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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Cal’s gene represents the complicated inheritance families pass onto the next generation. He begins his life story by tracing the gene that causes his intersex condition, saying that he cannot analyze his life without explaining where the gene came from. Nevertheless, although Cal makes note every time the gene travels into another person, the actual substance of these chapters are the details about who Cal’s grandparents and parents are as people and the patterns the Stephanides family finds themselves repeating throughout their lives. Therefore, Cal’s exercise in self-discovery through chasing the gene becomes less about the gene itself and more about his complicated Greek immigrant inheritance. The Stephanides family tends to keep secrets close, making it difficult to know each other and themselves, and Cal also relies on lies and secrecy to navigate the dating world, which keeps him from finding love. Even more so than his intersex body, this inheritance of behaviors keeps Cal from moving forward.
Cal relates to the minotaur as a hybrid figure and carrier of a family secret, but the minotaur itself symbolizes Cal’s anxieties around his intersex body. In Greek mythology, Poseidon punishes King Minos by causing Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, to desire a bull. King Minos locks the resulting child, the minotaur, in a labyrinth. Similarly, Cal’s body reveals a family secret of taboo sexual desire—Desdemona and Lefty’s incest—that he hides from the world. Cal’s bodily anxieties also tie directly to the moment Cal finds the word “monster” connected to the word “hermaphrodite” in the dictionary. Cal accepts that he may be monstrous after witnessing the curiosity and fascination the doctors look at him with. The minotaur vaudeville production Cal’s grandparents attend also shows how people fetishize monstrosity, eroticizing its taboo nature. At Octopussy’s Garden, Cal personally experiences this kind of fetishization, with people gaping at his body with both lust and repulsion. Although freeing at first, Cal ultimately retreats from sexual relationships for years after this experience because he believes it confirms his monstrosity and dooms him, like the minotaur, to only be desired through the eroticizing of the taboo.
The Middlesex house symbolizes Cal and the contradictions that make him who he is. Most clearly, Cal identifies the house with the evocative street name, Middlesex, which also refers to Cal as being neither fully male nor female. The house, like Cal, resists labels. Its distinct design freezes it in time as dated, but its style evokes an older idea of something futuristic, making it both passé and avant garde. The house’s out-of-time appearance also reflects Cal’s old-fashioned gentleman persona. The house’s strangeness makes it difficult to sell and a subject of curiosity, just as Cal finds his hybridity to be something that both attracts and repels others. The house’s circuitous stairs mirror Cal’s writing style, both of which meander. The peepholes in the stairwell allow a person to look back where they came from or down at what other people are doing, in the same way Cal’s writing allows him to examine other perspectives and reexamine his past. Like Cal and his Greek heritage, the Middlesex House comes from a proud history, an architectural movement that the white Anglo-Saxon protestant neighbors, “real” Americans, do not appreciate.