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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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The Influence of Perspective on Identity and Story

Becky Hahn

Both Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides, and Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite compiled by Michel Foucault, tell the story of changes in the life of a hermaphrodite. Each author seems to have a goal of revealing the evolving identity of the protagonist. These identities are expressed thought varied techniques of perspective. Foucault expands the limited perspective of Herculine Barbin's memoir by adding medical reports, press releases, and other documents, as well a similar narrative story told from an outside perspective. Eugenides creates his narrative more coherently using an omniscient perspective that includes both first and third person. One perspective technique used in both stories is what has been called "backshadowing". Both stories are told from the end (of the book), so there is a constant knowledge of what is to come which creates premonition in hindsight. These perspective techniques serve not only to illuminate the identity of the protagonists, but they also play with the idea of fate, which can be emphasized due to the perspective.

Herculine Barbin began her story as we have it with a first person memoir that reads like episodes in a diary. The flowery and passionate style aims to reveal the narrator's strong emotions about herself and what she goes through during her short and tormented life. She expresses shame, terror, and passion, but never anything subtle or very introspective. With phrases such as: "My God! What remains of me then? Nothing. Cold solitude, dark isolation! Oh!" (p. 92) she tells of her despair, but reveals few details about the source of her emotions. The reader can ascertain little of her medical condition from her memoir, both because she failed to include details, and because she didn't understand herself. Foucault aimed to flesh out the story of Herculine Barbin by including the Dossier with medical and legal reports, press stories, and letters from those who knew her. Although the doctors who examined her didn't completely understand her condition, the reports do illuminate the details of her anatomy. The outside viewpoints don't reveal much about her internal identity, since no one really understood her. The story by Oscar Panizza, "A Scandal at the Convent," as well as the letters do show how others viewed her, varying from completely accepting and unsuspicious, to believing that she is the devil. Panizza's story is told from the point of view of a "we" (p. 162-163) who closely observes Herculine without being able to get into her head. This "fly on the wall" technique seems slightly more objective, but of course is not without bias. Despite its limitations, the whole of Foucault's book creates a much fuller picture of Herculine's identity than could her memoirs alone.

Jeffery Eugenides claimed to find Herculine Barbin inadequate and wrote Middlesex in part to "fill in the holes" of the story. Instead of a story in pieces, he created a coherent story told from an omniscient point of view. This omniscience serves to penetrate into Callie's consciousness much more than Herculine Barbin ever did. The story is fleshed out in time as well as within the consciousness of the protagonist, since Callie can get into the heads of her ancestors as well. This "prenatal omniscience" (p. 211) persists throughout the narrative, but after Callie's birth the perspective wanders between first person and third person.

Callie's first person is much more "straight" with the reader than Herculine. She explicitly describes her anatomy and her complex emotions, which are often themselves hybrids, such as "the happiness that attends disaster" (p. 217). She states that "everything I'll tell you is colored by the subjective experience of being part of events" (p. 217) but her subjectivity seems much more useful to the reader than that of Herculine. She doesn't seem to omit important details or simplify emotions. However solid this first person perspective feels, Eugenides does not leave it at that—he also uses third person perspective to provide a different outlook on Callie's identity.

The third person point of view is Callie looking at herself from the outside, and thereby understanding her actions and feelings beyond immediacy. When Cal, the forty-one year old man, writes about Callie in third person, he is also separating himself from his past self and reinforcing the magnitude of the transformation that he underwent. When he says "Callie couldn't imagine the things Tessie was seeing in her dreams back then. But I can." Cal emphasizes not so much the change of female to male, but the metamorphosis of growing up. By looking at herself from the outside, Callie expresses a tension between her two interwoven selves as well as her exploration of self consciousness. The varied points of view combine to create an expression of identity that, if not complete, is very complex.

The perspective technique used in both stories is a viewpoint from the end (or at least a point near the end of the novel) that affects how the whole story is told. Both Herculine and Cal narrate with an awareness of what is to come. Herculine is of course writing before her suicide, yet it is probable that she is planning or at least thinking about ending her life. Cal narrates as a forty-one year old man looking back at the transformations of his life, so we know from the beginning how Callie is going to end up. This type of perspective adds coherency and meaning to episodes that were probably very confusing and random while they were happening. The technique called backshadowing, or premonition in hindsight, is prevalent in both stories. Herculine often writes of premonitions: "Was it an omen of the dark and menacing future that awaited me?" (p. 14). At this point in the story, she should not have known about here dark future, yet the perspective lets the reader know right away what will happen. Cal uses the same technique when writing about his father Milton: "His procrastination would have disastrous effects, if you believe in that sort of thing, which, some days, when the Greek blood is running high, I do." (p. 196).

The way in which everything is put together from the end by the narrator makes the whole stories seem much more fated than they really are. Random, catastrophic stories are presented as continuous in hindsight. With Herculine, her fate seems to be no only predicted, but somewhat self-imposed, since she says "The die had been cast. I submitted to my fate." (p. 114). Due to her physical condition and her attraction to women, she believes that her life is doomed to constant suffering. Cal makes her story into a fated Greek drama/tragedy from her perspective at the end of the novel. He recounts each event in his life and the lives of his ancestors as leading up to who he is today. He makes it seem like the relationships of his grandparents and parents were fated, which fated him into being a hermaphrodite. However, Cal never describes his life as doomed to failure like Herculine does. Despite being fated to be a hermaphrodite and transform from female to male, he still believes that he has some agency in determining his future.

The identities of both Herculine Barbin and Callie Stephanides are expressed through the varied points of view that their stories are told from. Both stories are based on memoir, but also include outside perspectives (whether other people in the case of Herculine Barbin, or Cal the forty-one year old man in the case of Middlesex) to provide a more balanced look at the characters. The technique of backshadowing not only emphasizes the relationship between the present and the retrospective selves, but also makes the stories seem more fated. Their life stories are transformed into a romantic tragedy and a Greek drama/tragedy through this perspective technique.

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