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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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The Context of Usefulness

Laine Edwards

The "usefulness" of a text is a property that can be redefined time and time again. It depends on the intentions of both author and reader, the experience the reader brings to the text, and, most importantly, the context in which the text is read. All of these variables work independently of each other and therefore, when combined, numerous "uses" can be discovered for a single text. Because of its diverse and complex plot Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex is one such text that can be interpreted as being "useful" in several different areas. Having read Middlesex twice and coming away with two very different uses for the novel each time, I can conclude that my interpretation of the "usefulness" of the text was changed not by intentions or experience, but by the context in which I was reading it.

Jonathan Culler, in his book on literary theory, claims, "meaning is determined by context" (67), yet he continues on to say, "meaning is context bound, context is boundless" (67). Because context knows know bounds and context determines meaning, it can therefore be assumed that meaning is also boundless. Examining the transformation of Callie into Cal under the lenses of the two contexts in which I read this novel supplies me with two diverse uses for the text. Correlating the terms "usefulness" and "meaning", and then analyzing Middlesex in terms of the different contexts in which I read the text provides an explanation for the two very different uses- escapism and exploration- I took away from it.

My first reading of Middlesex in the fall of 2003 stemmed from my desire to return to the pleasure I find in reading. I needed a relief from the monotony of the academic drivel I had been reading, and therefore the context in which I would read Middlesex was set. The story of Middlesex piqued my interest because it was so unlike anything I had ever experienced. I was looking for a book that would take me outside myself and into the mind of a character from whom I differed so greatly that it would be nearly impossible for me readily identify with her. Calliope Stephanides immediately filled that role, and from the very first words of the book, "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, [...] and then again, as a teenage boy" (Eugenides 3) I was invited into the mind of a character in whose life I could not see my own.

The context of "pleasure reading" in which I embarked to read Middlesex immediately provided a direction to the story and determined which elements I would find most "useful" for my purpose. I wished to escape into the life of Callie/Cal and therefore I focused on the means of her transformation. I followed the gene in its travels from a village in Europe to Detroit and its expression in the DNA of Lefty, Desdemona, Milton and Tessie. Because of my desire to lose myself in the lives of these characters I placed a higher value on the journey Callie takes in becoming Cal instead of other themes such as sexuality or the use of Greek mythology. I focused on the differences between my life and Callie's as a means of transporting myself out of my dorm room and into the world of the Stephanides family. Callie claims that throughout her life she had left her "body in order to occupy others" (Eugenides 3), and it was the extent to which Middlesex allowed me to follow in Callie's footsteps and go beyond myself that determined the "usefulness" of the story to me.

Reading Middlesex for this class has altered the context so that I am no longer reading for the pleasure of escaping, but instead for the purpose of examining issues of gender and sexuality. In reading Middlesex as a means of escape, I chose not to focus on what exactly it was that I understood about the text, but instead I let the story of Callie wash over me without stopping to question the rationale. The experience of Middlesex, however, has changed within the context of this class because of our focus on the evolution of gender and sexual identity. I was forced to leave behind the pleasure of escape I had already found in Middlesex, and concentrate my attentions on the creation and expression of the genetic mutation.

Meaning, in a text, claims Culler, is "simultaneously an experience of a subject and a property of a text. It is both what we understand and what in the text we try to understand" (67). With the change of context came the necessity of acting on the novel rather than passively accepting it. In order to experience Middlesex in a way that would be beneficial to the class I had to actively pursue Callie's mutation and the mental and physical implications it had on her. Rather than simply accept the text for what it appeared to be, I had to read more closely and aggressively search for meaning in the text. Sentences such as "Everything comes out of an egg" (Eugenidies 198), or "my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me," (Eugenidies 401) meant nothing to me in my first reading. In a class focused on the nuances of gender and sexuality, however, these types of statements necessitate careful consideration so that they can be understood within the context of the classroom.

The classroom setting in which I read Middlesex for the second time changed the "usefulness" of the text from a means of escape to a lens through which I could examine gender identity and the role of sexuality in its creation. Trying to use Middlesex as means of escape in the context of the classroom was useless because the experience was of such a personal nature that it could not be translated to others. In the classroom Callie's transformation into Cal was important because of the way her gender switch served as a model against which we could compare the later texts of Herculine Barbin and Orlando.

The very nature of "usefulness" as determined by the context in which a text is read can vary along lines of experience and intention of both author and reader. Reading Middlesex in the context of escapism provided a "use" for the text in that it transported me out of myself and into the life of a character whose experiences were beyond my own. The first time I read Middlesex the "usefulness" of Callie's story relied not on its ability to be applied to my life, but in the ways it took me away from my dorm room and into a new family lineage. Altering the context for my second reading of Middlesex allowed me to find a different "use" for the text. I placed a greater emphasis on issues of gender and sexuality rather than the themes of the text that allowed me to escape. Understand the idea of the "usefulness" of a text as being dependent on the context in which it is read. Changing the context of Middlesex allows for new experiences and meanings, and therefore new "uses".

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory. Oxford University Press: New York, 1997.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. Pan Books Limited: New York, 2002.

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