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Cal Stephanides, our narrator, introduces himself as having been born a girl in Detroit in 1960, and then later reborn as a teenage boy in 1974. Specialists have studied him extensively on account of his genetic condition. Now, at the age of forty-one, Cal has decided to explore the family history that brought his recessive gene to him in order to rediscover himself. He evokes a muse to tell the tale, as did the Greek epic poet Homer.
Three months before Cal’s birth, Cal’s grandmother, Desdemona, orders Cal’s brother, Chapter Eleven, to get her silkworm box. The box contains a silver spoon that Desdemona has used for years to divine the sex of unborn babies of friends and family members. The spoon predicts Cal will be a boy. Milton, Cal’s father, argues that according to science, Cal will be a girl.
Cal narrates how his conception occurred. Milton and his wife, Tessie, both want a girl. According to Cal’s Uncle Pete, having sex twenty-four hours before ovulation will scientifically assure a girl. The family considers Uncle Pete a scientific authority because he’s a chiropractor and because he subscribes to Scientific American. Tessie, however, believes an embryo can sense the love involved in its conception and therefore doesn’t want a clinical approach to having a child. Milton buys Tessie a special thermometer that can measure temperature sensitively enough to predict when she ovulates, which infuriates Tessie. Their argument causes them not to have sex.
The next Sunday, Tessie goes to church thinking about how Desdemona had advised her not to have more children and how her doctor had told her that the sperm theory was nonsense. At the coffee session after services, Chapter Eleven spills coffee on a young girl. Tessie brings the girl into the bathroom to help clean her up. The girl charms Tessie, making her long for a daughter.
On Greek Orthodox Easter, Tessie tells Milton her temperature has gone up. They conceive Cal.
Despite Desdemona’s spoon, Milton refuses to imagine that Cal could be anything other than a girl. Tessie promises she’ll love “it”—the baby—either way, but Milton insists “it” is a “she.” When Cal is later born a girl, Milton gloats. Desdemona laments this failure of Greek tradition and removes the spoon from her silkworm box.
Doctors find Cal fascinating because his brain presents as male, but he was raised as a girl, making him an ideal patient with whom to explore the dichotomy of nature and nurture. Cal imagines rewinding time to his grandparents in Greece.
On Mt. Olympus above the Ottoman capital of Bursa in 1922, Desdemona’s heart skips a beat as she tends to her silkworms. She learns that she has no control over her heart. Her parents died recently in the Greek revolution to take the region back from the Ottoman Turks. Desdemona takes over her mother’s silkworm raising and believes, as her mother taught, that good silk requires purity.
Desdemona hears her brother, Lefty, singing jazz songs inside the house, which upsets her because it means he’s been spending time in bars. Desdemona grew up adoring Lefty, who always entertained her. Now he dons pinstripe suits and sings songs in a language neither of them understands when he goes down the mountain to Bursa. She hates their growing separation and remembers how she promised her mother that she would find Lefty a wife.
Lefty plans to go down to Bursa to sell cocoons, but Desdemona suspects he’s doing something else. He admits to seeing women. Jealous, Desdemona accuses Lefty of sleeping with Turkish sex workers. Lefty argues that their village has no pretty girls. After Lefty leaves, Desdemona takes her father’s worry beads, used by every man of the Stephanides family, and worries over them. She remembers a lingerie magazine hidden under her father’s desk and begins a matchmaking plan.
After attending the market, Lefty prays and then goes to a brothel where he sleeps with a sex worker who looks like Desdemona. Worried about his desires, he decides that he needs to marry a village girl.
Over the next few weeks, Desdemona offers two village girls, Lucille and Victoria, beauty lessons according to the lingerie magazine she found. Lefty feigns interest in the girls. Despite her growing interest in her brother, Desdemona decides to prepare for Lefty to begin the traditional courting process.
Lefty prepares a corsage to give to the girl he chooses and leaves to pay court. Desdemona laments that she will never marry and cries herself to sleep on her brother’s bed.When Lefty goes to Victoria’s house, Victoria meets him posed as Desdemona taught her, copied from the lingerie catalogue. Lefty leaves immediately. Lucille poses in a similar manner, prompting the same reaction. Lefty recognizes the poses from the lingerie catalogue and sees how the girls don’t live up to the images.
Cal interjects how difficult it is to separate the metaphysical idea of falling in love from hormones, especially in the present when we understand everything as predetermined by genes.
Lefty returns home and announces that he’ll marry neither girl and suggests marrying Desdemona instead—after all, they’re third cousins in addition to brother and sister, and third cousins can marry. Desdemona protests, but when Lefty begins to dance with her, she acquiesces.
Down below, the Greek army retreats from the Turks.
While the character of Cal functions only as a narrator in these early chapters, his quest to tell his life story through the story of his family hints at a larger goal of self-understanding and self-actualization. In Chapter 1, Cal sets himself up as if he’s the narrator of an epic poem, comparing himself to Homer and invoking a muse, which ties him to his Greek roots. In telling the story this way he connects himself to his history. While the story he asks the muse to help him with is the story of his genetic mutation and Cal does use scientific language, he truly focuses on the historical details and emotions of his grandparents’ lives, suggesting that Cal does not separate his genetic being from his familial, historical existence. This narrative strategy suggests that Cal seeks a context through which to understand himself. In our brief introduction to Cal in Chapter 1, he implies that doctors have shaped his perception of himself in impersonal medical terms, so by focusing on the people and circumstances beyond his chromosomes, Cal rewrites his identity as being a part of a family and a culture not as the product of a genetic mutation.
Cal’s introduction of himself highlights the fact that his intersex condition has caused others to dehumanize him. When Cal describes how the contrast between his hormones and socialization makes him ideal to study, we see how the medical establishment has made him a research specimen and curiosity. The doctors’ view of Cal as a way to explore nature versus nurture reduces Cal’s lived experience, full of family, friends, and traditions, to a scientific term like “socialization.” Hints of the dehumanization to come surface in Milton’s annoyance over Tessie using the word “it” to refer to their baby as a being with ambiguous gender. Because we generally use the word “it” to refer to objects and animals, Tessie’s use of “it” here equates having ambiguous gender as not having fully formed personhood. Milton corrects her to say “she,” meaning that by bestowing a distinct gender upon their child, he has given her personhood. This disagreement therefore foreshadows the later dehumanization Cal experiences because he does not easily fit within the gender binary.
These two chapters set up various binaries like male and female or science and spirituality only to question how easily separable they truly are. From the very first sentence, Cal troubles the divide between male and female by declaring that he has lived life as both. Since Cal has experienced both male biology and female socialization, he does not fit neatly into one category. In addition, Desdemona uses the worry beads that generally men in the family have used, showing that dividing activities or coping mechanisms along gender lines doesn’t always work, as she assumes the role of leader in her household. The ambiguity of Cal’s gender troubles what Milton believes is a clear line between science and spirituality because Milton’s plan to engineer a daughter both works and doesn’t, and Desdemona’s spoon is both right and wrong. Cal’s musings on his grandparents’ attraction to each other further muddles the distinction because according to nature, siblings shouldn’t be attracted to each other. Therefore, Cal cannot distinguish whether a genetic flaw or something ineffable caused them to fall in love. The fact that we cannot easily separate things that should be opposite to each other in these early chapters sets the stage for the novel to challenge societal perceptions of difference.
Desdemona’s worries in Chapter 2 highlight the extreme burden of responsibility women carry in the Stephanides family. Her mother’s insistence that purity influences the quality of her silk, and therefore the family livelihood, equates Desdemona’s chastity and goodness with her very ability to provide for the family. Desdemona’s mother also places the onus on Desdemona to find Lefty a wife instead of trusting him to find his own, which grants Desdemona reproductive authority in their family. Although we usually associate sons with passing on the family name, Desdemona has the responsibility to ensure that passing happens, making her the ultimate arbiter. Furthermore, in our glimpse of the future Desdemona in Chapter 1, we see her as responsible for preserving the family tie to Greek culture when she uses her old folk ritual to predict Cal’s sex. Her disappointment in Cal being born a girl stems not from personally being wrong but from failing in her duty to maintain the authority of Greek tradition in her family. In contrast to Desdemona’s focus on responsibility and tradition, even back in Greece, Lefty gambles money away and expresses interest in American jazz music and garb, implying that he has the freedom to shirk tradition.
Throughout these first two chapters, characters use appearances to try and construct identities for themselves. For example, even though Uncle Pete has no actual credentials in the realm of reproductive health, he creates the appearance of authority using his certain demeanor, the adjacency of his job to medicine, and the expertise of a magazine. Lefty, in his desire to separate himself from his desire for his sister, dons a more cosmopolitan and American-esque dress, even singing lyrics he doesn’t understand. Despite his outfit and swagger, Lefty still chooses a sex worker who looks like Desdemona, belying that the person he portrays is an illusion. Desdemona tries to construct desirable women out of the two village girls by encouraging them to pose like images from a magazine that informed her own idea of what desirable looks like. Lefty rejects these girls, not just because they don’t look as nice as the models in the magazine, but because the similarities of their poses and the images in the magazine highlight how artificial their pretenses are.