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The Role of Ovid's' Metamorphoses in Middlesex: Giving Tiresias a Voice

Lauren Zimmerman

Jeffery Eugenides' Middlesex is a story of transformations: worms become pupae; brother and sister become husband and wife; Greeks become Greek Americans; a bootlegger becomes the founder of Islam; and perhaps, most dramatically, a girl becomes an adolescent boy. For his modern American epic, Eugenides is undoubtedly indebted to Ovid's Metamorphoses, a mock epic in its own right. Both Ovid and Eugenides tell a story of transformations, while utilizing a variety of different literary elements to create a work that is in itself a hybrid. Middlesex is simultaneously a multi-generational family saga, and a unique coming of age story, a blend of tragedy, comic, and epic. Eugenides superimposes the modern story of genetics and evolution on Ovid's Classical stories of transformation in order to tell a universal story of self-transformation and rebirth.

Middlesex is an epic retelling of the history of a recessive chromosome. Our omniscient narrator Cal/Callie describes the gene's journey through countless epic events: from the slopes of Mt. Olympus, through the fire at Smyrna, to Detroit, through prohibition, race riots, to suburbia in the 1970's, until this gene finally expresses itself in our narrator at adolescence. For his comic epic, Jeffery Eugenides has chosen some very taboo subject matter: a brother and sister romance, and hermaphroditism. These controversial topics might easily provoke disgust, but with Ovid's Metamorphoses for stimulation, Eugenides evokes classical archetypes and a comic style to make the bizarre and disturbing accessible and understandable.

In addition to imitating Ovid stylistically and sharing with him the theme of transformation, Eugenides frequently refers to characters from Metamorphoses as metaphors for Callie/Cal, including the minotaur, Tiresias the seer, and the god Hermaphroditus. Each of these mythological creatures shares something in common with our narrator. By referencing these characters in Middlesex Eugenides enriches his novel; classical archetypes add layers to his story. But he also transforms these myths for his own purposes, bringing out psychological reverberations implicit in Ovid to the forefront.

There are numerous ways in which Cal is connected to the prophet Tiresias. The most obvious is that both have experienced living in society as both a man and woman. In addition, both characters have dealt with incestuous family trees, and both have a prophetic ability, they are able to divine information that should be inaccessible to them. Cal begins comparing himself to Tiresias early in the novel, and is even cast as Tiresias in an eight-grade production of Antigone. The myth of Tiresias served as a starting point for Eugenides' novel.

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, the story of the Tiresias transformation from man to woman and back to man is briefly told:
Once he had come upon two serpents mating,
In the green woods, and struck them from each other,
And thereupon, from man was turned to woman,
And was a woman seven years, and saw
The serpents once again, and once more struck them
Apart, remarking, "If there is such magic
In giving you blows, that man is turned to woman,
It may be woman is turned to man. Worth trying"
And so he was a man again. (Ovid 1. 327-335).

This story is framed by an argument between Juno and Jupiter concerning who enjoys sex more, men or women. Jupiter insists that the female takes more pleasure, and Juno the male (the grass is always greener). The couple decides to consult Tiresias, the only person really qualified to settle such a dispute. Tiresias sides with Jupiter, saying that the female enjoys love making more. Juno is outraged to be proven wrong and strikes him blind. As compensation, Jupiter gave Tiresias the power to know the future. Tiresias' seer saying ability is thus derived (albeit indirectly) from his unique experience of living as both man and woman, and the more comprehensive understanding of sexes that the experience gave him.

It takes Ovid only nine lines of verse to explain Tiresias' metamorphosis; it takes Eugenides some 500 pages to explain Cal's. This is because Ovid does not explain Tiresias feelings regarding his transformation into a woman or the change back. We do not know how Tiresias' life differed as a woman than as a man, or how his family dealt with the transformation. Ovid also does not specify exactly how the metamorphosis happened, though it is clear that it was not of Tiresias' own volition. Thus, Ovid's myth provided only a starting point for Eugenides. In an interview he comments, ""In opposition to the way hermaphrodites have existed in literature previously - as mythical creatures, mainly, like Tiresias - I wanted to write about a real hermaphrodite." Eugenides' quote implies that the mythical Tiresias does not suffice. Eugenides wanted the hermaphrodite in his story to have a real voice, a psychological interior that is not palpable in Ovid's telling. The most significant effect of Eugenides' retelling is that he gives Cal an agency that Tiresias does not have, so that his transformation is in some respects his own decision.

Like its epic predecessors, Middlesex deals extensively with the Greek concept of μοιρα (moira,) or fate. The characters in Ovid's Metamorphoses, for the most part, have transformations inflicted upon them. They have no agency; the gods who make the changes seal their fate. Eugenides depicts genetic determinism as a modern version of the classical concept of fate. Throughout the novel, Cal repeatedly refers to the events that led up to his birth as fate, or destiny. Yet despite this emphasis on predetermination, the novel's stronger message is faith in free will. A definitive quote:

In the twentieth century, genetics brought the Ancient Greek notion of fate into our very cells. This new century we've just begun has found something different. Contrary to all expectations, the code underlying our belief is woefully inadequate. Instead of the expected 200, 000 genes, we have only 30, 000. Not many more than a mouse. And so a strange possibility is arising. Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind (478-479).

In the world Eugenides created, it is an array of factors that make us who we are: our genes do play a role, but so does our cultural heritage, and our unique experiences as human beings. Middlesex suggests that Cal really is not that different from the rest of us. In a sense we are all hybrids, composed of diverse elements, but still endowed with the freedom to determine our own metamorphoses. Even in an era of genetics, there is still an opportunity for free will.

It is important to note, that though Cal did not choose to be born the way he was, the decision to live as a man was ultimately his own. Despite his winnings in the genetic crapshoot, he is still able to take destiny into his own hands. Furthermore, Callie made the decision to become Cal at the age of fourteen, the same age when most teenagers are beginning to decide who they are and to embrace their independence. 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." Cal's metamorphoses is universal in the sense that it parallels that frightening and bewildering transformation and the eventual acceptance of independence that every teenager experiences.

The novel gives us countless examples that we are able to design our own destinies. Desdemona and Lefty's relationship is a perfect example. They reinvented their identities, so that they were transformed from brother and sister to husband and wife. Cal relates that many transformations took place on his grandparent's voyage from Greece to America:

Sailing across the ocean among half a thousand perfect strangers conveyed an anonymity in which my grandparents could recreate themselves. The driving spirit on the Giulia was self-transformation. Staring out to sea, tobacco farmers imagined themselves as race car drivers, silk dyers as Wall street tycoons, millinery girls as fan dancers in the Ziegfield Follies. Gray ocean stretched in all directions. Europe and Asia Minor were dead behind them. Ahead lay America and new horizons (68).

Eugenides here takes the classical theme of metamorphoses, as told in Ovid, and applies it to the story of American immigration. By explaining Lefty and Desdemona's decision to reinvent themselves in relation to every immigrant's aspirations of reinvention, Eugenides takes a taboo and disturbing subject, incest, and normalizes it, just as he does with the subject of hermaphroditism.

Ultimately, Cal accepts his fate as a hermaphrodite; there is no evidence in the text that he begrudges his grandparents for their union. This is well illustrated in a scene towards the end of the novel, when Desdemona expresses how guilty she feels for Cal's transformation.
"I'm sorry, honey. I'm sorry this happen to you."
"It's all right"
"I'm sorry, honey mou."
"I like my life," I told her. "I'm going to have a good life."
"Don't worry, yia, yia. I won't tell anyone."
"Who's to tell? Everybody's dead now."
"You're not. I'll wait until you're gone."
"Okay. When I die, you can tell everything."
"I will."
"Bravo, honey mou. Bravo" (528).

This harmonizes beautifully with Eugenides' overarching theme of the universality of self-transformation: that despite a world governed by genetic determinism, there is still some room for free well. Like any adolescent, Cal has the ability to transform himself, to decide the person he will become. Ironically, Eugenides novel suggests implicitly that Cal actually has more control over his destiny than most human beings. Unlike most people, who have no reason to question their position on the gender spectrum, Cal is given the opportunity to choose his gender. In this respect, Cal's hermaphroditism actually gives him freewill, rather than takes it away. Eugenides begins with the story Tiresias: a mythical version of a hermaphrodite, who does not seem to have any control over his destiny, and he ends with Cal having willfully chosen to live life as a man, and decided to have a good life.

Tiresias is not only relevant to Cal's story because of his experience living as both genders, but also because of his role as a seer. Cal also suggests that his experience living as both genders has given him supernatural abilities. Cal describes what he calls a unique "clairvoyance" for understanding both sexes: "Already latent inside me...was the ability to communicate between the genders, to see not with the monovision of one sex but in the stereoscope of both (269)." Like his mythical predecessor Tiresias, Cal has a somewhat disembodied quality. He explains his talent for embodying both genders in the scene in which Callie claims to inhabit the body of Rex Reese, boyfriend of the Obscure Object. Again evoking Classical antecedent, she compares herself to the Delphic Oracle: "I drifted over the plank floor. I floated above the little camp stove. Passing by the bourbon bottles, I hovered over the other cot, looking down at the Object. And then suddenly, because I knew I could, I slipped into the body of Rex Reese. I entered him like a god so that it was me, and not Rex, who kissed her." Like Tiresias, the experience of existing as both genders has endowed Cal with a unique ability to understand his world.

Cal's abilities as a seer are also reflected in his unique narrative voice. Once again transforming literary style, Eugenides has created a first person omniscient narrator. The effects of this distinctive voice are far-reaching. First of all, the first person narration allows the reader to know Cal intimately, thus giving "Tiresias" the interior layer that was not explicit in Ovid. Eugenides comments, "in many ways, the point of the book is that we're all an I before we're a he or a she, so I needed that I." Again, Eugenides' story emphasizes the similarities among humans, not the differences.

The first person narrative makes Cal a person with whom readers can truly bond and identify, regardless of his mixed gender.

The omniscient facet of Cal's narrative voice enables him to talk about events he was not present for, specifically, the romances of his parents and grandparents. Eugenides thus gives us a more complete understanding of the events that led to his transformation than we would be given if the story were told through a regular non-omniscient first person narrator. Again, the unique narration provides reader with a more comprehensive understanding of a controversial subject. Cal does admit that he occasionally embellishes his story. Eugenides remarks in interview, "he might make claims that he has a genetic memory or that he knows things, but there are a lot of tip-offs to the reader that he's making it up." The ability to create fiction does not diminish Cal's free will, but on the contrary endows him with even more agency: the chance to tell his story as he sees fit. Tiresias does not get to tell us his side of the story.

Furthermore, the omniscient narration enables Eugenides to mimic the epic motif. Classical epics conventionally begin "in medias res" in the middle of things. The Odyssey, for example, begins not with Odysseus' departure from Troy, but while he is imprisoned on Calypo's island; the other events of the poem are retold through the voices of various characters. Cal's omniscient narration gives him the ability to tell his story beginning "in medias res" too. He begins narrating while his character is in the womb and his grandmother attempts to predict his gender with a spoon. Then he backtracks to describe his grandparents' lives in Greece. In addition, the entire narration is framed by Cal's current efforts to woo a woman named Julie. As the story within the story unravels (and unravel is the appropriate verb to use, given Cal's family's history in the silkworm industry) the narrative eventually comes to the birth of the narrator. As Cal grows from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, the narration becomes more intimate, more psychological, as Cal is the character that the narrator knows best. Eugenides remarks that Middlesex "begins with epic events, old fashioned, almost Homeric ideas - and as it progresses it should gradually become a more deeply psychological, more modern novel." The style of novel evolves with Cal through his narration, from an epic narrative, to a very personal story. Eugenides has taken the myth of Tiresias as a starting point, and given him an inner life; he has started with an epic, and given us a very personal memoir.

Cal's experiences living as both a man and a woman also give him a unique ability as a writer. The writer must also have an androgynous mind. Writing requires the imagination, endowed by our neo-cortex, to envision the experiences contrary to our own, including the experiences of the opposite gender. Cal has this ability, as demonstrated by is Delphic ability in inhabit Rex Reese, "to see not with the monovision of one sex but in the stereoscope of both (269)." Though Cal's aspirations as a writer are only mentioned briefly, it is clear that the desire to write is an important part of Cal's life. "I, even now, persist in believing that these black marks on white paper bear the greatest significance, that if I keep writing I might be able to catch the rainbow of consciousness in a jar" (297). Cal's struggles are not just with his sexual identity. Like every human being, Cal wants to tell a story, to produce something meaningful. This is also evident in the passage quoted above, in which Cal says that after Desdemona's death, he is going to share his story. Since he is a hermaphrodite, Cal is not able to have children; his meaningful contribution to his world must come through other means. Cal's life as a writer is also another way in which Cal is able to take control over his destiny, by recording his story and sharing it with others. Eugenides gives him that power through the first person omniscient narrator, in that Cal is able to tell his story in it's entirety, while still maintaining a personal rapport with his audience.

Paradoxically, Eugenides uses classical allusions to tell a story that is not mystical or fantastical. Instead, Eugenides uses the myths of Ovid's Metamorphoses in order to normalize social taboos, to universalize what initially seems disturbing, namely incest, and hermaphroditism. Eugenides began with the mythical Tiresias as his starting point. He incorporated Tiresias' experiences as members of both genders, as well as his gifts as a soothsayer, into Cal's story. But Middlesex is not just a retelling of the Tiresias myth, but an evolution. Eugenides gives Cal something that Tiresias does not have: his own voice. Unlike Tiresias, Cal's metamorphosis was initiated by his own agency. Furthermore, Cal has the ability to express his personal feelings regarding his transformation. Ultimately, Eugenides' suggests that Cal is not a freak, but like every human being, a product of genetic and cultural history, a combination of fate and free will, who wants one thing: to share his story.

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

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

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