In Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex, the protagonist and narrator, Cal, takes the reader through the generations of his family’s rich immigrant tale. Cal’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, are Greek refugees who came to America during the Turkish invasion. Cal tells his family’s story through three generations, tracking the evolution of a mutant gene that ended up in his being a hermaphrodite. Aside from Cal’s search for true self, Eugenides creates a riveting story with each generation of the Stephanides family assimilating to the norm of their time and environments.
For example, Lefty represents the classic American immigrant, striving to achieve success and capture the American Dream with all of its glory. In addition, his son, Milton plays the role of breadwinner, continuing to follow the example of his father with regard to business, and becomes completely Americanized. Finally, Callie is the first all American product of this family, but she finds herself faced with two different worlds, that of a girl and that of a boy.
Callie finds herself throughout adolescence, trying to be like the other girls, when she is clearly different; similarly, later on, Cal’s life becomes a battle to become comfortable in his own skin. Eugenides creates a family who is constantly seeking something different from who they are, or what they have. Lefty is a typical hardworking immigrant of the 1920’s, who comes to America seeking success to support his family. When Lefty arrives in Detroit, he is introduced to his cousin’s husband, Jimmy Zizmo, who is con artist and all around corrupt businessman.
With Zizmo’s help, Lefty gets a job at Ford Motors, where he learns English; and at the same time, Zizmo teaches Lefty about being financially successful in America. Lina, Zizmo’s wife as well as Lefty and Desdemona’s cousin, serves as Lefty’s prototype of assimilation. Cal notes, “In the five years since leaving Turkey, Sourmelina had managed to erase just about everything identifiably Greek about her” (84). After getting fired from his job at Ford, Lefty becomes the owner of a speakeasy, called The Zebra Room. Several years forward, Lefty, while running his bar, now adopts the title of being an ‘American. He assimilates American business and cultural values, but at the same time, he remembers what he has had to do to accomplish this. Lefty becomes a strong voice in favor of racial equality.
Cal describes, By Monday morning a race riot was under war. But when a group of men came in, boasting having beaten a Negro to death, my grandfather refused to serve them. “Why don’t you go back to your own country? ” one of them shouted. “This is my country,” Lefty said, and to prove it, he did a very American thing: he reached under the counter and produced a pistol. 169) Lefty sets the precedent by becoming Americanized; assimilating to what is the model American. Lefty’s aspirations were to achieve the American Dream by fitting into the American norm, and so he did, creating his very successful bar and restaurant. Lefty is proud to resourcefully provide for his family members, giving them everything they need. Milton, similar to his father, is completely immersed in business, and is the breadwinner for his family, but he is not so effective as a supportive father or husband.
Milton is often too busy with his very successful chain of Hercules Hot Dog’s stands, to deal with the changes and issues facing his family. Milton, prior to becoming this wealthy upper-class business owner, was his father’s son, and his wife’s husband; he was focused on building a family. Milton’s assimilation of American business and culture, as the first generation of his family in The United States, comes much more naturally than seen in the case of his father. The influence of American culture on the Milton family is to the disdain of his mother, Desdemona.
When Tessie, Milton’s wife, is pregnant, Milton uses modern methods to ensure his child is a girl. Desdemona, when Milton is proven right, realizes that her Greek culture and beliefs are outdated in her family. Cal explains, “Desdemona became grim. Her American born son had been proven right and, with this fresh defeat, the old country, in which she still tried to live despite its being four thousand miles and thirty-eight years away, receded one more notch. My arrival marked the end of her baby-guessing” (17).
Milton continues his father’s incorporation and pursuit of the American Dream, and takes it to the next level, reaching for an even higher level of social success and acceptance than Lefty did. Once Milton becomes wealthy, and is able to buy his way into a WASPy neighborhood, called Grosse Point, he takes his assimilation of American values so far as to reject his heritage. Milton, in his new environment, becomes a supporter of the Republican scheme, snubbing his family’s background when the government supports the Turkish attack on Greece.
Cal comments, “Forced to choose between his native land and his ancestral one, he didn’t hesitate. ” His family and friends feel estranged, and they stop visiting on Sundays as they used to. Milton marks the end of Greek heritage for the Stephanides, and his daughter, Calliope, is raised with no Greek culture or values, just as a normal American girl. Calliope was a normal young American girl growing up, but once she reached adolescence she was starting to feel different. Causing issues for Calliope, Milton enrolls her into a private all girls’ school, where she realizes that she in fact isn’t the all American girl she felt she was.
Calliope expresses, “Until we came to Baker & Inglis my friends and I had always felt completely American. But now the Bracelets’ upturned noses suggested that there was another America to which we could never gain admittance”(298). However, this cultural exclusion is just the beginning of Calliope’s problems. Calliope also has to deal with the loneliness and isolation she feels from her genetic irregularity. Calliope, also while attending Baker & Ingris, begins pubescent changes, but not the same changes as other girls.
Eugenides shows all the signs to imply that Calliope is indeed a hermaphrodite, with her deepening voice, bushy facial hair, bulky features, and even the mention of testicles. Calliope spends her teenage years assimilating the ‘Bracelets’ and the other teenage girls in her school. However, do to a freak accident, Calliope ends up in the hands of Dr. Luce, a specialist in sexual disorders and gender identity. When Calliope finds out that she is a hermaphrodite, she thinks she is, based on the dictionary’s definition of hermaphrodite, a “Monster. Now perceptive to the fact that her genetic makeup is that of a male, ‘Cal’ is now forced to adopt the life of a young man. Cal’s path, now diverging in the opposite direction, has him fighting everything he has been and everything he has tried so hard to assimilate his whole life, for who he really was all along. This news has Cal feeling more isolated than ever, not knowing how to act or what to do, he constantly finds himself “flipping his hair” and doing things that were natural to him, but now has to change.
In an effort to find his inner male, Cal cuts his hair, where’s male clothing, and goes out west to find his place in the world. Once in California, Cal meets Zora, a hermaphrodite who is comfortable with herself and knows who she is. Cal exclaims, “I wasn’t the only one! Listening to Zora, that was mainly what hit home with me. I knew right then that I had to stay in San Francisco for a while. Fate or Luck had brought me here and I had to take from it what I needed… I just wanted to stay with Zora, to learn from her, and to be less alone in the world” (489). Cal finally had someone to assimilate; someone who was in his same situation.
The unique part of Cal’s journey, is that he spent his whole life trying to be one thing or another, but at this point, Cal knows who he is, and is learning how to be comfortable in his own skin. Cal in the end returns home for Milton’s funeral, and finally has a sense of closure. Cal comments, “The wind swept over the crusted snow into my Byzantine face, which was the face of my grandfather and of the American girl I had once been” (529). Lefty and Milton both aspired to, and achieved their respective piece of the American Dream, assimilating the culture that they were surrounded by.
Meanwhile, their Greek heritage disintegrated into nothing but Desdemona’s memories. However, Cal lived the life of three people: a young, scared girl, different than the others; an isolated boy, who was lonely and lost, feeling different and inadequate; and the strong willed man, with a lot of baggage, but a strong sense of self, comfortable in his own skin. Eugenides novel ironically goes full circle, starting with a humble Greek couple, to an Americanized second and third generation, but ends with a Greek funerary tradition, showing that heritage is always a part of one’s self.
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