Ethnicity and ethnic identity in Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex"

Thesis (M.A.), 2005

88 Pages, Grade: 1,5



1. Definitions
1.1 Ethnicity and Ethnic Identity
1.2 The Tradition of Ethnic Writing
1.2.1 Historiographic Metafiction
1.2.2 Middlesex as an Ethnic Novel
1.3 The Concept of Hybridity

2. The Silk Road
2.1 The Road of Self-Transformation
2.2 The Silkworm Image

3. The Melting Pot
3.1. The Concept of the Melting Pot
3.2 Henry Ford’s English-Language Melting Pot
3.3 Lefty and Desdemona: Melted into Amerikanidhes ?

4. Blacks vs. Whites
4.1 The Nation of Islam
4.1.1 Naming
4.1.2 Fard Muhammad: The Master of Self-Invention
4.1.3 Tricknology
4.2 Black-White Relations
4.2.1 The Zebra Room
4.2.2 The Race Riots of 1967
4.2.3 The Second American Revolution

5. Ethnic Group Belonging
5.1 Middlesex
5.2 Milton: Pursuing the American Dream
5.3 Chapter Eleven: With a Knack for Self-Transformation

6. Ethnic Food
6.1 The Mediterranean Diet
6.2 Hercules Hot Dogs

7. In-Between: Cal/Callie
7.1 Ethnic Identity at Baker & Inglis
7.2 The Charm Bracelets: Everyone is Ethnic
7.3 Hermaphrodite: The Middle Way

8. Conclusion

9. Works Cited

0. Introduction: In the Middle of Everything

Middlesex is many genres in one: family saga, coming-of-age novel, science fiction, immigrant essay, love story. Like its narrator, Cal/Callie[1] Stephanides, the novel has many faces and yet remains one coherent story. Starting with the grandparents’ incestuous relationship in Asia Minor in the 1920s, the narrator follows the passage of a mutated gene that finally manifests itself in him/her and makes him/her what he/she is: a hermaphrodite,[2] born and raised as the girl Calliope, who discovers his/her hybrid sex in puberty and decides to live as a man after that, on the basis of his/her genetically dominant male characteristics. Since Middlesex can be classified as a postmodern novel in many aspects, the straightforward and coherent storyline seems contradictory. Eugenides gives an explanation for his book’s hybrid[3] character in an interview:

Middlesex is a postmodern book in many ways, but it is also very old-fashioned. Reusing classical motifs is a fundamental of postmodern practice, of course, but telling a story isn’t always. I like narrative. I read for it and write for it. […] But I wanted to do all this [pass on classical literary forms] without disrupting the story I was telling, without being too modernist or postmodernist. (Foer)

Therefore, Eugenides chronicles the fortune of a Greek immigrant family over three generations in old epic tradition. The story is enriched with postmodern elements through its linking of personal experiences and historical events of the time: the immigrants’ arrival on Ellis Island in the 1920s; the Great Depression; the 1967 Race Riots in Detroit and the separation of Cyprus in 1974, to name but a few. Instead of showing the events in a conventional way, Eugenides questions the common perception of history through his representation. This is accompanied by a poetic narrative style, Greek mythology and a most extraordinary storyteller who, at the time of narrating the events that made him/her what he/she is, lives as a middle-aged man in Berlin.

Instead of investigating the most obvious aspect of the novel, namely gender identity, I will focus on the ethnic novel Middlesex with its particular interpretation of ethnicity and ethnic identity. I will demonstrate that these assumed marginal aspects are of unique importance when it comes to their relationship with the main theme of the book: gender identity.

They may inhabit the same body, but in the end the immigrants and the hermaphrodite have nothing to do with each other; there’s nothing about Greekness that helps you understand this hermaphrodite, and there’s nothing about hermaphroditism that helps you understand these particular Greeks. There’s no reason, whether in theme or meaning, that this hermaphrodite should be Greek, except that Eugenides makes her Greek, because he has a Greek story to tell as well as a hermaphrodite’s story. (Mendelsohn)

I would argue that the concept of Greekness in the novel is not just a side effect or accidentally connected to the hermaphrodite story: the connection is clear as the hermaphrodite myth goes back to the Greeks. Hermaphroditus was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. Interestingly, it was in Asia Minor (Cal/Callie’s grandparents’ place of origin) where he descended into an enchanted pool (like Cal/Callie does when working at 49ers). There he was discovered by the nymph Salmacis who immediately fell in love with the handsome man. Despite rejection from Hermaphroditus, Salmacis embraced him forcefully: she intertwined her arms around him and held tight until the gods moulded the two bodies together for good. Two sexes became one.[4] I think the myth is one argument which proves Mendelsohn wrong in his assumption that the hermaphrodite and the Greek have nothing in common. The contrary is the case: hermaphroditism and Greekness belong together and serve Eugenides’ investigation of a hybrid ethnic and gender identity.

Cal/Callie is a hermaphrodite, to be more precise, a person with a 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome, but he/she is also a person of Greek descent and third generation Greek-American. What Americanness means to him/her and the individual characters in the novel; whether they would see themselves as hyphenated Americans or not are questions I will consider in this paper: what is Greek about them, what is American? Such a distinction is difficult to make and the investigation whether there is something like a ‘Greek core’ inside the members of the Stephanides family is an evident topic.

‘Ethnic’ girls we were called, but then who wasn’t, when you go right down to it? Weren’t the Charm Bracelets every bit as ethnic? Weren’t they as full of strange rituals and food? Of tribal speech? (337)[5]

This quote from Middlesex speaks for the whole novel that overflows with different notions of ethnic representation, ethnic identity, ethnic struggle and self-fashioning. Some aspects are rather obvious, others are less so. The passage proves to be crucial for the central idea in Middlesex, which states that everyone is ethnic, even WASPs[6] like the Charm Bracelets. Identity is not fixed but always changing as it is subject to choice and self-invention. Eugenides depicts an overarching concept of the new human being in the sense that the hermaphrodite Zora’s statement “‘ Because we’re what’s next.’” (emphasis added) (552) is the central message. The author highlights the idea of the hybrid self of everyone with a hermaphrodite that combines the hybridity in bodily form.

For a better understanding of my research, I want to give a short explanation of its composition. As ethnicity is a difficult term in itself, I will start with a definition in chapter 1.1 which serves my needs for further investigation. Since Middlesex can be categorised as a postmodern novel, I will limit my discussion of the term to the postmodern context and will thus not include the ethnicity debate prior to 1960. It is also important to note that in the course of this paper, I will use the terms ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ethnic identity’ synonymously. My reason for it is explained by the anthropologist Marco Heinz in his dissertation Ethnizität und ethnische Identität:[7]

Ethnizität und ethnische Identität bilden ein Begriffspaar, das nicht mehr auseinanderzudividieren ist. Ein Überblick über die derzeit gängigen Definitionen und Ansätze verweist sogar eher darauf, daß es sich um Synonyma [sic] handelt, die ein einziges Phänomen beschreiben (oder auch nur zu beschreiben suchen). (Heinz 11)

In chapter 1.2 I will give an introduction to the tradition of ethnic writing and the immigrant novel in order to enable the reader to place Middlesex in a certain literary context. I will demonstrate how Middlesex has features and topics that stand it in the immigrant novel tradition. Eugenides plays with traditional elements, while deconstructing them in a postmodern manner. Therefore, I will give a short discourse on historiographic metafiction in chapter 1.2.1. Chapter 1.2.2 will then go into more detail about the novel itself and aim to explain why Eugenides’ book can be considered an ethnic novel. Leading on to ethnic identity, chapter 1.3 will be dedicated to the term ‘hybridity.’ Hybridity describes the key identity concept in the book and will be a phrase reappearing throughout my work.

The main chapters cover passages in the book which I consider as important concerning the subject of ethnicity. Some chapters are titled the same as the corresponding chapters in Middlesex and are arranged according to the chronology of events in the book. This starts with Cal/Callie’s grandparents and their migration to America and ends with Cal/Callie’s hybrid identity. As a variation from the storyline of the novel, respective characters are treated entirely in one chapter, neglecting their appearance/development throughout the book. Others, like Desdemona for instance, will be referred to in almost every chapter.

In my second chapter titled “The Silk Road” I will deal with Lefty’s and Desdemona’s passage to the United States and their self-invention before continuing with the phenomenon of self-transformation and self-fashioning in chapter three. As the chapter “Henry Ford’s English-Language Melting Pot” in Middlesex is concerned with the historical melting pot rituals performed by the Ford English School in the 1920s, I will investigate those passages in regard to their relation to the American concept of the melting pot and the meaning it has in the novel. Elaborating on the melting pot concept and its influence on Lefty and Desdemona will be the subject of 3.2 (Lefty) and 3.3 (Lefty and Desdemona).

Where the melting pot failed, black-white relations come in and are of significance when dealing with ethnicity in Middlesex. I will focus on these in two sub-chapters: the black religious organization of the Nation of Islam and their ideology in chapter 4.1 and the Detroit Race Riots of 1967 in chapter 4.2. The Race Riots are tellingly called “The Second American Revolution” (280) by the narrator and can thus be considered as particularly important when it comes to defining ‘Americanness.’ The deeper meaning of this statement will be the focus of 4.2.3.

Discrimination against certain ethnic groups, ethnic group belonging and the importance of family will be depicted in chapter five, before focusing on the contradictory figures of Milton (5.2) and Chapter Eleven (5.3) and their ethnic identity. As Richard D. Alba has already noted in his study Ethnic Identity: “eating ethnically [...] is likely to remain the most common of ethnic cultural experiences” (Alba 299), ethnic food will be the theme in chapter six which starts with “The Mediterranean Diet” (6.1) and moves on to ethnic food in the professional sphere with “Hercules Hot Dogs” (6.2).

I will then deal with Cal/Callie and his/her first awareness of his/her own ethnicity at the Baker & Inglis School for Girls with its strong Anglo-Saxon dominance (8.1), embodied in a group of WASP girls, the Charm Bracelets (8.2). How that school environment and his/her bodily metamorphosis contribute to Cal/Callie’s redefinition of him-/herself will be investigated in chapter 7.3 “Hermaphrodite: The Middle Way.” Here, I will take a closer look at Eugenides’ concept of the hermaphrodite and Cal/Callie’s coming to terms with his/her hybrid identity, not only in regard to his/her ethnic identity, but also of him/her standing between the genders as a hermaphrodite.

1. Definitions

1.1 Ethnicity and Ethnic Identity

Ethnicity is thus constantly being invented anew in contemporary America. (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 14)

Werner Sollors’ statement is central to the debate on ethnicity and ethnic identity in American literature and culture in the 1980s. Instead of sticking to the old and fixed concept of ethnicity as merely a term for ancestry and race, he emphasises the free will of every person and the possibility to choose his or her ethnicity based on consent and descent. While relations of descent are those defined by blood or nature that one cannot change, consent relationships are chosen voluntary, such as marriage: “consent language stresses our abilities as mature free agents and ‘architects of our fates’ to choose our spouses, our destinies, and our political systems” (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 6).

In a society where the American Dream and the self-made man have partly replaced the system of hereditary privilege, ethnicity is, to a certain extent, a matter of choice. The self-made man and the American Dream are old concepts that white scholars have only started to use in combination with ethnicity and race from the turn of the 20th century onwards. Today the discussion is at a high peak – ethnicity and race are more than ever categories of self-fashioning and no longer solely categories of destiny, or biological predestination.

Sollors strongly opposes the popular tendency of only applying the term ethnicity to minority groups, thereby excluding the dominant one: “it is a widespread practice to define ethnicity as otherness,” which means non-standard and at the same time, not fully American, establishing an “‘ethnicity minus one’” (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 25). Although White Anglo-Saxon Protestants have lost their importance as a clearly definable centre and as the standard of American society, the debate of centre and margins still continues. Dominant culture and otherness are still widespread terms in the debate around ethnicity. In a postmodern context, society constantly reassesses anew and distances itself from the idea of a centre with peripheries around it: “The move to rethink margins and borders is clearly a move away from centralization with its associated concerns of origin, oneness and monumentality” (Hutcheon 58). At the same time, postmodernism does not attempt to transform the margins into a centre either: “Postmodernist discourses [...] try to avoid the trap of reversing and valorizing the other, of making the margin into a center” (Hutcheon 65).

Ethnicity has also often been considered a class-linked phenomenon and a working- and lower class style. The common assumption that ethnicity is strongest among socially disadvantaged groups is outdated today. Richard D. Alba rather sees an increasing awareness of ethnicity among intellectuals and the academia, his study Ethnic Identity shows that cosmopolitanism revitalises ethnicity and that an ethnic awareness increases with the level of education:

The notion that education should have a negative impact on ethnic identity is also bolstered by the common view of education as an agent of assimilation. But, on both counts, the analysis disappoints: the higher the level of education, the more likely is the expression of an ethnic identity. (Alba 55)

Nowadays, even European Americans choose to highlight their ethnicity in a time when it is interesting and fashionable to have ethnic roots in the family tree. Ethnic purity is no longer desirable since the WASPs have lost their central role as standard marker in a society of ethnic diversity. Or, as Sollors puts it: “there is a new and strong concern for ethnicity in post-melting-pot America” (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 35), which does not only include the Black Movement and the increasing visibility of Asian Americans, but also white Americans. The Civil Rights Movement with its demand for equality in the 1960s has brought about a new awareness of ethnicity.

Herbert Gans already saw an emergence of the so-called “symbolic ethnicity” (Gans 425) in 1979. According to his thesis, people only choose a few symbolic items from their ethnic heritage that serve their needs and which do not interfere with intermixing socially. There is a discrepancy between feeling ethnic and being so. Symbolic ethnicity allows individuals to form identities that contain some ethnic spice or, to put it in other words, to be more exotic:[8] “for Americans of European background in general, ethnic identity is a choice” (Alba 294). Richard D. Alba sees an emergence of a new notion of ethnicity among white Americans:

The transformation of ethnicity among whites does not portend the elimination of ethnicity but instead the formation of a new ethnic group: one based on ancestry from anywhere on the European continent. The emergence of this new group, which I call the ‘European Americans,’ with its own myths about its place in American history and the American identity, lies behind the ethnic identities of many Americans of European background. (Alba 292-93)

Usually one cannot visually determine a person’s ethnicity, whereas race is quite obvious, meaning that Asian Americans or blacks do not have the same choice as whites when it comes to defining their ethnicity or even re-inventing themselves. An African American who stresses, for instance, his German ethnicity because his mother is German, would not be recognised as such. Therefore “ethnicity can be an option in a way that race never can” (Browder 9). Race has to do with skin colour whereas ethnicity is commonly ascribed to a certain nationality, which is, of course, a rather broad definition because ethnicity is not just about nationality, but about consent and cultural self-understanding of a group.

Race is often considered one aspect of ethnicity. Among scholars, the use of the terms ‘ethnicity’ and ‘race’ is controversial. Milton M. Gordon for instance includes racial groups in his definition of ethnic groups, although he emphasises that “‘all ethnic groups, as conventionally defined, are not races’” (qtd. in Sollors, Theories of Ethnicity xxx). Thus, race is merely a subcategory of ethnicity. For him, physical differences are associated with race, whereas cultural differences are associated with ethnicity. The danger Michael Omi and Howard Winant see in Gordon’s usage of the terms is that all blacks might be considered as one ethnic group, because they are a race, although they might be ethnically different and have their roots in for instance, Africa or Jamaica.[9] In my analysis of Middlesex I have to remain with Gordon’s definition and consider the black community as one ethnic group. My reason for this is that their members are not further distinguished in the novel, either.

Although “[m]en may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent: they cannot change their grandfathers” (Kallen 91), ethnic identity is still up to the individual to adopt or not. Michael Novak states that a person chooses to shape his/her consciousness in direction of one grandparent or the other (in case both are of different ethnic origin). But what really counts is how much importance he or she credits his or her grandfather or grandmother in defining him- or herself.[10] The degree of ethnic identification varies considerably from persons to person. For example, those who are aware of their heritage in everyday life to those who only know that their grandfather once came from Poland, but do not pay any attention to it and accordingly define themselves as thoroughly American:[11] “Knowing where one’s ancestors originated is one matter; regarding oneself as ethnic may be quite another” (Alba 49), or, as Sollors puts it: “The fact of ethnicity, then, does not lie in its content but in the importance that individuals ascribe to it” (Sollors, Theories of Ethnicity xviii).

The question Werner Sollors poses in Beyond Ethnicity is thus: what is the substance of ethnicity in America? This is not easily answered. One aspect is certainly the group emergence and the feeling of belonging:

We shall call ‘ethnic group’ those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for propagation of group formation; conversely, it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists. (Weber 56)

The immigration experience for instance can bind people from different shores together, although Sollors makes clear that “ethnicity does not arise with migrations alone” (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 57). According to him, new group identifications can take place under all kinds of different circumstances. The term ethnicity is commonly associated with migration, but also with lower class and minority status. To move away from these concepts and the enclosed “cultural baggage,” Sollors goes so far as to argue for a new vocabulary in the future, preferring terms of “kinship and cultural codes” to substitute ethnicity when dealing with such matters as “group formation, inversion, boundary construction and social distancing, myths of origins and fusions, cultural markers and empty symbols” (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 39).

In considering different elements that define the ethnic group, Richard D. Alba sees history as a crucial one: “The central role of the past - of family ancestry and group history - demonstrates that ethnic groups are different from many other types of social groups, which are defined in terms of the current characteristics of their members” (Alba 16-17). So it is the past and the collective memory that are partly responsible for ethnic group belonging. This past consists of different components: “an ethnic group defines itself in part in terms of an account of its history, an account which typically has both factual and moral dimensions” (Alba 313). The past manifests itself in many spheres like eyewitnesses’ accounts or myths and legends that have been passed on to new generations. It is this history that has an important impact on people’s ethnicity. As history plays an important role in Middlesex as well, Alba’s statement is particularly interesting in regard to my investigation of the novel. Why history and especially family history are important aspects of ethnicity will be dealt with later on. “Ethnic identities are bound up in the minds of many with family history” (Alba 299) resulting in the assumption that family ties strengthen ethnic identities.

“From a sociological point of view, ethnic identity is merely ‘one kind of social identity, albeit a most important one,’” (Salamone and Swanson qtd. in Sollors, Theories of Ethnicity xx). Every person has different social identities in life, for example Polish-American, neighbour and dentist for example. All these are roles that a person performs in society and can therefore be called social identities and are known in psychology as ‘subject positions.’[12]

This also applies to Middlesex and how ethnicity and ethnic identity work in the novel will be the topic throughout my work, starting with chapter two. In order to give a broader contextual overview, a brief introduction to the tradition of ethnic writing will enable the reader to place Middlesex in this particular literary context.

1.2 The Tradition of Ethnic Writing

[W]orks written by, about, or for persons who perceive themselves, or were perceived by others, as members of ethnic groups, including even nationally and internationally popular writings by ‘major’ authors and formally intricate and modernist texts. (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 243)

According to Sollors’ definition, ethnic literature as well as ethnicity, is a matter of choice and selection based on consent and descent. It is free to anyone to consider him- or herself an Asian American writer, for instance. But when it comes to acceptance by a larger audience, it would be hard for anyone without ancestral roots in Asia to be recognised as an Asian American author. Thus, consent is the key word when it comes to defining ethnic literature.

Appropriate to the discussion is the appearance of ethnic impersonators in literature. One of these was Forrest Carter’s memoir of his Cherokee boyhood in The Education of Little Tree, which was a bestseller in 1991. But soon the faked identity of Forrest Carter was exposed: he was not the Native American he claimed to be, but was even associated with the Ku Klux Klan. His case is not the only one as Laura Browder shows in her study Slippery Characters, Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities: “the ethnic impersonator autobiography, which creatively reconstructs identity using essential racial and ethnic categories, has proved to be particularly enduring in the United States” (Browder 2). The public uproar and debate after Carter’s revelation supports Sollors’ consent and descent thesis. After people knew, they did not see him as a Native American writer any longer. Although one can still argue whether The Education of Little Tree must not be considered a text with an ethnic subject nevertheless.

A counterargument here is the demand for authenticity, which is a predominant issue for ethnic texts in general. Authenticity is often considered a primal feature of the, but is a story necessarily more authentic because the author is a member of the ethnic group he or she portrays? The answer is mostly yes, because one assumes that as a member, the writer has more insider information. However, there can be exceptions, as the ethnic impersonators prove: “For better or worse, ethnic literature has often been read as social evidence; and the ‘ethnic authenticity’ of the work in question (which largely depended on the ethnic background of the author) was therefore a crucial element for ethnic advocates and detractors alike” (Sollors, Modernism 400). Yet, the question arises as to whether fiction has to raise the claim of authenticity at all? Novels have long been read as social evidence although there is no rule that forces writers to be truthful in their descriptions. Ethnic novels can be fictional as well.

When one considers the tradition of ethnic writing and the immigrant novel, some features keep reappearing. Ethnic authors are aware of the fact that their group is often judged by a single book people read and thus tend to identify their achievements with that of their ethnic group as a whole. “While all writers are subject to the commercial agendas of agents, editors, and publishers, ethnic writers have often also felt obliged to engage or battle stereotypical and exoticized versions of personality and ethnic life” (Singh, Skerrett and Hogan 8). They create a hero that functions as a representative of their people. Mary Antin’s The Promised Land serves as an example here, for it is probably the most famous immigrant novel/autobiography and stands within a certain tradition of ethnic writing.

One aspect of the immigrant novel is the ‘homemaking myth’ which is installed by including positive references to the country-of-origin communities. Of course, not everything has been positive in the home country, otherwise people would not have left for America, but there is often a persisting nostalgia about a country of descent. For Mary Antin, this nostalgia manifests in a cake for instance that, in America, never tastes as good as the one she knows from Russia, no matter how it is baked.

Mary Antin’s novel is also a prime example when it comes to defining Americanness. Already in 1912, when The Promised Land was published, Americanness is not a matter of descent for her, but a state of mind and a conviction of American values and ideals that foreign-borns embrace more openly. In this sense, newcomers are believed to make the better Americans. It is also the concept of a makeover, a completely new person that is implied when Mary Antin says: “I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over. [...] I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell. [...] I could speak in the third person and not feel that I was masquerading. I can analyze my subject, I can reveal everything; for she, and not I, is my real heroine” (Antin 3).

Although not even thirty-years-old when writing her novel, Mary Antin considers her true age very differently: “My age alone, my true age, would be reason enough for my writing. I began life in the Middle Ages, as I shall prove, and here am I still, your contemporary in the twentieth century” (Antin 5). In Middlesex, Desdemona’s following statement goes in the same direction: “I’m eighty-four hundred years old” (183). This implies that with the experience of immigration she has lived through much more than other people her age.

Pursuing the American Dream is a theme that is still present in contemporary immigrant novels. ‘Work hard and you will make it’ is a mantra that has not lost its power. When one takes a look at different immigrant novels, there is often the pattern of going westwards and upwards. Westwards when one takes immigration from Europe to the United States, then upwards within the USA while working their way up in society. One contemporary example in Asian-American literature is the novel Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee. Mukherjee was born in India, migrated to Canada, and now lives as an American citizen in California. In her novel, the protagonist Jasmine Vijh flees from a small Indian village to Hamburg, then to Amsterdam and eventually to the United States. But the ‘bad’ South, in this case Florida (where she gets raped and kills the man) is not the end of her journey. From here, she makes her way up to New York and then further West to Baden, Iowa, and finally California “with all that the West as a myth symbolizes, ‘greedy with wants and reckless with hope’” (Pultar 46).

Unlike Mary Antin, the character of Jasmine Vijh is not nationalist and uncritical of America: “In America, nothing lasts. I can say that now and it doesn’t shock me, but I think it was the hardest lesson of all for me to learn. We arrive so eager to learn, to adjust, to participate, only to find the monuments are plastic, agreements are annulled. Nothing is forever, nothing is so terrible, or so wonderful, that it won’t disintegrate” (Mukherjee 181). The Promised Land and Jasmine show that both accomplished and shattered dreams are presented in immigrant literature.

Another feature present in many immigrant novels is the representation of Americanness through symbols such as the American flag or the Statue of Liberty. The arrival at Ellis Island (or Angel Island as in many Asian-American immigrant novels) is as common as the first gaze at the Statue of Liberty, standing for the land of freedom and unlimited opportunities. In chapter 1.2.2 I will show in more detail how Middlesex fits into the tradition of the classic immigrant novel.

If we look at stylistic elements, we often find that ethnic writers feel the need for new forms to express themselves and to convey their message. These innovative aspects include ‘double consciousness’ (W.E.B. Du Bois) and double audience. Ethnic writers work as translators and mediators, they feel the need to explain to outsiders of American society on the one hand, and on the other hand, to the American insiders who have often no idea of the ethnic background of the novel’s characters. This is when the concept of the “marginal man” comes in: “Migration and accelerated culture contacts helped to produce ‘marginal men,’ a term the Chicago sociologist Robert E. Park derived from Georg Simmel’s concept of the ‘stranger’ who is simultaneously inside and outside a community” (Sollors, Modernism 408).

In order to make their texts more accessible to a wider audience, some ethnic writers take up the role of the “‘chameleon’” (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 251). While Sollors is concerned with modern ethnic writers like Henry Roth or Mary Antin, one of the leading figures in Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall, tangles the question of the artist’s position from a postmodern angle:

That is to say, a recognition that we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position as ‘ethnic artists’ or film-makers. We are all, in that sense, ethnically located and our ethnic identities are crucial to our subjective sense of who we are. (Hall 447)

Taking Maxine Hong Kingston as an example again, she felt the urge to explain far more in her second novel China Men than she did in the Woman Warrior because she felt misunderstood in her first book and realised that readers do not have the knowledge necessary to understand the Chinese background and history of her work. Thus she added an eight pages chapter called “The Laws” on the restrictions of Chinese immigration to the United States to her new novel.[13] Other writers, however, refuse to assist the outside reader in understanding the necessary background, such as the author Jessica Hagedorn, who uses many Filipino expressions and therefore a code of references unknown to most non-Filipino readers.

In Beyond Ethnicity, Werner Sollors juxtaposes ethnic and American literature while, at the same time, criticising the mode of excluding famous authors from the pool of ethnic writers. Vladimir Nabokov, Eugene O’Neill and Carl Sandberg are some authors he mentions who have rarely been seen as ethnic writers:

Writers of national fame or of striking formal accomplishments or of international fame are often categorically excluded from the realm of ethnic writing. This is illustrated by the cases of Nathanael West, Eugene O’Neill, or Vladimir Nabokov and suggests the limited scope of what we define –sometimes quite tautologically- as ethnic literature. (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 241-42)

Cyrus Patell supports Sollors’ view in his essay “Emergent Literatures” by saying that there is no place for ethnic writers in mainstream America. To him, texts have a tendency to either pass as mainstream, or to present themselves as emergent: “In short, emergent ethnic writing teaches us about the inseparability of text and cultural context” (Patell 558). Nowadays, the tables have turned. As I described before, to be ethnic is en vogue and the distinction between ethnic and American Literature is no longer common practise.

Middlesex is a good example when it comes to the debate around ethnic writing and the so-called mainstream. The novel presents itself as an ethnic novel and won the Pulitzer Price in 2003 which is one of the most highly acclaimed prizes in literature and consequently part of the mainstream. It has become, and still is, a huge success all over the world so that one cannot talk about it in the rhetoric of marginal or emergent literature anymore. The margin is the centre, the mixed-up has become the authentic. While Eugenides’ first novel The Virgin Suicides is ethnically unmarked and takes place in a predominantly white Anglo-Saxon neighbourhood,[14] Middlesex is ethnically defined with a story that can be directly identified with the author himself.[15] This can be seen as a development in American Literature in general: today, ethnic writing is American writing.

1.2.1 Historiographic Metafiction

In the context of postmodernism, notions of authenticity and truth have become problematic categories to deal with not only in ethnic writing: “there are only truths in the plural, and never one Truth; and there is rarely falseness per se, just others’ truths” (Hutcheon 109). This theory applies particularly to ‘historiographic metafiction,’ a term that was coined by Linda Hutcheon and is used by her almost synonymously with postmodernism. It describes fiction that deals with historical events, but differs from the historical novel in many aspects. Postmodernism distinguishes between historical events and facts. While there is no doubt that certain things happened (events), it is only a tiny amount of occurrences that made it into the historical accounts and have thus become facts. Facts are events that have been given meaning. It “is to make the reader aware of the distinction between the events of the past real and the facts by which we give meaning to that past, by which we assume to know it” (Hutcheon 223).

Historiographic metafiction makes us aware that history is always determined by ideology and selection. “Historiographic metafiction self-consciously reminds us that, while events did occur in the real empirical past, we name and constitute those events as historical facts by selection and narrative positioning” (Hutcheon 97). In this line of thought, everything could become a historical fact if enough attention is put to it. There are many potential historical facts. Not everybody has a voice and we only learn about events that have been considered as important by someone and therefore made it into the history books. Different perspectives and ideologies of the observer can lead to completely different descriptions and interpretations of the same event.

As a consequence, historiographic metafiction questions the degree of truthfulness in writings about history. This can also be seen in Middlesex when Jimmy Zizmo starts an argument in a bar about the historical events in Smyrna and shouts: “‘I sympathize with the truth,’ [...] ‘There’s no evidence the Turks started that fire. The Greeks did it to blame it on the Turks’” (125). It is clear that although he sympathises with the truth, no one really knows it even though Lefty was an eyewitness in Smyrna. Thus, historical truth has to be considered as ambivalent, multi-facetted and simply does (according to postmodernism) not exist. Authenticity and truth are hence difficult terms to deal with. “What historiographic metafiction explicitly does, though, is to cast doubt on the very possibility of any firm ‘guarantee of meaning,’ however situated in discourse” (Hutcheon 55).

The debate around one of the best-known postmodern authors of colour, Maxine Hong Kingston, serves as a good example in this context. Knowing her work, it is not surprising that she has been criticised in the debate around authenticity and truth in ethnic writing. One of her harshest critics is Frank Chin, who attacked Kingston for her presentation of Chinese myths in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts for not being authentically Chinese, whatever that my mean. The idea that authenticity is increasingly lost with the generations succeeding the first generation immigrants is absurd in Kingston’s eyes:

Sinologists have criticized me for not knowing myths and for distorting them; pirates correct my myths, revising them to make them conform to some traditional Chinese version. They don’t understand that myths have to change, be useful or be forgotten. Like the people who carry them across oceans, the myths become American. The myths I write are new, American. (qtd. in Patell 555)[16]

As culture and cultural heritage are never static, it is obvious that certain customs and myths are subject to change with immigration to another country and new generations in order to incorporate the new into the old. They have to make sense and serve people’s needs in a different environment and have, in a way, to be adaptable to new situations.

Robert J. Di Pietro and Edward Ifkovic go so far as to claim in their introduction to Ethnic Perspectives in American Literature that “good ethnic literature uses the ethnic setting to convey universally human concerns and themes” (Di Pietro and Ifkovic 12). Thus, every reader should understand ethnic literature, or, as philosopher Agnes Heller puts it: “‘no culture is absolutely hermetically sealed to all others’” (qtd. in Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 13). This might be true, but ‘universally human concerns and themes’ are problematic in a postmodern approach. If there is nothing like a universal truth, or one truth, there cannot be a universal human concern either. Postmodernism questions these fixed categories of unity and proclaims instead a status quo in difference and particularity. In this respect, ethnic diversity is no longer a lack, but an asset: the ethnically different person becomes the exemplified American and replaces the unmarked white.

1.2.2 Middlesex as an Ethnic Novel

If we take Werner Sollors’ definition of the ethic novel as: “works written by, about, or for persons who perceive themselves, or were perceived by others, as members of ethnic groups” (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 243) we can easily apply it to Middlesex. With the Greek surname Eugenides, the novelist is, without a doubt, perceived by others as an ethnic writer. This is evident in the connection between the story he tells and his own biography which he likes to emphasise: “The book only reflects my genetic make up, part Greek, part Irish: hybrid, like all Americans” (van Moorhem). In addition to that, Middlesex is also about a couple of characters that perceive themselves as members of ethnic groups.

Middlesex is preoccupied with ethnic topics with the Greek-American family and community at the centre of it. Furthermore, blacks and their struggle for equality are portrayed in the Detroit Riots of 1967. Minority groups are not only treated on a historical level in the story. There are several personal encounters with African Americans, whether it is Cal/Callie, who is not allowed to talk to one of his/her father’s black customers in the street, or Desdemona, who works for the Nation of Islam in the Black Belt of Detroit.

Moreover, there is a Jewish family in the neighbourhood in Grosse Pointe and the daughter attends Cal/Callie’s class at Baker & Inglis High School. It is at this school that he/she becomes aware of his/her ethnicity for the first time because the Charm Bracelets, all WASPs, function as centre there and are thus point of reference for his/her ethnicity. At the same time, he/she discovers his/her Greek ethnic roots through his/her English teacher Mr. da Silva, who will be dealt with in chapter 7.1.

When one shifts focus away from the content and the ethnic characters of the novel and looks at the overall structure, it becomes obvious that Middlesex stands in the tradition of the immigrant novel and caters to the reader’s expectation of it. The plot starts with Desdemona’s and Lefty’s lives in Bithynios, Asia Minor, and follows their flight from the Turkish troops to Smyrna. They manage to leave the country masqueraded as French citizens on a ship. For Lefty it is obvious that they should join their cousin Sourmelina in America: “‘We’ll go to America. We can live with Sourmelina.” (48). Motivated by cheerful letters from a relative, as so many immigrants, they make their way to New York and arrive at Ellis Island. The procedures there are depicted realistically and give a historical account. One example is the description of the common practise at Ellis Island to write letters in chalk on the immigrants’ coats in order to indicate diseases.

The first view the newlywed couple gets of America is the Statue of Liberty. Many immigrant novels (Mary Antin’s Promised Land or Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep are only two examples) contain this sight as a fixed image and use it to display the immigrants’ hopes and dreams with this symbolically charged monument. “Closer, crowned with her own sunrays and dressed like a classical Greek, the Statue of Liberty welcomed them. [...] ‘At least it’s a woman,’ she [Desdemona] said. ‘Maybe here people won’t be killing each other every single day’”(87). Evidently, Middlesex makes use of many features of the classic immigrant novel and contains traditional elements like the steerage to America, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The monotonous work in a factory and language schools in relation to the melting pot issue are further recurring topics.

At the same time, as the quoted passage above shows, Eugenides uses the traditional elements with a ‘blinking eye.’ Ironic comments turn the conventional into a parody and make Middlesex a funny novel to read. It is necessary to define parody here through a postmodern understanding, following Linda Hutcheon:

What I mean by ‘parody’ [...] is not the ridiculing imitation of the standard theories and definitions that are rooted in eighteenth-century theories of wit. The collective weight of parodic practice suggests a redefinition of parody as repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signalling of difference at the very heart of the similarity. [...] To include irony and play is never necessarily to exclude seriousness and purpose in postmodern art. (Hutcheon 26-27)

Whether it is Lefty memorising the English translations of Bible passages about eunuchs, or the physical makeover of Desdemona on Ellis Island where her hair is cut against her will; all of these episodes are parodies in Hutcheon’s postmodern definition. With these examples, the novel takes real historical events and facts (immigrants really had to translate Bible passages in order to prove their sufficient command of English) and ridicules them.

But Lefty showed her [Desdemona] the Greek at the top of the card and the English below. He repeated the passage word by word, making her memorize it, whether or not she understood it. ‘We didn’t have enough eunuchs in Turkey? Now we have to talk about them at Ellis Island?’ ‘The Americans let in everyone,’ Lefty joked. ‘Eunuchs included.’ ‘They should let us speak Greek if they’re so accepting,’ Desdemona grumbled. (85)

Eugenides knows the traditional immigrant novel and by taking crucial elements of it, while at the same time parodying them, he achieves a multifaceted picture of the immigrant experience of his characters. For them, neither is everything perfect, nor is everything only bad. Eugenides plays with the traditions by using and abusing the features of the immigrant novel at the same time.

In his book review “Mighty Hermaphrodite,” Daniel Mendelsohn describes Middlesex as a novel with traditional content:


[1] Throughout my work, I will refer to the narrator as well as to the protagonist as Cal/Callie and he/she, thus indicating that his/her sex is ambivalent and at no point of narration clear.

[2] In Middlesex, a hermaphrodite is defined as follows: “hermaphrodite –1. One having the sex organs and many of the secondary sex characteristics of both male and female. 2. Anything comprised of a combination of diverse or contradictory elements” (484).

[3] Eugenides uses the term ‘hybrid’ in connection to different literary genres Middlesex fits into: “I did see the book as beginning with heroic epic narration and then, as it went along, becoming more realistic, more deeply psychological. The book, like its hermaphroditic narrator, was meant to be a hybrid. Part third-person epic, part first-person coming-of-age tale” (emphasis added) (Foer).

[4] For more information see Nathan Tylor, “Origins of Hermaphrodite,” <>, accessed Jan 1, 2005, adapted from Mark P. O. Morford and Rober J. Lenardon, Classical Mythology, 7th edition (New York: Oxford UP, 2002).

[5] If not stated otherwise, all quotations are based on Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (New York: Picador, 2003).

[6] Common abbreviation for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

[7] As Marco Heinz elaborates on the terms ‘Ethnizität’ and ‘ethnische Identität’ not only within a German debate, but refers to scholars worldwide and to the United States in particular, I treat the German terms as a one-to-one translation to the English ones.

[8] For more information see Gans.

[9] For more information see Sollors, Theories of Ethnicity xxxi.

[10] For more information see Michael Novak, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: Politics and Culture in the Seventies (New York: Mcmillan, 1975) 56.

[11] For more information see Alba 49-51.

[12] For more information see Jenny Pinkus, “Subject Positions and Positioning,” <>, accessed Feb 13, 2005.

[13] For more information see Patell 556-57, 575. Also compare: Maxine Hong Kingston, China Men (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) 152-159.

[14] cf. Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides (London: Bloomsbury, 1993).

[15] Eugenides is of Irish and Greek ancestry with grandparents who were born in Asia Minor and worked as silkfarmers. He was born in Detroit and lived in the neighbourhood of Grosse Pointe: “In my own case, I was sent to a private prep school in Grosse Pointe, a place that made me more aware of my supposed ‘ethnicity’ than I had been in public school. This marked me” (Foer). At the point of writing the novel, Eugenides lived (also middle-aged, like his narrator Cal/Callie) in Berlin.

[16] For more information see Patell 554-57, 650-51.

Excerpt out of 88 pages


Ethnicity and ethnic identity in Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex"
University of Hannover  (Englisches Seminar)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
772 KB
I will focus on the ethnic novel Middlesex with its particular interpretation of ethnicity and ethnic identity. I will demonstrate that these assumed marginal aspects are of unique importance when it comes to their relationship with the main theme of the book: gender identity. What Americanness means to him/her and the individual characters in the novel, whether they would see themselves as hyphenated Americans or not are questions I will consider in this paper.
Ethnicity, Jeffrey, Eugenides, Middlesex
Quote paper
Anika Götje (Author), 2005, Ethnicity and ethnic identity in Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Ethnicity and ethnic identity in Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free