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Perceptions and Perspectives: Herculine Barbin's Influence on Middlesex


While both Middlesex and Herculine Barbin tell the stories of hermaphrodites transitioning from female to male, the styles in which the stories are told go to opposite extremes. Because Jeffrey Eugenides wrote Middlesex after reading Herculine's story, the development of Cal's story shows influences of perceived weaknesses in Herculine Barbin. Herculine's story is intensely emotional, focusing on the internal pressures that led her to change from female to male, a change in which she eventually fails. Middlesex reverses these elements. Cal's omniscience as a narrator and his ability to go into the minds of people regardless of whether he as a character could know their thoughts give the story an external focus, showing the way in which Cal/lie was created. Where Herculine fails to create a new life as a male, Cal succeeds. However, because Cal succeeds in living in a world defined by male/female gender stereotypes, he loses Herculine's ability to remove himself that perspective and view gender from the outside.

Because Herculine Barbin is told solely from Herculine's perspective, her internal pressures to recreate herself as male are represented as strongest. Despite being in a situation where she could have hidden her status as a hermaphrodite and lived happily with the woman she loved, Herculine puts herself in a situation where she must reveal her gender. Even before there is the threat of exposure, she describes her relationship with Sara by saying, "The future was dark! Sooner or later I would have to break with a kind of life that was no longer mine.... That was enough to cloud a mind more solid than my own." (Foucault 52). Herculine sees happiness as something ominous, believing that it can only be followed by tragedy. In this way, she imposes her own mental state of depression on the events around her. The "cloud" that afflicts her perception of the situation is her own, leading her to view her present happiness as foreshadowing some future doom.

Pushed by her depression, Herculine acts to bring about this doom, sending her life down the grim path of separation from her love, failure to reenter society as a man, and eventually suicide. Her memoir can be read as a defense of her choice to live as a male, by retelling her life as a tragedy. In tragedies, the hero is forced into a terrible disaster by powers that cannot be denied. Herculine reinforces this image when remembering her transition to male. "But what is the use of laments, regrets? I submitted to my destiny, I fulfilled courageously, I believe the painful duties of my situation." (Foucault 85). This description paints Herculine's gender switch as inevitable, by putting "destiny" in a place of ultimate power over her. Perhaps the change would have happened eventually, in a time period that only allowed acceptance of "the medical diagnosis of the true sex" (Foucault ix), but every step that Herculine takes to recreate herself as male is taken of her own will. She later imposes the theory of a tragedy on her life to remove blame for her misfortune from her own actions.

Where Herculine's actions are influenced by her internal experiences, Cal's actions are influenced equally strongly by external experiences. Despite a societal pressure to remain as a female so as not to disrupt the status quo that his parents reinforce, Cal makes the decision to run away from his old life and recreate himself as male. This decision comes from the influence of the progression of dictionary entries culminating in the cross-reference to "monster" and from Dr. Luce's medical report defining Cal as female. Before making his decision, Cal himself does not seem to have any strong feelings about being of a particular gender. "As I looked, I didn't take sides. I understood both the urgency of the man and the pleasure of the woman." (Eugenides 435). Because he does not see himself as one particular gender, Cal is easily swayed by Luce's report declaring him biologically male. He knows that Luce's interpretation of Callie as female is because of the lies Cal told while trying to appear normal. Since Cal views Luce's diagnosis as untrustworthy, he is inclined to believe the printed word of the dictionary defining him as a monster. His decision to become male is an attempt to distance himself from the monstrous by denying what he perceives as falsehoods about his gender. His choice to define himself by the biological "truth" of his gender parallels the thinking of Herculine's age, when biology trumped personal choice.

By removing himself entirely from his previous life as Callie, Cal is able to succeed where Herculine failed. He recreates himself as male, gets a good job, and finds a woman who accepts him. Because Eugenides saw that Herculine is unable to live in a world where she must become male, he created Cal in such a way that he could live and succeed as male. Cal transforms into a male at puberty, a time when all adolescents' bodies change. Whether male or female, younger people adapt to change more easily than their elders. Herculine does not become male until she is considerably older than fourteen, and the ties from her life as a female prevent her from fully reforming her identity. Cal leaves his ties to his former life behind and ends up with other hermaphrodites, in an environment particularly conducive to redefining himself and his gender. He is able to remove himself entirely from his female life, and become entirely male.

Despite Cal's success in life as compared to Herculine, there is a literary area in which Herculine is more successful than Cal. The perceptions of gender in each story are defined clearly as male and female, but while Cal switches from one gender to the other, rather than creating a new gender identity based on his status as a hermaphrodite, Herculine refuses categorization by viewing herself as a different gender depending on her point of view. Eugenides addresses the issue of gender when discussing the Stephanides' reaction to Cal as a male. "My family found that, contrary to popular opinion, gender was not all that important. My change from girl to boy was far less dramatic than the distance anybody travels from infancy to adulthood." (Eugenides 520). While this message allows for the existence of an identity apart from gender, it does not remove gender identity from the male and female boxes. The fact that Cal views his transition as crossing a line between two genders reaffirms the notion that the line exists, and he chooses to live as male rather than as a person apart from gender. Herculine, by contrast, views herself as male when discussing females and female when discussing males. She goes from the extreme of "Men! I have not soiled my lips with your false oaths" (Foucault 99), in which she takes a female role to denounce men, to "I can read [woman's] heart like an open book" (Foucault 107), taking a male role to view women from an outside perspective. In each case, she removes herself from the gender she addresses, associating at times with both genders, and at times with neither. Though labeled as male in her society, Herculine does not seem to identify with one gender more than the other.

Herculine may fail to live in the world as a male, but Cal's success in that arena is balanced by his failure to transcend the male and female gender identities as Herculine does. By creating a character that could go on to live as male, Eugenides removes the hermaphrodite's ability to lie between genders. Cal's story is so focused on the outside world that his character absorbs the male/female perspective that the world employs, losing Herculine's ability, through her more internalized, emotional story, to view gender from the outside. Cal's success comes through conforming to the standards his society sets for gender, while Herculine's failure is through her inability to do so.


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

2) Foucault, Michel. Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite. Trans. Richard McDougall. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

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