Past Importance in Middlesex and The Lacuna
Although the past has chronologically been removed from present time, “the past is never dead and buried. In fact it’s not even past,” said William Faulkner. The theme of time is a common expression in American literature, as is seen in The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, and Middlesex, by Jeffery Eugenides. Both authors demonstrate the importance of the past by showing past historical event and how they have changed the lives of the characters. Kingsolver and Eugenides use the past and express it’s importance, rather than considering it “dead.”
In the Lacuna, the past was an important part of the present because Lev Trotsky’s past followed into his present, and affected the main character, Harrison Shepherd’s, impression of humanity. When the reader meets Shepherd, he, a young boy, often goes to “the sea again for most of that day,” and has little regard for time, much like when he is older, which contrasts with Trotsky’s past – a past stuffed with important previous actions (Kingsolver, 7). “A false telegram on a train” forced Trotsky to live abroad for the rest of his life, demonstrating the past sets a precedent for the rest of one’s life (Kingsolver 244). Because Trotsky was constantly tracked and under the pressure of death from that point forward, each living moment is more valued. Because Shepherd had such a simple life, with so little regard for the past, is difficult for Shepherd to understand this until Lev is killed. On August 27, 1946, six years after Lev’s death, Shepherd says, “Last week, on the day itself, even the bedroom was too uncertain a place,” inadvertently expresses his grief about Lev’s death (Kingsolver 326). Because Lev was the only father figure in Shepherd’s life to actually call him a son, his death carries much weight for Shepherd. Suddenly, Shepherd’s understanding for the concept of the past is elevated. Before, the past was just a time period that had already occurred, to Shepherd, but Trotsky’s death was caused by Trotsky’s actions 13 years previous to his murder. This realization of the importance of the past is carried with Shepherd, allowing him to better understand the importance of the past.
The importance to the past is also impressed upon Shepherd when his is accused of being a communist, because of ties to the Mexican Communist Party. The American government, already understanding the danger in past experiences, becomes freighted by the prospect of Shepherd’s Communist background and what he might be preaching to the American public when his previous jobs become public knowledge: a translator at the Trotsky trials and a faithful cook to Diego Rivera. The American public, openly fearful of the prospect of the communist party rising in the United States as it did in Russia, completely stops reading Shepherd’s New York Best Selling books because of a “ ‘Ban Harrison Shepherd’ window display,” claiming that Shepherd is a communist (Kingsolver 473). The United States has tried to learn from other countries mistakes, in their past, but are taking measure to the extreme, shutting down livelihoods of innocent people. Never before had his past so drastically effected his present. He finally realizing that he can’t part with his past decides he has to “kill” himself to create a new life.
In Middlesex, Lefty and Desdemona do not need to kill themselves to separate themselves from their past, just move to a new country and get new legal documentation. When they decide to marry, they have to distance themselves from the sibling relationship they once shared. the Smyrna fire allows Lefty was able claim, “ ‘Everything was destroyed in the fire! I lost all my papers!’ ” to the French officials, enabling them to escape Turkey under French visas that state Lefty and Desdemona are married (Eugenides 61). This fortunate turn of events allows the couple to distance themselves from their past, however, they use this as a crutch and do not consider how the past will effect the future. When Doctor Philobosian mentions, “ ‘We know most birth deformities result from the consanguinity of the parents,’ ” Desdemona’s pregnancy is terrorized by her secret past sibling relationship with Lefty (Eugenides 116). Again, Desdomoa is lucky because Zoe and Milton are completely unaffected by their parent’s secret love affair, however, when Desdemona is enlightened to Calliope becoming Cal, she “lived now amid memories and dreams, and in this state the old village stories grew near again (Eugenides 526). Her past, that she tries so hard to distance herself from is stuck in her gene pool, not allowing her to escape. The past is too engrained in a person’s experiences and reactions for one to truly separate them from it, which is what Desdemona finally understands, when confronted with the inevitable fact that Calliope’s XY chromosome is initially her fault.
A person’s past actions and experiences effect the present reactions. Harrison Shepherd is haunted by August 20th because he watched his father figure be ice picked to death, just as Desdemona is frightened of fires, after watching her whole life burn in the Smyrna fires. However, in the Lacuna, neither Trotsky nor Shepherd try to distance themselves from the past. Instead they welcome the past and try to learn from it. In Middlesex, Desdemona wants to pretend the past doesn’t exist, but because of her narrow mindedness, when the past does resurface, it is more of a shock. The past is not “dead,” so it should not be treated as though it is. “The past is not even past” because it still effect the actions of people in the present.
Middlesex as an Epic
Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel Middlesex is one full of interesting and somewhat unique themes. There is no question as to why the work has gone so far as to win a Pulitzer Prize: it follows a pattern that has proven successful for thousands of years. Just as Odysseus and several other heroes of ancient Greece journeyed on epic quests, Cal Stephanides, in all his modern day glory, does much the same. Though his experiences do not involve any alluring sirens or deadly whirlpools, his story does contain several aspects of a classical epic; because of these attributes, it is safe to call Middlesex a modern epic. The novel covers a vast setting, there is an invocation to a muse early on, and there is divine intervention of sorts in regards to the actions of the novel’s characters. Eugenides incorporates several other factors that make the novel a national epic as well.The first correlation between Middlesex and epics of the past is that the novel deals with a vast setting that covers many different countries. In essence, the progression of the novel spans half the world. As stated by critic Samuel Cohen, “It takes its readers from a Turkish village in the 1920s to the race riots of the late 1960s, following a Greek and then Greek American family across time and the world” (Cohen 1). After the fire destroys Smyrna, Lefty and Desdemona, along with Dr. Philobosian, pose as French citizens and flee to America: “On the deck of the Jean Bart, the three new French citizens looked back at the burning city, ablaze from end to end” (Eugenides 62). Like many other immigrants entering the United States through Ellis Island, the couple faces several hardships in their new homeland. Once in America, the journey is far from over. The couple must make the trek to settle in Detroit, Michigan with family. Even when settled, though, troubles still plague the Stephanides.The second aspect of the novel that supports the belief that Middlesex is a modern epic is the invocation of a Muse. In the first chapter of the book, Cal asks a muse to help him tell his story: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, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted the pool of the Stephanides family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, where it drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to the earth in the fertile soil of my mother’s own Midwestern womb. (Eugenides 4)Cal himself jests at the summoning of the divine in this respect: “Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too” (4). This action directly parallels the invocation of the muses present at the beginnings of such ancient epics as the Iliad and the Odyssey.A third, seemingly debatable similarity between Middlesex and past epics is the intervention of the divine in human affairs. It has long been believed that intimate sexual relations between members of the same family are strictly taboo and should never even be considered. However, in the mountains of Greece where the siblings Lefty and Desdemona are raised, the issue is not pressed as much, and the thought clearly crosses the minds of both of them. The two become lovers, and eventually pose as a married couple to gain passage to America. Desdemona ends up pregnant, but luckily the child has no obvious defects. However, further down the family line, at the exact time of Cal’s conception, the gene for hermaphroditism is expressed and becomes a part of Cal’s identity forever. During Tessie’s pregnancy, Desdemona waves a spoon over her stomach in order to determine the sex of the baby: “The sonogram didn’t exist at the time; the spoon was the next best thing” (Eugenides 17). In this way, it is clear to see that divine intervention is wanted by Desdemona. Much to an opposite end, though, the baby is born as a hermaphrodite. One cannot help but think that this is the divine’s way of relaying a message to the Stephanides family. For years, they have been tempting fate with their incestuous actions and immoral deeds. This deviance could not go on forever without something going wrong. It just so happened that this “punishment” fell on Cal, who had nothing to do with any of it. It is interesting to note, also, that Cal does not believe that genetics can completely and accurately explain his situation (O’Hehir 1).From another aspect, Middlesex can also be viewed as a national epic. Cal becomes the amalgamation of several conflicting factors; through this mixing of traits, he in turn becomes the perfect example of the ideas of America. Critic Lisa Schwarzbaum calls Middlesex “a novel about roots and rootlessness” full of “middle-sex, middle-ethnic, and middle-American DNA twists” (1). Throughout his former life as Calliope, the traits of both boy and girl, and Greek and American are all expressed. Because there is no one description for her, Calliope seems to be a “melting pot” herself. She embodies different attributes, but they are all combined in one person. This is the story of America; Calliope is truly allegorical for the American dream.Middlesex can easily be considered a novel of epic proportions. Similarities between the novel and past epics frequent several pages of the work. An extensive journey, calling upon a muse, divine intervention, and Calliope’s personal attributes all set the novel within this classic genre.