This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
On Serendip

Herculine Barbin's Influence on Middlesex

Nada Ali

Herculine Barbin and Middlesex are books about pseudo-hermaphrodites that had female childhoods and male adulthood. At birth, they were registered as females but upon adolescence came to the realization that they were biologically and physiologically male. However both books are different in many respects. For starters, Herculine Barbin is a memoir that was found by Michel Foucault in the archives of the French Department of Public Hygiene. It was written in the nineteenth century after Herculine or Camille was reclassified as a male. Middlesex, on the other hand, is a novel written by Jeffrey Eugenides, as the narration of a pseudo-hermaphrodite living into the twenty-first century. It is a story of Cal/Callie's transformation explored through the roots of her Greek American family, their passage to America, their successes and failure and their genetic choices. However, while these books are very different, it is obvious that Eugenides is influenced by the memoirs of Herculine Barbin. This paper will attempt to look at the similarities between the two books, while illustrating their differences and understanding why Eugenides chose to write Middlesex in the way that he did in light of what he had read in Herculine Barbin.

Initially, my interest in the comparative analysis of Herculine Barbin and Middlesex was sparked by an interview in which Eugenides claims that the memoirs did not capture the essence of what it is like to be a pseudo-hermaphrodite. He says, "but as an expression of what it is like to be a hermaphrodite, from the inside, Herculine Barbin's memoir is quite disappointing. She just tends to go into this moaning, talking about how misfortunate she is and... it's sad. You can go and read it, but she didn't have enough self-awareness to be able to understand what was going on. In a way she was pre-psychological in her knowledge of her self. And when I read that book I didn't get any information about someone with such a condition." (Moorhem, Bram V) Hence Eugenides was very familiar with Herculine Barbin and in writing Middlesex chose not to be emotionally explicit about how Callie felt when she became Cal.

Instead, Callie's transformation into Cal was not an event that Eugenides attributed dramatic emotions to. Instead Callie's transformation is viewed in light of a strange acceptance of fate lacking in the melodrama that is present in Herculine Barbin. For example, when Callie finds out that she is biologically a boy, she does not indulge in self-pity and instead chooses to run away from home in order to avoid the operation that will supposedly restore her social gender identity. She writes in her note to her parents that "I am not a girl. I'm a boy. That's what I found out today. So I'm going where no one knows me...Please don't worry about me. I will be all right."(Eugenides. Pg. 439) Here, Callie is not melodramatic but rather composed. While she makes a drastic decision, her emotions do not take the spotlight and reality away from her situation.

Camille, on the other hand, was extremely melodramatic and in the process compromised the message that Eugenides was trying to make in Middlesex. Eugenides did not want emotion to gloss over the actual experience that Callie underwent. Camille, with the use of dramatic language and indulgent self pity, diverted the attention of the reader away from the issues of gender in society, alienation and hermaphrodites. For example, Camille says, after learning of her condition, "Oh! How I craved the sleep of the tomb then, that final refuge of human nature. Why, then, Lord have You prolonged until now an existence that is useless to everybody and so crushing for myself? That is one of the mysteries which it is not for man to fathom." (Barbin. Pg. 110) This is exactly what Eugenides was avoiding. Camille, mesmerized by her own emotions was unable to convey any information about the condition and its implications in society. However to be fair to Camille, it is important to keep in mind the time period in which this memoir was written and the intention behind it. Perhaps it was a tool that Camille used to vent her emotions, as many people do in the form of diary writing. However Eugenides had something to learn from the shortcomings of her/his excessive use of melodramatic language. He was able to use this information to make his book more compelling on the issues of gender and sexuality.

Striking similarities between Herculine Barbin and Middle Sex also suggest the influence of the French memoir on Eugenides novel. For example, Callie's relationship with the Obscure Object is reminiscent of Camille's relationship with Sara. Both relationships were silent yet passionate at the same time. Both the Obscure Object and Sara were defining relationships for the main characters and foreshadowed their sexual preference and inevitably in some sense their future gender. One is obliged however, to point out that this does not mean that heterosexuality is somehow the only natural indication of the biological gender that one actually is but rather in the case of these two books, it was used as a tool of foreshadowing their future course. In some ways, it can be argued that Eugenides subscribed to a box that claims that gender can be detriment of sexual preference.

Another interesting similarity that is apparent is the use of locker room type imagery to describe the experience of feeling out of place and not developing physically. In many ways, the two characters felt different, physically and mentally when put in a situation that exposed or concerned their respective bodies. For example, Camille says, "At that age, when all a woman's graces unfold, I had neither that free and easy bearing nor the well rounded limbs that reveal youth in full bloom." (Barbin. Pg. 26) In addition Camille did not feel comfortable bathing in the ocean with the other girls because she felt conscious of her appearance. Similarly, Callie begins to wonder at the age of twelve why she isn't developing physically like the other girls and throws a tantrum because she doesn't need a bra. Callie says while watching other girls in their bathing suits, "I looked down at my body. There is was, as usual: the flat chest, the nothing hips, the forked mosquito-bitten legs."( Eugenides. Pg. 283) This very difference made Callie conscious of herself especially during gym period, where the locker room was a showcase of hierarchy based on nudity. Callie and Camille, both showed reservations about their body. Whether or not this was a product of their condition or a universal adolescent fear, Eugenides uses it in a similar way that Barbin does. Essentially, as a feeling of inadequacy, loneliness and not belonging in a situation that exposed them to an unforgiving world in some sense.

To a lesser degree of similarity, the use of science and biology in both books reflects a more complicated connection. For example, the use of biological metaphors is evident in both texts but in varying degrees. Camille refers to biology when she says, "Science, furthermore, does not have the gift of miracles, and even less does it have the gift of prophecy."(Barbin. Pg. 35) While biological metaphors were far richer and frequent in Middlesex, it is important to note that Eugenides may have wanted to shed further light upon genetic determinism after feeling the lack of it in Herculine Barbin. However given the power of its use in whatever small way in the memoir, Eugenides perhaps, understood the power of the biological context. For example, Cal says, "until the biology Gods knew this was their time, this was what they'd been waiting for...the gene is about to meet its twin."(Eugenides. Pg. 211) This example among many, illustrated Eugenides usage of biological metaphors to show the role of genetics and more forcefully put forth questions of gender and sexuality.

While, Eugenides is very critical of Herculine Barbin's writing style, Middlesex has been heavily influenced by it. In this case the influence is not only in the form of similarities but in the form of shaping the eventual course of writing that Eugenides employs. He was able to write Middlesex in a way that took into consideration what he found lacking in Herculine Barbin. While Herculine Barbin looks upon his/her transformation as a source of anxiety and pain, Eugenides gives his character strength that reflects the entirety of life's experiences rather than drowning us in melodrama and sadness. This is precisely why Cal is a more believable character, when in fact Barbin is the real story. After all Cal says, "my change from girl to boy was far less dramatic than the distance anybody travels from infancy to adulthood." (Eugenides. Pg. 520) This captures the message Eugenides was trying to convey by rejecting the emotional and melodramatic Herculine Barbin. Regardless, however, its influence on Middlesex is undeniable and discernible. Eugenides was able to use Herculine Barbin to both improve the delivery of his message and capture the role of other elements of transformation, both in gender and adolescence without diminishing or glossing over the importance of both.

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

Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex. New York: St. Martin's, 2002.

Moorhem, Bram V. "An Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides." Updated 2003. Cited 8 April 2005.

| Course Home Page | Forum | Science in Culture | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:46 CDT