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The Role of Ovid's Metamorphoses in Middlesex

Lauren Zimmerman

Jeffery Eugenides' Middlesex tells the story of a Cal, a Greek American male pseudo-hermaphrodite. Like its main character, the novel is a hybrid of different cultural influences; it is simultaneously a multi-generational family saga, and a unique coming of age story, a blend of tragedy, comic, and epic. Middlesex is saturated with an immense assortment of literary allusions, and repeatedly evokes Classical literature, both thematically and stylistically. Eugenides draws much inspiration from Ovid's poem the Metamorphoses, another story dealing with transformations. This paper seeks to explore the ways in which Eugenides superimposes the modern stories of genetics and evolution on Ovid's Classical stories of transformation, with particular attention to the story of the God Hermaphroditus, as well as the implications of Eugenides' blend of Classical and modern styles of storytelling.

The Metamorphoses is an amalgam of different myths from different sources, which Ovid retells in innovative ways, and unites by their shared theme of transformation into one long connected poem. Similarly, Middlesex is a melting pot of different literary influences. In an interview regarding Middlesex, Eugenides remarks: "Since it's about genetics, I thought the book should be a novelistic genome; that is, it should contain some of the oldest traits of writing and storytelling." In this respect, it is not just the content of Eugenides' book that is about transformations, but the novel itself strives to transform traditional literary styles by placing them within the framework of the modern concept of genetics.

Both Middlesex and the Metamorphoses are hybrids composed of diverse elements. Furthermore, both authors write about bodily changes, while instituting literary changes. Ovid opens his poem as follows:
My intention is to tell of bodies changed
To different forms; the gods, who made the changes
Will help me—or I hope so—with a poem
That runs from the world's beginning to our own days (Ovid I 1-4).
Ovid is here playfully mimicking his predecessors Homer and Virgil. Ovid does not sing "of arms and of man" like Virgil, nor does he sing of "the man of twists of turns/ driven again of course once he had plundered/ the hollowed halls of Troy." Ovid's epic is not especially concerned with the usual subjects of epic: war, empire, or a journey home; instead, Ovid is concerned with change. Similarly, Eugenides uses the theme of metamorphosis to transform the Classical epic into a modern American epic. Cal remarks to his audience: "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, ...Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That's genetic too" (Middlesex, 4). Like Ovid, Eugenides utilizes a playful imitation and innovation of the epic style in order to tell a story of bodily transformations.

In addition to imitating Ovid stylistically, Eugenides directly alludes to many of the myths mentioned in the Metamorphoses. The story of the God Hermaphroditus is an obvious predecessor to Middlesex. In book IV of the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of how the youthful God Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, spurned the advances of the water nymph Salmacis. While Hermaphroditus swam in her sacred fountain, Salmacis was so fervent to become one with him that she merged with him physically, thus producing one being with both male and female characteristics. Like Cal, Hermaphroditus began his life clearly identifying himself as a member of one gender, then at adolescence experienced a bodily transformation that changed him into something in between male and female.

Eugenides directly references the story of Hermaphroditus, towards the end of the novel, when Cal makes his living exhibiting his body at a nightclub. Cal submerges his naked body into a tank of blue water, while paying customers ogle at his unique genitalia. Cal is openly marketed as the God Hermaphroditus, and the blue tank is a purposeful evocation of Salmacis' sacred fountain. Eugenides however, expands upon the archetypal figure Hermaphroditus to reveal elements latent in Ovid's rendition of the story.

Through Eugenides' retelling, the story of Hermaphroditus can be interpreted as a traditional coming of age story. Ovid describes the youth Hermaphroditus as follows:
Fifteen years old, he left his native mountains,
Left Ida, for the new delights, to wander
In unknown lands, to look at unknown rivers,
His eagerness making it very little trouble (Ovid IV, 294-297).
Hermaphroditus and Cal are about the same age when they leave home in search of the unknown. Both Cal's and Hermaphroditus' journey parallels the universal journey of sexual discover taken by every adolescent. This has the effect of normalizing hermaphrodites, so that they do not seem like monsters, but ordinary adolescents. During his interview, Eugenides explains, "I used a hermaphrodite not to tell the story of a freak or someone unlike the rest of us, but as a correlative for the sexual confusion and confusion of identity that everyone goes through in adolescence." With the support of Classical allusions, Eugenides successfully manages to portray Callie as an average midwestern thirteen-year-old girl, whose transformation is as frightening and bewildering as that of any teenager.

Middlesex also evokes Ovid's description of the union of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by utilizing the same biological metaphor. Ovid writes:
And the two bodies seemed to merge together,
Once face, one form. As when a twig is grafted
On parent stock, both knit, mature together,
So these two joined in close embrace, no longer
Two beings, and no longer man and woman
But neither and yet, both (Ovid IV, 371-376).
Obviously, Eugenides takes a different route from Ovid in that he provides a scientific explanation for why Cal's body is made the way it is, rather than a mythical. Eugenides, however, does remain faithful to Ovid's metaphor in which he describes the blend of male and female as a plant. During Cal's early adolescence, he repeatedly refers to his genitalia as a "crocus." "I'd feel a thaw between my legs, the soil growing moist, a rich peaty aroma rising, and then — while I pretended to memorize Latin verbs — the sudden, squirming life in the warm earth beneath my skirt" (Middlesex, 330). Eugenides builds upon the plant comparison first created by Ovid, but within the context of a story that is told scientifically.

Finally, Eugenides is able to provide his readers with a psychological explanation as to why a being with both male and female components fascinates us. Cal attempts to explain why customers at the nightclub pay money for a glimpse of his genitalia:
Viewers got to see strange things, uncommon bodies, but much of the appeal was the transport involved. Looking through their portholes, the customers were watching real bodies do the things bodies sometimes did in dreams. There were male customers, married heterosexual men, who sometimes dreamed of making loved to men who possessed penises, not male penises, but thin, tapered feminized stalks, the like the stamens of flowers, clitorises that had elongated tremendously from abundant desire. . . There is no way to tell what percentage of the population dreams such dreams of sexual transmogrification (Middlesex, 486).
We know that the archetypal figure Hermaphroditus is intriguing to us, but Ovid is not able to elucidate why a being possessing attributes of both sexes should be a source of fascination. With the perspective of a postmodern writer, Eugenides is able to offer a psychological explanation as to why hermaphrodites captivate us. During interview, Eugenides explains that Middlesex begins with a traditional epic storytelling style, but gradually evolves into "a more deeply psychological, more modern novel." This psychological perspective illuminates underlying meanings in Ovid's text.

Both Ovid and Eugenides sing of changes, and in doing so, reinvent the epic motif. Eugenides does not merely reuse the metamorphosis stories as told by Ovid; rather, he develops the theme of transformation within the context of the modern story of genetics. Middlesex is an evolved story in that it begins with a Classical approach to story telling, but eventually develops psychological levels not present in the original Ovid. Furthermore, Eugenides utilizes Classical reverberations to make his story a universal one, so that Cal's is the story of every teenager, rather than of an abnormality.

Ovid, Metamorphoses. (Rolfe Humphries Trans.) Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1955. 118-125.

Jeffery Eugenides Has it Both Ways, an interview with Dave Weich.

Homer. The Odyssey. (Fagles, Robert Trans.). New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Virgil. The Aeneid. (Mandelbaum, Allen Trans.). New York: Bantam Dell, 1971.

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