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Middlesex: How and Why Callie Became Cal

MarieSager's picture

“Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of mount Olympus…Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family. And sing how Providence … sent the gene flying again…” (p 4).

Middlesex, written by Jeffrey Eugenides tells two stories, one historical and one biological. The historical story shows two individuals, uprooted by war, who left Greece and came to America. It shows how they established themselves as a family and the internal and external difficulties they faced. It speaks to the lives of their children and the eventual lives of their grandchildren. The biological story, however, follows the transformation of Callie, their granddaughter, into Cal, their grandson. These two stories are not separate; throughout Middlesex, Eugenides mixes the two tales. The effect is significant not only because it creates an amazing and captivating narrative, but because it stresses both environmental and genetic factors in determining human development. Through Cal’s double storyline, Eugenides gives a biologically accurate picture of the role one’s environment and genes play in influencing life.

The novel begins with Cal’s declaration, “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl…and then again, as a teenage boy” (3). Though this seems biologically incoherent and impossible, it is in fact supportable with evidence throughout the story. A number of events led to Cal’s original birth. His grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, arrived in America as newlyweds. Though they were brother and sister in Greece, on their voyage to New York, they wed. Though pregnancy caused Desdemona much distress, her two children, Milton and Zoe, had no apparent defects. However, as Milton reached adulthood, he fell in love with his next door neighbor and second cousin, Tessie. Though they avoided marriage, fate led to their eventual union and the creation of Chapter Eleven and Cal Stephanides. Thus, the inbreeding that occurs in successive generations, along with the passing of the recessive 5-Alpha-Reductase gene, plays a passive role until it meets and affects Cal.

However, Eugenides not only stresses the events before Cal’s birth that create his environment, but also illustrates how the events and course of life after his birth also dramatically constituted Cal’s environment and subsequent transformation. The people he encounters, his familial relationships, the Detroit riots, Greek plays, sexual encounters, and finally a chase and an accident all speak to Cal’s personal realizationof the effects of his internal genitalia. A meeting with the famous Dr.Luce confirms Cal’s status, outlining Cal as a “genetic male raised as a female” (p 435). Yet, Dr. Luce’s hypothesis lends credence to the nurture side of the so-called nature versus nurture debate. Based on the false evidence given by Callie, Dr. Luce concludes that Cal’s environment led to Cal’s association with the female sex, despite possessing an XY karyotype, a penis, and an undescended set of testicles. He writes, “The subjectmanifests a feminine gender identity and role, despite a contrarychromosomal status. It is clear by this that sex of rearing, rather thangenetic determinants, plays a greater role in the establishment of genderidentity” (p 437).

However, by observing Cal throughout the story, one discerns a completely different summary of observations. Cal struggles while living as a girl; upon reading Dr. Luce’s story he gains great sorrow, but also truth and freedom. Thus, although Milton and Tessie raised Cal as a girl, the environment was displaced and never truly “right.” Especially in adolescence, Cal felt a constant tension and unease as girl. Thus, although genes defined Cal’s physical structure, they did not act alone. Cal’s environment affected his understanding of himself and his composition. From this, it becomes apparent that both genes and one’s environment influence an individual’s life, both structurally and functionally.

Still, after reading Middlesex, a new question arises. Though Cal exemplifies that both his environment and his genes affected his ultimateconstitution, he does not show the extent each role played. In otherwords, exactly how much do genes play a role and how much does one’senvironment play a role in human development? Throughout the story,Eugenides emphasizes both aspects. Yet, looking at different individualswould prove fruitful in gaining a better understanding of the trueinfluence one’s genes and environment exerts.

Thus, the title of Middlesex accurately sums up the basics of the story. During Cal’s lifetime, he lives as both a female and a male. Indeed, it is Cal’s biology which allows this to occur. Thus, although Cal’s gender alters, his sex, the biological qualifier, remains unchanged. In telling Cal’s story, Eugenides provides the reader with perspective on the importance of environment and genetics in defining life.