Middlesex as an Epic

March 2, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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