Is Middlesex an Appropriate Queer Studies Text?

Dawn's picture

Dawn Hathaway

October 3, 2008

Critical Feminist Studies: An Introduction

Professor Anne Dalke

Is Middlesex an Appropriate Queer Studies Text?

Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex is a new take on themes of identity that have been explored extensively in past works of literature. It is safe to say that this book doesn't bring any unique subjects to the table, but it does add more information and look at them from a modern and possibly more progressive perspective. The central themes, gender and sexual identity come through as echoes from preceding works. After all, both science and literature are created through the updating of stories as new ideas and thought processes are known. Based on discussion, Middlesex has been seen as a retelling of very important stories, such as the Greek myth of Tiresias, Foucault's Memoirs of Herculine Barbin, and the Easter story in terms of the duality and transformation of identity. Duality and transformation are the key ideas behind the gender identity and intersex themes that are explored in Middlesex.

However, there is another theme in the book that has not been discussed to its full potential - sexual orientation. This theme deserves to be fleshed out a lot farther, because it has the capability to change readers perceive the events in the book. While it is very obvious that this book belongs perfectly in a gender studies course, it is interesting to explore the possibility of its belonging in a sexuality or queer studies course. By taking the book in a different context, would it be as valuable as a learning tool?

The first test to which this theory can be put is to find a parallel work of literature in the queer studies genre with a story that Middlesex could be attempting to retell. If there is a precedent in this genre of similar themes and questions explored, then there is a pretty good chance that a book could continue the discourse in the niche of which it is hoping to be a part. In this case, Middlesex does have something in its favor, because there is an archetypal work of queer fiction that happens to share many of the same ideas as Middlesex: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Written in the 1920's, this book was one of the first explicitly lesbian novels written, and it covers some interesting themes of the discovery and transformations of identity. The Well of Loneliness was included in a sexuality studies course called Here and Queer: Placing Sexuality. Although there was some debate surrounding the true intent of the book in the class context, it was unanimously recognized as a beneficial learning tool. If Middlesex can retell the story and teach lessons just as important, if not the same ones as The Well of Loneliness, it may prove to be an addition to a class like Here and Queer.

The central theme in Middlesex can be found in the text of The Well of Loneliness, although not in such an overt manner. This is some interesting evidence that speaks to the idea of Middlesex being able to retell the earlier story to some extent. The central theme of Middlesex seems to be the idea of intersex, or a duality of identity. This is exemplified through the story of Cal's struggle with his biological intersexism. The Well of Loneliness exhibits what could be looked at as social intersexism, or a better word may be intergenderism. In this novel, the main character, Stephen Gordon was born as a female into a family where the father desperately wanted a son. Stephen was loved by her father, but was forced into a more masculine childhood, because she was treated as a son rather than a daughter. She was also given the name that had been decided upon for the expected son. Stephen's mother did not understand the masculinity shown by her daughter and was very unnerved by it. She in turn tried to make Stephen more feminine. This gender confusion at an early age triggered a lot of the questions Stephen had about her sexual desires. She did not feel like a man, but didn't entirely embrace the category of woman either. When she began to feel sexual desire, she had the influence of society that told her she should desire men, but they seemed relatable to her. She desires the "opposite" characteristics of gender expression that she found in women even though she still identified as a woman. Middlesex shows Cal having a similar struggle. Callie was born, not with masculine traits, but without certain female traits. Tessie was unnerved in the same way as Stephen's mother when her daughter showed less than feminine qualities. Callie desperately wanted to seem more feminine as a young child, so she did things like crossing off a fake menstruation cycle chart in order to make herself seem more like a girl in her own eyes. She too was confused when she found out that she was attracted to women, because society told her she should be attracted to men if she were a real woman. Due to cultural constructs, she was not considered a "real woman" by society's dichotomy in more ways than one.

At this point in both of the novels, if Callie and Stephen had been able to recognize their sexualities, they would have come out to themselves as queer women. However, this did not happen just yet. Both characters needed other sources of guidance in order to get a firm understanding of what they were going through. Both used a library as the space in which they made their breakthrough discoveries, but from there, their experiences diverged. Stephen found the library to be a safe space, because the information she found there was left just for her by her father. Her father had noticed his daughter's gender confusion and desire for women and did his own research, discovering that his daughter was an "invert", which readers today can understand as "homosexual". Stephen eventually came out to herself as what would be considered a butch lesbian in today's terms. Callie had a very different experience, because the library became a hostile environment for her. She had just arrived there after discovering Dr. Luce's notes that told her she was the wrong gender based on her sexual desire for women. Already feeling out of place, she goes to the dictionary to lookup one word she feels the need to decipher a bit more - hermaphrodite. At the end of a highly unflattering definition she finds the words "see Monster". This triggers Callie into making an impulsive, altering decision. She decides that she must fit the dichotomy in order to lose the description of "monster" and must choose a gender. Even though she identified as female up until this point, she chose male so her sexual orientation would "fit". Callie made sure people knew she was the same basic person, but she became Cal, and he was a rejection of the lesbian female identity he used to have. Now Cal would come out to himself as a straight (yet still slightly effeminate when "Callie" emerged) man. This rejection of the queer label does not bode well for an inclusion in the syllabus of a queer studies class.

Another important factor to consider in terms of the two books is the act of physical sex. Having sex just adds another layer for the characters, Stephen and Callie, to sift through when discovering their sexual orientations. Stephen was more honest with herself when it came to what she wanted from the beginning. This can be seen in the fact that early on in the novel, she rejected a male lover, and her first sexual experience is with a female. Callie, on he other hand, had her first "romantic" experience with a girl, yet she resists the acceptance of that event. This translated into the internal conflict that she had when she was in the cabin in Maine with the Obscure Object and the boys. She knows she wants the Obscure Object, but won't allow herself to act on that yet. It is almost as if she makes one last attempt for conversion, though she knows that sex with a boy doesn't appeal to her. She has sex with the Obscure Object's brother, which is unpleasant for her, and she thinks about the Obscure Object the entire time. Her unwillingness to accept a queer lifestyle is extremely apparent in Middlesex to the point where a reader has to wonder whether there are any redeeming qualities for the queer reading of this book. Perhaps Eugenides mans only to affirm the transitional theme and not the exploration of queer sexuality study.

There are many complicated factors that go into deciding whether or not a book fits a particular niche or retells a particular story. In the case of Middlesex, evidence seems to go in a couple of different directions. Based on the particular themes that encompass both books and the emotional journeys of the main characters, the parallels are enough to say that Middlesex could be a modern retelling of The Well of Loneliness with a different outcome from the same exploration. This difference is important enough to distance Middlesex from taking the same niche in a queer studies class. The Well of Loneliness seems much more liberating for lesbian women than Middlesex. The Well of Loneliness does delve into the idea of queer theory with out a future, or queer theory and the death drive (best explained by Lee Edelman), which is explored through various scenes in the book, so it is not by any means the perfect lesbian discourse. However, it was a breakthrough in the 1920's and allows characters to identify as lesbian women and to feel comfortable doing so, rather than making a sudden gender change as is what happens in Middlesex. Middlesex is informative in regards to gender expression and transformation, and is extremely valuable for this class as a study of gender, but it seems very limiting and very dissociating when talking about sexual orientation. Therefore, although Middlesex could be seen as a retelling of The Well of Loneliness, it does not belong in a sexuality studies class such as Here and Queer.


skumar's picture

Middlesex as a variant of The Well of Loneliness

Your bring up an interesting point in your paper, Dawn, that Middlesex does not effectively address sexual orientation. I see where you are coming from. While I have never read The Well of Loneliness, I presume it is a novel about lesbianism. Not to provoke the art of categorization (especially since this class is to rid of rigid societal construction), but is Well of Loneliness considered a 'lesbian novel?' At BN, iddlesex is categorized as 'a transgender novel.' Since knowing this specificity of genre, I disagree with you that Middlesex does not effectively pursue discussion of sexual orientation. Calliope is not entirely male to be gay and not entirely female to be a lesbian, therefore the relapse (or rebirth) of sexual orientiations is effectively demonstated by Eugenides in Middlesex, especially since Calliope is transgender.

I think Anne raises a fascinating question about whether literature should be therapeutic or affirmative. As far as I know, it seems your concern of Middlesex as an ineffective address of sexual orientation emerges because Eugenides complex novel is neither therapeutic nor affirmative. On the other hand, the Well of Loneliness seems affirmative--a more concrete representation of what is feels like/what it means to be lesbian.

Did I get it right? I really want to know how you would respond to my interpretation of your frustration with Middlesex.

At first, I wasn't so sure about Middlesex, about whether I like it or did not like that it was fluid and variable and complex (to say the least). However, after exploring the mind-body relationship throughout Middlesex in my first paper I realized that, like the mind-body problem, Middlesex does not present any definitive answers. It is the intricacy of the mind-body problem that fascinates me about this specific realm of philosophical thought. Then, I realized, I loved Middlesex! Middlesex is, like philosophy, a novel that lacks affirmation. As a reader and as an inquistor, I know I am particularly "pleasured" by complexities and unaswerable questions. It is not because I seek to answer these questions, but because it affirms for me that everything--from philosophy to sex, gender, and feminism--is a sea of complexity...this, for me, is therapeutic!


Anne Dalke's picture

Should literature be therapeutic?

your decision to pair Middlesex with The Well of Loneliness turns out to be a very useful one: it gives you a historical "foil" for thinking about how Eugenides' novel might function in a queer studies classroom, and a means of judging its use-value there. Your noticing the parallels both in the mothers' being "unnerved" and in the "library" scene in each novel makes the pairing particularly neat.

I would actually be interested in your exploring the "divergence" in those library scenes a little more. Both Stephen and Cal read technical texts that tell them how their bodies are identified in contemporary science. What makes that reading so liberating to Stephen, so imprisoning for Cal? Why the difference?

I agree with you that Eugenides' treatment of lesbian sexuality is problematic, and am not sure that saying he may have meant "only to affirm the transitional theme and not the exploration of queer sexuality" either excuses him or explains what happened here; that seems rather like an exercise in "intentional fallacy" that doesn't take us too far.

What might take us a little further is this matter of your final judgment, that "The Well of Loneliness seems much more liberating for lesbian women than Middlesex," which is "very limiting and very dissociating when talking about sexual orientation." For that reason, you say, it "does not belong in a sexuality studies class."

So these are my questions for you:
Should literature be therapeutic? Affirming?
Should we only read those texts which we find positively uplifting?
Which offer us the sorts of role models we are looking for in our lives?

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