3000 West School House Lane  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19144  215-844-3460  penncharter com


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3000 West School House Lane  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19144  215-844-3460  penncharter.com

English Department

Reading & Writing about Middlesex

Reading Assignment:

  • Read the novel carefully; take textual notes; you will have a test on the novel in the first few days of school.

  • Use the following Comprehension Questions to guide you as you read. The questions can help you determine what to read or look for next and what is most important in the story.

  • Spoiler Alert: If you preview all (or many) of the questions at a time, you will ruin the author’s surprises. If you like surprises and want the novel to unfold slowly, preview the Comprehension Questions one or two at a time.

Writing Assignments:

  • Two purposes of the following writing assignments are: to help you actively reflect upon and make meaning of the novel and to help your eleventh grade English teacher get to know you as a student.
  • The author has divided the novel into four sections and calls each section a “book.” Hence, there are four “books” in the novel.

  • You must complete a writing assignment for each book in the novel. (Obviously, then, you will produce four writing assignments.)

  • For each book, select the four Comprehension Questions you find most interesting, and answer each question in 3-4 richly detailed, well-written sentences. If you quote, include a parenthetical citation with a page number.

  • Each writing assignment must be one typed, single spaced page long. So, address each Comprehension Question in about a quarter of a page.

  • Label each assignment with your name, the book about which you are writing, and the numbers of the questions you are answering.

  • Printed copies of all four writing assignments are due the first day of class in the fall.

Comprehension Questions follow on pp. 2-4 . . .

Comprehension Questions

Book One
1. What has greater power so far in this novel: free will or fate?
2. Do you think that Cal has the right to blame his grandparents for his intersex status?
3. Does the fact that Desdemona and Lefty married make their relationship more or less moral?

4. What role does the corset play as a metaphor in the novel? (Given by Desdemona’s mother. . .)

5. What sparked Desdemona and Lefty’s feelings for each other most: their environment, circumstance, or natural attraction?
6. Is there anything that could have prevented their relationship?
7. What does seeing the NY skyline symbolize to Desdemona and Lefty?
8. How is fire a significant symbol during the war scenes?
9. Is Desdemona and Lefty’s marriage on the boat just a show (appearance) or does it legitimize their relationship and increase their comfort in being together?

10. Prediction: Will it matter that the doctor, who knows that Desdemona and Lefty are siblings, is heading to Detroit with them?

Book Two
1. In Greek mythology, the Minotaur was a creature with the head of a bull on the body of a man or, as described by Roman poet Ovid, "part man and part bull". He dwelt at the center of the Cretan Labyrinth, which was an elaborate maze designed by the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus who were ordered to build it to hold the Minotaur. The Minotaur was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. How is this myth symbolically represented in Middlesex?
2. List all of the gender differences described in Detroit. How do these differences compare to the division of genders in Turkey/Greece?
3. Discuss the following quote: “Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913” (95). How do we see this quote defended in the novel? How does the Industrial Revolution and resulting Depression compare to the political and social “environment” in Turkey? Production of silk vs. production of cars, etc. . .
4. What are we to make of Zizmo’s metamorphosis into WD Fard?
5. How does Desdemona’s work in the silk room contribute to her character development?

6. How do the references to silkworms and cocoons on pages 88 and 114 add to the development of this motif?

7. Compare the racism Lefty, Desdemona, and the Zizmos experiences on page 101 to Desdemona’s racism shown on page 142?
8. Explain Desdemona’s statement to Dr. Phil: “I’m eighty-four hundred years old” (161).
9. Compare the silk making industry in Turkey to Detroit.
10. In the Detroit Institute of Arts Diego Rivera was working on a new commission: “a mural depicting the new mythology of the automobile industry” (140). Describe the “new mythologies” described so far in this novel?

Book Three
1. Compare romances of Desdemona and Lefty, Milt and Tessie, and Zoe/ Tessie and Father Mike. What are we intended to determine from the similarities and differences in these relationships?
2. Compare war abroad (Smyrna, WWII) vs. “revolution” at home.
3. What happens when characters in the novel challenge fate?
4. Is the manner in which Cal tells his story connected to the question of his gender? How?

5. Middlesex begins just before Cal's birth in 1960, then moves backward in time to 1922. Cal is born at the beginning of Part 3, about halfway through the novel. Why did the author choose to structure the story in this way? How does this movement backward and forward in time reflect the larger themes of the work, especially in light of Lefty “pretending to live his life in the past so as not to face the present (268)?

6. How is Cal's experience living within two genders similar to the immigrant experience of living within two cultures? How is it different?

7. Occasionally, Cal interrupts his own narrative, calling attention to himself and the artifice inherent in his story. What purpose do these interruptions serve? Is Cal a reliable narrator?

8. What does America represent for Desdemona? For Milton? For Cal? To what extent do you think these characters' different visions of America correspond to their status as first-, second- and third-generation Greek-Americans?

9. "Everything about Middlesex spoke of forgetting and everything about Desdemona made plain the inescapability of remembering," Cal writes (p. 273). How and when do Desdemona's Old World values conflict with the ethos of America and, specifically, of Middlesex?

10. How are Cal's early sexual experiences similar to those of any adolescent? How are they different? Are the differences more significant than the similarities?

Book Four

1. Is this novel meant to be a new "myth"? 

2. After reading about Cal’s adolescence, do you read the narrator as a girl or a boy? What informs your reading?

3.. "Watching from the cab, Milton came face-to-face with the essence of tragedy, which is something determined before you're born, something you can't escape or do anything about, no matter how hard you try" (p. 426). According to this definition, is Cal's story a tragedy?

4. What is Dr. Luce's role in the novel? Would you describe him as a villain?

5. How does Cal's experience reflect on the "nature vs. nurture" debate about gender identity? Why does Cal decide to live as a man rather than as a woman?

6. The final sentence of the novel reads: "I lost track after a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next" (p. 529). What is next for Cal? Does the author give us reason to believe that Cal's relationship with Julie will be successful?

Reading & Writing about Middlesex Page of


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