Middlesex Summary

Jeffrey Eugenides


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Middlesex Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Middlesex is a 2002 novel by American author Jeffrey Eugenides, loosely based on elements of the author’s life and inspired by his Greek heritage. The protagonist is an intersex individual known as both Cal and Calliope whose life has been affected by a mutated gene that worked its way through three generations of their family’s bloodline. As they delve into their heritage and learn about their family history, they come to terms with their own complex gender identity and find peace and happiness. Primarily a bildungsroman, or coming of age story, Middlesex also explores themes of nature versus nurture, rebirth, and the differing ways men and women experience society. It also explores themes of the American Dream and is one of the most in-depth and acclaimed novels to look at concepts of gender identity. Middlesex debuted to widespread critical acclaim and was a best-seller, although its sales didn’t pick up until it began winning awards. Most notably, Eugenides won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was a finalist for the fiction category of the National Book Critics Circle Award. It has also been adapted into an award-winning audiobook narrated by Kristoffer Tabori.

Middlesex is told from the perspective of Calliope (Cal) Stephanides, as the young intersex individual tries to understand the strange family history that eventually resulted in their unique birth. The first half of the story focuses on the Stephanides’ family history and begins in 1922 in Bithynios, Greece. A brother and sister named Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides have lost their parents in the war with Turkey, and flee the advance of the Turkish army. It’s clear this brother and sister have an unhealthyattraction to one another. They travel to Smyrna and get a boat to America. They befriend an Armenian man, Dr. Philobosian, whose family was massacred by the Turks. As no one knows who they are, they don’t tell anyone they’re siblings, pretend to court each other on the ship, and marry. In America, they arrive at Ellis Island and travel to Detroit to live with their cousin Sourmelina (Lina), a closeted lesbian married to Jimmy Zizmo. Lina agrees to keep their relationship secret, and Jimmy, a bootlegger, helps Lefty get a job at a factory. However, Jimmy’s reputation soon gets him fired. Both Desdemona and Lina become pregnant, and Lefty is desperate for money. He goes into the bootlegging business with Jimmy. Dr. Philobosian meets them again, and his comments make Desdemona fear that her child will be born with defects due to inbreeding. Lina and Desdemona give birth to healthy children – Theodora or Tessie, and Milton, respectively. Lefty runs an illegal bar in the basement, and when prohibition ends, it becomes a legitimate bar called The Zebra Room.

Milton and Tessie grow up, becoming closer. When they reach twenty, their friendship turns into something more. Desdemona still fears genetic issues and tries to keep them apart. Tessie becomes engaged to Mike Antoniou, who is soon to be ordained as a Greek Orthodox priest, and Milton joins the Navy out of grief. He’s stationed in San Diego, and seeing him about to be deployed Tessie realizes her true feelings. Milton comes home safely, Tessie breaks up with Mike, and Milton and Tessie are soon married. Milton turns the Zebra Room into a diner, and he and Tessie have a son. They decide they want a daughter next, and attempt to use scientific techniques to ensure this. Calliope is born healthy, but Dr. Philobosian, who delivers her, fails to notice she’s a hermaphrodite. On the same day Calliope is born, Lefty has a massive stroke that leaves him mute. The neighborhood goes downhill, and the family is suffering financially. However, when race riots destroy the diner, Milton is able to use the insurance oney to start a successful hot dog chain. They move to the suburb of Grosse Pointe, where Calliope meets a little girl named Clementine. When they kiss, Calliope begins to realize she’s different from most girls. Lefty dies, and Desdemona takes to her bed in grief. At age fourteen, Calliope attends a private girl’s school and falls in love with another girl she calls the Obscure Object and they begin a sexual relationship. However, Jerome, the girl’s brother, guesses their secret and assaults Calliope. At the emergency room, doctors finally discover she has sex organs from both genders. Milton and Tessie take her to see a specialist in New York, Dr. Luce. Calliope wants to continue living as a girl because she wants to be normal, but when she sees the report describing herself as genetically male, she understands the source of her confusion and runs away.

Calliope cuts her hair, starts calling herself Cal, and transitions to male. He arrives in San Francisco and goes to work at a strip club for a man named Bob Presto. He starts to meet other people like himself and begins to accept himself. However, he’s arrested when the club is raided, and when he calls home, he discovers that Milton is dead, killed in a car crash after being the victim of a kidnapping scam. Cal, still adjusting to his new gender, heads home, where his mother has a hard time but tries to accept him as her son. Desdemona, who is barely lucid, is able to reveal the genetic map that led to Cal’s birth. The family attends Milton’s funeral, but Cal stays behind to perform a traditional Greek funeral rite to ensure that his spirit stays at peace. Cal goes to work for the Foreign Service in Berlin, and writes his memoir. He falls for a woman named Julie Kikuchi, but pushes her away before things get serious because he’s worried about how she’d react to the truth of his identity. They meet again at an art exhibit, and he gets up the courage to reveal his secret to her. She accepts him, and the book ends with them agreeing to give their relationship another try.

Jeffrey Kent Eugenides is an American novelist and short story writer. He has written three novels – The Virgin Suicides, which was adapted for a critically acclaimed motion picture; Middlesex, which won him the Pulitzer Prize, and The Marriage Plot. He has also published a short story collection, Fresh Complaint, in 2017. He is currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.