Detroit might be now, it irrevocably changed the way Americans move and live.

Another crucial part to the novel's Detroit setting is the race relations it necessarily deals with. As a booming industrial city, Detroit attracted many immigrants to its folds, offering them the work they so desperately needed. Enough Greek immigrants migrated to Detroit that it contained a section named after them - Greektown. As Desdemona learns in this section, Detroit also pulled many African-Americans from the South, creating huge ghettos. The "Tricknology" chapter attempts to give insight into these social forces, pitting immigrants against other immigrants and former slaves. Whereas some groups, like the Greeks, are surrounded by culture, other groups, like the African-Americans, are starved for it, searching for a way to re-connect with their roots. The Nation of Islam blossoms in the middle of Detroit because so many of the basic needs of the African-American community are not being met. Its power and Minister Fard's message foreshadow future struggles in society, including the riots that will soon sweep Detroit and the Stephanides family into a new era.

As America blossoms and grows, media becomes an increasingly important part of culture, and Middlesex pays careful attention to it. As a story with a first-person narrator, Middlesex is already mediated through Cal's voice and point of view. Each story he tells is his interpretation of it, not necessarily what actually happened. In "Tricknology," Desdemona encounters Islamic and black power preaching through the mediator of an air vent. The effect of these disembodied words on her is almost as if they are spoken by a divine force. They become more persuasive than if she were watching a speaker, and she is able to see past physical trappings to the message of the words. Later, as Tessie awaits Milton's return from the Navy, she consumes media hungrily, going to the movies every single day. For Tessie and other women of her generation, the short clips of the wartime news before the movies were the only way they could experience what their husbands, fiances, or brothers were going through. Tessie projects upon these newsreels the face of Milton and finds empathy in other films, which help her process her emotions. Media is essential to Tessie and Milton's marriage and to Cal's birth.

Besides helping develop Detroit and Tessie and Milton's relationship, this section brings us back to the beginning of the novel. As Cal notes, "everything comes out of an egg," and, as we close this Book, the egg that contains half of Cal is about to drop from his mother's ovaries. We've completed a cycle, moved in a circle back to where we started. This fascination with beginnings and cycles comes across in Milton's courtship of Tessie. Thematically, it is very similar to Lefty and Desdemona's courtship - a little taboo, a little playful. The song he plays over and over again, "Begin the Beguine," plays with this idea. "Beguine" is the Creole term for a white woman, and eventually came to refer to a sensual sort of rumba where two partners dance closely together. Milton's playing of this song signals a begin to his and Tessie's "beguine," or romantic coupling. The song also plays with the similarity of "begin" and "beguine," as Milton's clarinet begins their relationship and Cal's development. It is a beginning of some stories but the middle of others. Narrative isn't linear - Cal insists upon this over and over - and with Tessie and Milton's new beginning, we have yet another circle.

Part of these multiple beginnings is the idea of re-birth, an idea littered throughout Middlesex. In the climax of "Tricknology", Desdemona discovers that Minister Fard, the man whose ideas she has found disturbingly seductive, is none other than Jimmy Zizmo. Risen from the "accident," he is reborn as an Islamic preacher sent to lift up the black population. When Milton takes over the Zebra Room, he re-births it as an American-style diner instead of a Greek speakeasy. These re-births echo Detroit's continual re-birth and foreshadows Cal's re-birth as a male.