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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
To underscore the way Cal challenges the ostensibly clear binary between man and woman, the novel employs a series of seemingly clear opposites and reveals them to be more entwined than they may first appear. As a Greek immigrant family, the Stephanideses wrestle with being trapped between being Greek and being American. Despite being a second generation American, Callie gets socially segregated with the other “ethnic” kids because her Greek heritage means she will never be American enough for the protestant, old money families. Milton, a US Navy veteran, finds himself supporting the United States’ efforts against Greece, causing other Greek Americans to view him as a traitor. Although Chapter 1 introduces the binary of science versus superstition through Milton’s conception plans and Desdemona’s spoon, the novel muddles this distinction because Milton’s “science” is no more accurate than Desdemona’s superstition. Science often behaves like religion or superstition inMiddlesex , with Cal describing genetics in mythological terms. Additionally, the seemingly clear racial binary between black and white gets muddled by Zizmo, whose ambiguous race allows him to masquerade as a mixed-race man. The way apparent opposites become difficult to separate demonstrates the normalcy of hybridity.
Throughout the novel, moments of death and rebirth often happen at the same time, mirroring Cal’s desire to let go of his past shame and move forward, to be, as he says, “born twice.” Lefty and Desdemona’s new life as successful immigrants begins with the horrific burning of Smyrna that killed thousands. Milton’s birth happens the day Zizmo fakes his death. Not long after Milton buys the house in Grosse Pointe, which marks him achieving the American dream, Lefty has a stroke that causes him to relive his life, going mentally back to the old country. By juxtaposing Milton’s success with Lefty’s decline, the novel depicts the full cycle of immigration under one roof. In his mind, Lefty dies in Turkey, which also represents the death of the old country so that the family can continue to flourish in America. Maxine’s dramatic death during the play brings Callie and the Object together, introducing Callie to the possibility of desire, which creates life. Finally, Milton’s death coincides with Cal’s reintroduction to his family, allowing Cal to begin again at home as a man. These cycles of destruction and rebirth or renewal have a fatalistic rhythm, suggesting that you cannot have one without the other. Though destruction is inevitable, it is necessary and offers a chance to forge a new path ahead.
Cal evokes Ancient Greek mythology, epics, and other literary forms throughout his story as a way to process his life through his heritage. Cal’s birth name, Calliope, is the name of the muse of epic poetry, and accordingly, Cal begins his memoir with the traditional Homeric invocation of a muse. By thus declaring his family story a modern epic, Cal adds a layer of heroism and destiny to his story. However, the contrast between Cal’s everyday life and the often supernatural world of epic is also humorous, which is one way Cal uses humor to separate himself from the intense emotions of his story. In Chapter 23, Cal describes tragedy as being when a character suffers a fate determined before their birth, which can describe Cal’s genetics causing him to be intersex. Cal also uses the Greek myth of the minotaur to process his feelings of shame and monstrosity. Another important effect of the use of ancient Greek literature is the way it connects Cal’s intersex condition to an ancient tradition. Therefore, when Zora explains that intersex figures appear in influential Ancient Greek texts, she affirms the existence of intersex people not merely in the modern world but Cal’s cultural history.