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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Herculine Barbin and Middlesex

Eleanor Carey

That Jeffrey Eugenides makes mention of Herculine Barbin in Middlesex makes it practically impossible that he had not read Herculine Barbin. That Cal, in Middlesex, claims that it was reading Herculine Barbin (Alexina Barbin's memoirs, discovered and published by Foucault) ((1)Eugenides, page 19) that inspired him to write his own memoir of his life, suggests that Herculine Barbin did indeed have an influence on the writing of Middlesex ((1)Eugenides, page 19). One must imagine that Eugenides had an awareness of the story presented in Herculine Barbin and of what made that particular hermaphrodite's story "unsatisfactory reading" ((1)Eugenides, page 19), when he was writing Middlesex. One would find it difficult to argue that Middlesex wasn't in any way influenced by Herculine Barbin. One might wonder, however, how Eugenides has made Middlesex a story that makes more satisfying reading. Alexina and Callie (the pseudo-hermaphroditic "heroes" of Herculine Barbin and Middlesex, respectively) both, while living as women, have close relationships with other women who they love. Both discover that they are not like the women they love and ultimately live in the world as men. Both are allowed the possibility of living as women. The contexts of their lives are quite different, however, and more interestingly, the ways in which they deal with their differences and with the transition from male to female are quite different. These similarities and differences in the stories told in these two books can illuminate an aspect of the evolution of stories.

Cal makes it clear in Middlesex that he does not find the story of Alexina Barbin useful to him as a hermaphrodite who was, like Alexina, raised female before learning of his condition and beginning life as a man. If Cal's story is a response to Alexina's story, the differences may be intended to separate it from Alexina's. However, one might also imagine that it was because Alexina's story was so foreign to Cal that Cal found his/her story so unsatisfying.

Keeping in mind that Cal is a fictional character, one must imagine that Eugenides either found the story of Herculine Barbin unbelievable, then wrote Cal's story as one that he could more easily accept, or that he wished to look at a similar story in a way he simply found more interesting. He certainly did not create the same family or educational background for his character. He did not allow his character the emotional exclamations that Alexina indulged in her memoir, but created Cal with a fairly even-headed narration. He did make Cal a character who was raised female, who had some misgivings about her body, who developed a close sexual relationship with a girl, and who upon discovering her condition decided to live as a man, just like Alexina Barbin did. These similarities in basic plot points suggest that Eugenides did in fact wish to make a similar story more interesting and perhaps more believable.

Other differences between Middlesex and Herculine Barbin, however, are so large that one may find it difficult to view Middlesex as an "improvement" of Herculine Barbin. One cannot deny that there is a lot in Middlesex that was not seen in the other hermaphrodite story, simply in terms of plot points. Middlesex begins with the story of Cal's family, not the story of a pseudo-hermaphrodite at all. It is the story of Cal's grandparents escape from Turkey and of their incest. It is the story of Cal's parents lives in Detroit. Cal claims that he is telling the story of how he came to be. Cal is born (as Calliope, and called Callie), almost halfway through the book. One must imagine that the events of Cal's life are the ones that lead up to Cal's being who he is, but the story of the family presents a context for the life of Cal.

When Callie finds out that she is a pseudo-hermaphrodite, the two plots diverge beyond where they have in the past. Callie simply decides that she is a boy and while she is told that she is a girl and can live as a girl, she knows that she is a boy. Alexina Barbin, in her knowledge of her situation, knew that she was not living her "true gender", but was told by a priest that she might become a nun and presumably avoid the difficulties of beginning life as a man, as well as avoiding scandal. ((2)Herculine Barbin, page 62). When Alexina Barbin decided to live as a man it was after trying as long as possible to live the life she so loved, loving Sara, and struggling with the "truth" of her differences from other women. She eventually killed herself, perhaps because he was lonely. Normal life did not appear to be a reality, though he did know great kindness in his time. One who reads the memoir must wonder what happened to him that made him so very sad, one conclusion that pops out is the difficulty of his condition, his different genitalia.

It may be important that Cal gets through the hermaphrodite thing and goes on to have a happy life. It is definitely important that Cal does not moan and exclaim all over but presents his pseudo-hermaphroditism as simply a fact of his life rather than as this awful think that has befallen him. A story that does not present being a hermaphrodite as a horrible tragedy is almost certainly a more interesting, useful story for a hermaphrodite to read. Because the character of Cal is a pseudo-hermaphrodite and is the narrator of Middlesex, this story can be viewed as his improvement of Herculine Barbin.
It could be said that Herculine Barbin had many characteristics that did not work which Eugenides "selected against" and some that were interesting which were used in a new story. This is of course not a true "improvement" (as biological evolution does not work towards the better, neither does this evolution), though it creates a story that works better for some people.

Both are interesting stories, and Herculine Barbin has a special value as a memoir. The way that the two stories relate and differ from each other makes them more interesting when both are read with awareness of the two stories. As ideas go, Middlesex may have some that could be said to have "evolved" from different presentations in Herculine Barbin. As a new story, however, Middlesex also has a great deal of value.


1. Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002

2. Barbin. Herculine Barbin: being the recently discovered memoirs of a nineteenth- century French hermaphrodite (originally Herculine Barbin, dite Alexina B. 1978). Introduced by Michel Foucault. Trans. Richard McDougall. New York: Random House, Inc. 1980.

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