Summary: Chapter 3: An Immodest Proposal

Cal now lives in Berlin, Germany, working for the American Foreign Service. While riding the U-Bahn to work, Cal sees an Asian woman with a bicycle. Their eyes meet.

Cal appears masculine and operates in society as a man. Occasionally, he’ll find a mannerism of Calliope (his given name) sneak into his manner, as if he’s being possessed.

Back in the village, after the Greeks’ defeat by the Turks, Lefty suggests he and Desdemona move to America to live with their cousin Sourmelina. They decide to find a boat in the city of Smyrna. Desdemona brings her silkworm box and some eggs so they have a means of making money.

The Greek and Armenian citizens of Smyrna take comfort in the French and British warships in the harbor. An Armenian man named Dr. Philobosian reassures his family that the Turks won’t ransack the city under the watch of Allied forces. In addition, he has a letter from an important Turkish official whom he treated that guarantees protection to his family. On his way to retrieve this letter from his office, Dr. Philobosian cleans the wounded hand of a Greek refugee. When the refugee can’t pay, Dr. Philobosian gives him some money instead.

This refugee is Lefty, who uses the money to buy food for Desdemona. He no longer tries to hide his attraction to her. Desdemona alternates between joy and shame. She expects someone to call them out, but no one in Smyrna knows they’re related.

The Greek fleet sails away, abandoning Smyrna to its fate.Turkish forces attack the city, setting it ablaze. As fire rushes through the Armenian Quarter, Dr. Philobosian decides to leave home to help an injured neighbor, despite his wife’s fear. However, when he reaches the neighbor’s house, he has to hide from looters. By the time they leave, his neighbor has died. He rushes home and finds his family murdered by Turkish soldiers.

Sailors on a British ship watch the chaos but have orders not to rescue any refugees for fear of angering the Turks. The captain takes to his bunk, assuring his subordinate that he’ll turn a blind eye to anyone saved against orders while he’s not looking.

Lefty and Desdemona awaken from sleeping on the pier to find the city burning. Pressed close to the water, they see the French consulate evacuating its citizens to ships, but they will only take French people. Lefty asks Desdemona if she’d marry him if they survive. Desdemona nods. Lefty runs to the French consulate, claiming he and his wife are French citizens whose passports burned in the fire. Lefty sees a distraught Dr. Philobosian and recognizes the man who saved him. He insists the French consulate allow his “cousin” passage as well, which they do.

Summary: Chapter 4: The Silk Road

In Athens, Desdemona, Lefty, and Dr. Philobosian switch to an America-bound ship called the Giulia . On the ship, Lefty and Desdemona pretend not to know each other. They don’t speak to each other the first day at sea and elaborately portray their first meeting, starting with glances before making small talk. The other passengers gossip about their budding romance. People speculate about Lefty’s past, imagining him a merchant or a spy. Cal interjects that more than fooling the other passengers, his grandparents were trying to fool themselves.

Eventually, Lefty proposes to Desdemona. They marry aboard the ship using borrowed clothes, performing circular Greek wedding dances. Cal notes that Greeks wed in circles to remind themselves to find variety in repetition and of the necessity of returning to where you started.

In a covered lifeboat, Desdemona strips to her wedding corset. The corset allows her to feel less herself, making it easier for her and Lefty to pretend they’re not siblings. In their lovemaking, Desdemona and Lefty attempt to defamiliarize themselves with each other. Cal interjects that his grandparents smuggled his origins aboard that ship, in the form of a recessive gene they both carried.

Lefty thinks their cousin Sourmelina’s husband can give him a job, and when he raises enough money, he plans to open a casino. Desdemona reminds him that she has her silkworms and that their parents wanted him to go to college and become an academic.

As the ship approaches New York, the passengers devise ways around immigration regulations at Ellis Island. Because Lefty and Desdemona are healthy, literate, and sane, they have no clear disqualifications.

Back in the lifeboat, Desdemona worries over what to tell Sourmelina. Lefty assures her that Sourmelina will cover for them. They fall asleep and awaken to the captain standing above them. They apologize, but the captain merely gestures to the Statue of Liberty. Lefty grumbles that he’s seen enough torches to last a lifetime, but Desdemona finds hope in the fact that a woman holds the torch.

Analysis: Chapters 3 & 4

These chapters introduce how many characters use deception as a strategy for survival. The way Lefty, Desdemona, and Dr. Philobosian, who are Greek and Armenian, escape Smyrna is through pretending to be of another nationality. The immigrants, in preparation for Ellis Island, concoct various ways to disguise any possible reason for their rejection in order to avoid being sent back to their home countries, which were, in many cases, dangerous. In light of these life or death falsehoods, Lefty and Desdemona’s elaborate courtship play functions as a strategy to live with the guilt of committing incest. This juxtaposition implies that self-deception isn’t just helpful for them but critically necessary for their continued ability to exist as husband and wife. However, because of the nature of lying to oneself, creating this self-deception requires Lefty and Desdemona to actually become more distant from each other. Even at their closest, when they finally have sex, Desdemona’s corset, as a symbolic layer between them, ultimately allows them to forget what they’re doing. In other words, in order to continue their marriage, Lefty and Desdemona must force a layer of fiction between them. The future success of their marriage requires that it stay.

The contrast between Lefty’s self-reinvention and Desdemona’s clinging to tradition maps onto the binary of American modernity versus Greek tradition. Whereas Desdemona’s silk skills carried the family through village life, Lefty’s willingness to fast talk and innovate—two very American qualities—get them out of Smyrna. Furthermore, the other passengers on the Giulia mistake Lefty for being of a higher class than he actually is, symbolic of the upward mobility and unlimited potential promised in the American dream. No one mistakes Desdemona for anything but a Greek village girl because of her inflexible clinging to tradition. Her traditional worldview ties to her belief that she must be “pure” to make good silk. While her mother obviously spoke of sexual purity in this teaching, we can also read this admonition to mean free of artifice or deception. Therefore, Desdemona’s understanding of herself doesn’t fit within the mythology of the American dream. Lefty and Desdemona’s family structure created this contrast between them. Lefty’s parents aspired for him to go to university, creating upward mobility for himself, while Desdemona continued on in the family’s traditional business. In this sense, Greek tradition itself allows Lefty more freedom to become American in spirit, meaning these binaries are not so distinct.

By now, Cal as narrator has brought up circles many times, indicating their importance to the novel thematically and structurally. Cal’s belief that one of the roles circles play in Greek weddings is to symbolize the necessity of going back to where you began in order to proceed echoes his impetus for telling his story in the first place: to retrace his lineage and mutation. By learning about his ancestors, Cal actually learns about himself. In Chapter 1, Cal describes his writing project as giving him a sense of “rebirth,” a word tied to the cycle of birth, marriage, and death that weddings represent, again highlighting the role circles and cycles play in Cal’s goal. The creation of a self, in this paradigm, happens cyclically. These early chapters also establish that circles play an important role in the novel structurally. Back in Chapter 2, Cal described his own writing as circular, and now he comments about finding variation in repetition. Cal here warns us that history will repeat itself, foreshadowing that Lefty’s brashness and Desdemona’s fears will resurface later in their relationship and the relationships of others.

In these two chapters, authority figures are at their most humane when breaking official rules. We immediately identify Dr. Philobosian as an essentially good man because he not only helps Lefty but gives him money. The only humane way for Dr. Philobosian to behave in this situation relies on him breaking the rules of commerce and not demanding compensation. Similarly, the Allied officials’ orders that keep their soldiers from helping refugees creates an atmosphere where Allied soldiers can only act righteously through disobedience. The French consulate employee who allows Lefty onto the ship clearly suspects Lefty’s claims. But, because he understands that denying Lefty passage will mean certain death, he breaks the rules and allows him passage. The Giulia ’s captain also refuses to chastise Lefty and Desdemona for their lifeboat trysts because of his nostalgia at seeing young lovers, ignoring boat safety regulations. Giving Desdemona and Lefty their privacy on a crowded ship allows them the dignity to celebrate their marriage as a couple. These chapters thus demonstrate how authority’s strict adherence to bureaucracy and rules can remove the humanity from a situation. This disconnect between behaving legally and behaving humanely echoes Cal’s description of dealing with medical authority in the previous chapters. While different from legal or military hierarchy, the medical establishment still acts as an authority whose regulations dehumanize Cal.