“Why Don’t You Just Leave It Up to Nature?”: An Adaptationist Reading of the Novels of Jeffrey Eugenides
By Womack, Kenneth Mallory-Kani, Amy
As parables of human nature, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex act as a duet of adaptationist behaviour in which Detroit-arguably one of the hubs of the American Dream-operates as the fulcrum and the events of August 1974-the apex of the Watergate crisis-function as the lever. Life isn’t meant to be easy. It’s hard to take being on the top-or on the bottom. I guess I’m something of a fatalist. You have to have a sense of history, I think, to survive some of these things. [. . .] Life is one crisis after another. – President Richard M. Nixon
In The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides establishes a spatiotemporal continuum in which humankind shares a range of biological and historical experiences. Eugenides’s characters shift in and out of this continuum via processes of adaptation, or, in some instances, maladaptation. The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex can be usefully understood as a single textual entity in which his characters share a common biology and a similar history. While both narratives converge within a distinct spatiotemporal moment- Detroit, Michigan, in August 1974-their fates inevitably become diffused by their capacity for adapting to change. By its very definition, a continuum refers to a constantly evolving force, and in Eugenides’s case, that force is twentieth-century American life-a world founded by waves of immigration, manifold attempts at sociocultural unification, and the irrevocable sweep of modernity. In itself, post-industrial Americana entails a nationalistic rage for idealism, a frenetic desire for cultural perfection and dominion that produces such phenomena as Prohibition, isolationism, and McCarthyism. This nationalistic zeal for homogenization transmogrifies, in the 1960s and 1970s, into racial disharmony, the political convolutions of the Vietnam conflict, and the sexual revolution.With the disintegration of the nuclear family and widespread cultural malaise in the offing, perfection is simply no longer possible. This reality is made resoundingly clear on the evening of August 8th, 1974, when President Nixon announces his resignation at the climax of the Watergate crisis. In The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, this very moment symbolizes the collapse of American idealism.
Both The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex straddle a spatiotemporal continuum that affords Eugenides a means for commenting upon the idealism inherent in the American Dream. In The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides illustrates the experiences of the doomed Lisbon family, an American success story established through their privileged suburban livelihood, steady income, and a mortgage that promises to grant them literal ownership of a piece of the nation and its destiny. Middlesex depicts the trials and tribulations of the Stephanides family, who immigrated to the United States in August 1922 as refugees from the massacre of Smyrna’s Greek population by Turkish forces, only to arrive in a euphoric America on the verge of economic collapse. They dream of an American perfectionism in which good values and hard work will pave the road to success. Yet the Stephanides family arrives in a country that is trying to maintain this very same ideology of perfection through Prohibition, quasi- xenophobic immigration restrictions, and, much later, a powerful sense of nationalism that blossomed after America’s experiences in the Second World War, culminating in the political witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. As the increasingly convoluted situations of the two families begin to coincide in the American race for financial and cultural dominion, the most significant moment of revelation in Eugenides’s spatiotemporal continuum occurs in the early 1970s-and most particularly during the Watergate scandal. For Eugenides, this is the signal moment in twentieth-century American history, the apex of social change: after more than a decade of racial turmoil, rapidly shifting sexual values, and the cultural cynicism wrought by the Vietnam War, the nation finds itself beset by a political crisis that questions the legitimacy of the American government, the last bastion of its citizenry’s faith and idealism.
Adaptationist criticism assists us in understanding Eugenides’s spatiotemporal continuum by virtue of its attention to the manner in which human beings respond to change, as well as how they attempt to survive and presumably flourish under their new conditions. Adaptationist criticism recognizes the ceaseless conflict between biological and environmental influences upon the nature of human development and individuation. Carroll asserts that adaptationist criticism is “fundamentally opposed to poststructuralist theories” and suggests a wholly distinctive way of reading texts, one valuing the notion that “humans in all ages and cultures display a common, basic set of motives, feelings, and ways of thinking. [Adaptationist literary scholars] believe further that literature commonly depicts human nature, that it is produced by human nature, and that it satisfies the needs of human nature” (“Adaptationist”). Adaptationist criticism is unique in its ability to bridge the sciences and the humanities, fashioning a critical methodology that envelops biology and textuality. As an analytical tool, adaptationist criticism swerves away from the poststructuralist belief that literary characters are simply autonomous textual creations and favours a reassessment of literary personages as reflections of genuine human beings, who- consistently confronted with conflict and choice-must make decisions that impact their capacity for survival. Additionally, these human characters quite often contend with genetic predispositions that disable their ability to make certain choices. Human nature is most frequently responsible for the positions in which many humans (and literary characters) find themselves; driven by their natural instincts, human characters decide to subsist or expire, although their environments may or may not facilitate their desired outcomes.”Literary representations are not disconnected from the material world,” David P. Barash and Nanelle Barash write. “Even the loftiest products of human imagination are, first, emanations of that breathing, eating, sleeping, defecating, reproducing, evolving critter known as Homo sapiens.”
In Evolution and Literary Theory, Joseph Carroll ascertains three levels of interaction between literary criticism and evolutionary psychology, including human nature, cultural order, and individual identity. He argues that human nature involves a wide range of cultural productions, and these “cultural forms are themselves the product of a complex interaction among various innate dispositions and between innate dispositions and variable environmental conditions” (150, 152). Given that much of Darwin’s philosophy recognizes that, in order for civilization to advance, human beings must adapt, we can usefully understand the spatiotemporal continuum in terms of the inextricable relationship that exists between human beings and the ceaseless forces of evolution. With Carroll’s levels of interaction, human nature functions as the determining factor in a given character’s capacity for adapting or maladapting-for living well and flourishing or, conversely, slipping into the oblivion of status quo. Carroll defines human nature in terms of two essential propositions: first, that “innate human dispositions exercise a powerful shaping force on all forms of cultural order,” and second, that “all such forces operate in a tight web of systemic interdependency such that the modification of any one element has a distinct effect on all the other elements within the system” (153). As parables of human nature, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex act as a duet of adaptationist behaviour in which Detroit operates as the fulcrum and the events of August 1974 function as the lever. Indeed, it is the catapult that launches America on its mysterious new trajectory. The multiplicity of outcomes engendered by this neoteric curve illustrate the ways in which human beings respond to biological and environmental interference. In short, the “fittest” of Eugenides’s characters must survive in order to remain on the continuum,much less flourish. For this reason, adaptationist criticism functions as an especially prescient means for interpreting Eugenides’s fictions, which afford particular attention to the ways in which the fates of his characters are explicitly yoked to critical factors involving both human nature (as defined by reproductive instincts and the development of individual identity) and cultural history (the demise of the American Dream in direct relation to the automobile industry’s economic woes, nascent suburbia, and the Watergate crisis).
The capacity for adaptation in The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex manifests itself, respectively, in response to sociobiological and genetic dispositions, in addition to a wide range of historical influences. As a mechanism for examining the ways in which literary characters are motivated by the whimsy of human nature, adaptationist criticism finds its origins in the sociobiological theories of Darwin, who, in Carroll’s words, “succeeds in analyzing human psychology and culture in ways that lead back to causal sequences to the elementary biological drives toward survival and reproduction” (“Adaptationist” 2). How, indeed, does heredity assist us in defining the actions and reactions of literary characters? And what are the factors, then, that permit some literary characters to survive and flourish whilst others weaken and decline? “Characters behave,” Carroll writes, “but they also think and feel” (“Human” 11). And they do so for a reason. At the denouement of The Virgin Suicides, the Lisbon family’s psychologist, Dr. Hornicker, adopts the metaphor of a loaded gun in an effort to isolate the causes behind the siblings’ suicides: “It was a combination of many factors,” he writes in his report regarding the demise of the Lisbon girls. “With most people, suicide is like Russian roulette. Only one chamber has a bullet.With the Lisbon girls, the gun was loaded. A bullet for family abuse. A bullet for genetic predisposition. A bullet for historical malaise. A bullet for inevitable momentum. The other two bullets are impossible to name, but that doesn’t mean the chambers were empty” (247-48). In many ways, the loaded gun represents the enigmatic nature of human existence as it progresses within the spatiotemporal continuum. Dr. Hornicker’s gun metaphor identifies the biological/genetic and environmental/cultural factors that impact our lives. Yet, rather pointedly, the metaphor also allows for the unknown-the mysterious and uncontrollable factors that arise unexpectedly only to upset our trajectories for living within a continuum comprised of evolutionary forces and the realities of social and cultural change. And the spatiotemporal continuum will necessarily continue on its inevitable pace-whether we adapt to it or not. In Eugenides’s novels, the ways in which the characters react to their natural instincts exert a particular force upon whether or not they can adapt. This is especially germane to the manner in which these characters respond to the reproductive/ copulative urge. Eugenides addresses this issue when he introduces the notion of periphescence, which “denotes the first fever of human pair bonding. It causes giddiness, elation, a tickling on the chest wall, the urge to climb a balcony on the rope of the beloved’s hair. Periphescence,” Eugenides adds, refers to “the initial drugged and happy bedtime where you sniff your lover like a scented poppy for hours running” (Middlesex 34). While some of Eugenides’s characters surrender to the pheromonal pleasures inherent in periphescence, others pointedly cleave to the intrinsic human desire for maintaining sociocultural norms and resisting change. In short, they often find themselves adhering to the natural imperative to protect their offspring. It is essential for us to recognize that adaptation and maladaptation are inseparable in terms of their role in the human evolutionary paradigm. As Jerome H. Barkow observes, “Almost every adaptive trait is likely to carry with it a maladaptive consequence (which is just another way of saying that traits have costs as well as benefits)” (319-20).
The reproductive/copulative urge exists as one of the principal biological forces in the narratives of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides. In Middlesex, the novel’s central plot is set into motion when Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides, as brother and sister, fall under periphescence’s alluring spell and allow themselves to act upon their instinctive and primitive reproductive impulses. During their migration from warravaged Greece to the United States, Desdemona and Lefty explode their siblinghood and consummate their marriage in a lifeboat on the Giulia, the Athenian ocean liner steaming towards their new life in America. “Their periphescence,” Eugenides writes, “existed simultaneously with a less passionate stage of pair bonding. Sex could give way, at any moment, to coziness. So, after making love, they lay staring up through the pulled-back tarp at the night sky passing overhead and got down to the business of life” (73). Years later, Desdemona and Lefty’s incestuous inclinations result, quite literally, in a cross- temporal resurgence of periphescence in the complicated sexual relationship that emerges between the hermaphroditic Calliope-the genetically mutated product of her grandparents’ union-and the Obscure Object of Desire. On the one hand, Calliope’s hermaphroditism would seem to be problematic in terms of demonstrating the reproductive urge as an aspect of adaptation. Yet for Eugenides, Calliope’s uncertain gender affords her with the standing opportunity to rebirth herself with a new identity associated with one gender or the other. Calliope has been reared to abide by the socially constructed specifications of femininity; nevertheless, she finds herself irresistibly attracted to the Obscure Object, a fourteen-year-old coed from the all-girls school that they attend. Despite her quasi-female gender, Calliope wordlessly initiates a sexual relationship, both liberating and perplexing, with the Obscure Object: “I reached under her. I brought her up to me. And then my body, like a cathedral, broke out into ringing. The hunchback in the belfry had jumped and was swinging madly on the rope” (387). Beguiled by what seemed, for all intents and purposes, like a lesbian encounter, Calliope and the Obscure Object acquiesce, nevertheless, to the periphescence that they share, allowing human nature to take its immutable course.
For Eugenides, desire and control exist in a dichotomous relationship. As Calliope’s desires for sexual fulfillment manifest during puberty, her parents’ attempts at exerting control-at protecting the sanctity of her alleged girlhood-become more extreme. As if to pacify her mother’s angst over her seeming inability to menstruate, Calliope stages her period, leaving material evidence, which upon its discovery, temporarily alleviates her mother’s fears: “That summer-while the President’s lies were also getting more elaborate-I started faking my period. With Nixonian cunning, Calliope unwrapped and flushed a flotilla of used Tampax. [. . .] My cycle, though imaginary, was rigorously charted on my desk calendar. I used the catacomb fish symbol to mark the days. I scheduled my periods right through December, by which time I was certain my real menarche would have finally arrived” (361). Her mother Tessie’s maternal instincts are peaked by her fears over her daughter’s physical well-being and possible social ostracization regarding her lack of girlish features, which become more (or, indeed, less) apparent after the onset of puberty. The great gender crisis of Calliope’s life occurs when, only scant days after her initial attempts at sexual play with the Obscure Object, she is involved in a fateful collision with a tractor. In the emergency room, the attending physicians cut away her pants and reveal her vague gender for all to see. Determined to rectify their daughter’s confused sexual identity, Calliope’s parents whisk her away to New York City’s Sexual Disorders and Gender Identity Clinic. “It pained them to watch me advance across the sidewalk toward the hospital entrance,” Calliope writes. “It was terrifying to see your child in the grip of unknown forces” (406).
In The Virgin Suicides, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon exert a similar if not more totalitarian sense of parental control as their five daughters plunge into the enervating throes of adolescence. The Lisbon parents, jostled by fears of the rampant promiscuity sometimes desired by pubescent girls en route to sexual maturity, inhibit excessive amounts of social interaction between their daughters and others in their age bracket of the opposite sex. During a brief lapse of maternal/paternal constriction roused by the suicide attempt of their youngest daughter Cecilia, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon host a small party in their basement, allowing the girls to invite several boys-the de facto narrators of the novel-from their suburban neighbourhood. Reminiscing about the event years later as they try to unweave the untidy threads of memory, the now middle- aged men remember that they
had never been to a chaperoned party. We were used to parties our older brothers threw with our parents out of town, to dark rooms vibrating with heaps of bodies,musical vomiting, beer kegs beached on ice in the bathtub, riots in the hallways, and the destruction of living room sculpture. This was all different. Mrs. Lisbon ladled out more glasses of punch while we watched Therese and Mary play dominoes, and across the room Mr. Lisbon opened his tool kit. [. . .] His voice was hushed as he spoke about these implements, but he never looked at us, only at the tools themselves, running his fingers over their lengths or testing their sharpness with the tender bulb of his thumb. (27-28)
In a far more substantial instance of parental deference, the Lisbons allow their four surviving daughters to attend the Homecoming dance with Trip Fontaine, a star offensive tackle on the high school football team, and three other grateful members of his squad. Elated by their newly granted freedom, the four daughters, with Mrs. Lisbon in tow and ever-watchful of their exploits, begin to make preparations for their imminent date. “The week before Homecoming, in fact, she had taken the girls to a fabric store,” Eugenides writes. “The girls wandered amid the racks of patterns, each containing the tissue paper outline of a dream dress, but in the end it made no difference which pattern they chose. Mrs. Lisbon added an inch to the bust lines and two inches to the waists and hems, and the dresses came out as four identical shapeless sacks” (118).
The cause-and-effect relationship that exists between adolescent yearning and parental hegemony reaches its zenith as the girls’ experiences with periphescence spiral out of control. Similar to Calliope’s heightened sexual fervency with the Obscure Object, the Lisbon daughters find themselves reacting at variance with their staunch upbringing as a result of periphescence’s beguiling hormonal effects. The girls’ Homecoming experience finds its origins in Trip’s raging desires for fourteen-yearold Lux, the youngest surviving Lisbon daughter. Despite her misgivings, Lux makes love to Trip on the soggy high school football field after the dance. In the middle of the act, Lux sobs aloud, “I always screw things up. I always do,” but she persists anyway (138). Lux’s lethal dance with periphescence gives way to harsh consequences for all four of the girls, prompting Mrs. Lisbon to exercise the most abrasive form of parental authority at her disposal: a total lockdown encompassing the removal of Lux and her sisters from school and an insistence on complete withdrawal from the outside world: “Given Lux’s failure to make curfew, everyone expected a crackdown, but few anticipated it would be so drastic.When we spoke to her years later, however,Mrs. Lisbon maintained her decision was never intended to be punitive. ‘At that point being in school was just making things worse,’ she said. ‘None of the other children were speaking to the girls. Except boys, and you knew what they were after. The girls needed time to themselves. A mother knows. I thought if they stayed home, they’d heal better’” (142). As with Milton and Tessie Stephanides’s desperate mission to preserve Calliope’s self-esteem and prepare her for a less-conflicted life in a binarily gendered society,Mrs. Lisbon sees herself acting heroically on behalf of her daughters- caught up, as they are, in the euphoria of pubescence and sexual maturation. In both cases, the parents proceed knowingly against the restless vicissitudes of periphescence, of human nature. They are able to countenance the extremity of their actions by imagining themselves to be engaging in sincere quests for personal justice, to be avenging the wrongs or potential wrongs wrought by human nature’s innate pressure upon their offspring. As Ian Jobling remarks, “it is only when we understand psychological universals like the desire for personal justice that we can explore the ways in which distinct cultural forces affect the way they are expressed” (42). In Carroll’s second level of interaction, ideas of cultural order function expressly in the sociocultural construction of group identity. As Barkow reminds us, “any particular culture is likely to include [socially transmitted] information that has genetically maladaptive consequences for some or all of that culture’s participants” (295).What, indeed, happens when literary characters become beset by cultural chaos and disjunction, given that their instincts urge them towards a sense of cultural order and justice? Carroll contends in Evolution and Literary Theory that “innate dispositions vary among groups and individuals, that the innate characteristics of any given individual interact in a reciprocally causal way with the cultural order in which they are situated, and that individual phenotypes often vary from the normative order of that culture.” In short, a symbolic figuration emerges between notions of identity and cultural order. As Carroll points out, individual responses to the world influence not only our conceptions of the world, but the ways in which we establish the realities of our existence (150-51). For Eugenides’s characters, their desired reality exists at variance with 1970s American culture. The Stephanides and Lisbon families aspire to a reality along the spatiotemporal continuum that involves a homogenized American culture in which the promise of the American Dream was sacrosanct, in which gender binaries were rigidly defined, and in which Judeo- Christian values systems went unchallenged. Yet Eugenides pointedly aligns the crucial life experiences of his characters with key instances in the Watergate scandal, literally placing them within the spatiotemporal continuum of the Nixon administration. More simply put, the Stephanides and Lisbon families attempt to do the impossible by daring to exist simultaneously at two distinct moments on the continuum.
Although they hail from different social strata, the Stephanides and Lisbon families merge in suburban Detroit in the late 1960s. As the literal engine of progress for the twentieth century, Detroit represents the heart of socioeconomic American culture, the hub of industry for which the suburbs act as a fortifying mechanism and idyllic shelter for the achievers of the American Dream. “I think most of the major elements of American history are exemplified in Detroit,” Eugenides writes, “from the triumph of the automobile and the assembly line to the blight of racism, not to mention the music, Motown, the MC5, house, techno. All made in Detroit. [. . .] In telling a little bit of Detroit history, I was telling the story of the nation as a whole” (qtd. in van Moorhem). In Eugenides’s fictive world, the residents of suburban America function as the ultimate believers in the figurehead of American values and security, and the traumas of Watergate act as a crushing blow to the idealism at the heart of middle-class values. While the last gasps of the Nixon Administration are being exhaled in Washington, DC, ground zero for the political crisis turns out to be the glossy and pristine suburban outskirts of American industrial progress. In The Virgin Suicides, the action of which occurs almost entirely within the parameters of the Watergate scandal, Eugenides carefully mirrors the events leading up to President Nixon’s political ruin with similar moments of disjunction and devolution in the Lisbon household-and the novelist takes great pains, in both narratives, to ensure that key events in the death throes of the Nixon administration coincide with evolutionary moments in the lives of his characters. Cecilia, the youngest Lisbon daughter, begins her suicidal journey on Tuesday, June 13th, 1972, when she first attempts to take her own life. The notorious break-in at the Watergate Complex occurs during the following weekend, in the midst of Cecilia’s lengthy hospital stay. She returns home on June 23rd, the day in which reports of President Nixon’s first blanket denials were flooding the national news wires. In a press conference held the day before, President Nixon remarked that “the White House has had no involvement whatever in this particular incident” (Bernstein and Woodward 29). Even more significantly, June 23rd is the date of the infamous “smoking- gun tape” of a conversation recorded in the Oval Office between President Nixon and H.R. Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff. On the recording, President Nixon can be heard initiating the cover-up that will result in his political ruin. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Lisbon household begins its own doomed transformation roughly coincident with the moment in which the cover-up began to take form. “From that time on,” Eugenides writes, “the Lisbon house began to change” (22). On the advice of Dr. Hornicker, the Lisbon parents decide to throw the aforementioned chaperoned party in their basement in a desperate attempt to provide a social outlet for their daughters.Within minutes, Cecilia excuses herself from the party and hurls her body from a second floor window, impaling herself on the spiked fence below. On that same July day, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein link enigmatic spy E. Howard Hunt to the White House, beginning the domino effect that would direct them to covert operative G. Gordon Liddy, senior advisor John D. Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and, eventually, to President Nixon himself.
The dissolution of the Lisbons’ own house of cards would climax with the aforementioned Homecoming dance, when Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon’s experiment in being more lenient, if not more accepting of the rapidly changing world around them, implodes after Lux fails to meet her mother’s curfew. Conducting her own Saturday Night Massacre of sorts, Mrs. Lisbon quarantines her daughters, and soon thereafter, Mr. Lisbon quits his job at the high school and the Lisbon family ceases all contact with the outside world. As with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the Lisbon home plunges into a state of utter disrepair, with the landscaping spiralling out of control, unread newspapers piling up on the front porch, and shingles falling off the roof. Eventually, the house itself begins to decay, producing a putrid smell that floats throughout the neighbourhood, alerting the other suburbanites to the family’s impending doom: “For even as the house began to fall apart, casting out whiffs of rotten wood and soggy carpet, this other smell began wafting from the Lisbons’, invading our dreams and making us wash our hands over and over again. [. . .] We tried to locate the source, looking for dead squirrels in the yard or a bag of fertilizer, but the smell contained too much syrup to be death itself” (165). It most certainly was not death-at least not yet. The girls’ suicides would come much later, of course, after Lux took to having sex with random delivery boys and repairmen on the family’s tattered roof. Their deaths would be forestalled until after the girls’ final, desperate effort to make contact with the outside world. Engaging the neighbourhood boys in a series of late-night musical exchanges, they played popular love songs from the early 1970s to each other over the telephone, culminating with the painful, unerring distance of Carole King’s “So Far Away.” Their meticulously orchestrated suicides occur during the following summer, concurrent with the demise of the Nixon administration.
In Middlesex, the summer of 1974 marks the instance in which Calliope rebirths herself as Cal, bringing the reality of the Stephanides family to a halt, thus allowing her to merge with the progressive movement of the spatiotemporal continuum while much of her family lags behind in another era. Unlike The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex appropriates the tragic conclusion of the Watergate crisis as its point of sociocultural renaissance, rather than as its death shroud. As the hub of industrial Americana, Detroit and its attendant moments of transformation during that same period parallel the disintegration of conventional Western values systems in relation to the Nixonian “fall” of the United States government.While The Virgin Suicides narrates the debilitating layoffs by Detroit’s automotive plants in the early 1970s, Middlesex takes great pains to depict the tumultuous race riots in the summer of 1967, events that would redraw the city’s socioeconomic boundaries forever. In a particularly vivid scene, Eugenides contrasts the all-white police department’s ineffectual attempts to quell the riots with images of young girls donning the ultra- fashionable attire of sexually liberated America in the late 1960s: miniskirts, thigh-highs, and halter tops. As the traffic cruises by scant hours before the riots, the city’s largely marginalized black female population comes into stark relief: Windows are rolling down and girls are bending to chat with the drivers. There are calls back and forth, the lifting of already miniscule skirts, and sometimes the flash of a breast or an obscene gesture, the girls working it, laughing, high enough by 5 a.m. to be numb to the rawness between their legs and the residues of men no amount of perfume can get rid of. It isn’t easy to keep yourself clean on the street, and by this hour each of those young women smells in the places that count like a very ripe, soft French cheese. [. . .] They’re numb, too, to thoughts of babies left at home, six-month-olds with bad colds lying in used cribs, sucking on pacifiers, and having a hard time breathing. [. . .] numb to the lingering taste of semen in their mouths along with peppermint gum, most of these girls no more than eighteen, this curb on Twelfth Street their first real place of employment, the most the country has to offer in the way of a vocation. (236-37)
As with Dr. Hornicker’s gun metaphor in The Virgin Suicides, the riots in Middlesex are emblematic of the loaded gun hidden beneath Milton Stephanides’s pillow: “There are bullets in the gun,” Calliope warns us, “and the safety is off” (236). The riots leave a deep and abiding scar along Detroit’s cityscape, which, as the 1960s fade into twilight, becomes beset by the turmoil of forced-busing and federally mandated desegregation. With their belief in the American Dream still alive in spite of the destruction of Milton’s business during the riots, the Stephanides family follows the evolving national pattern of White Flight, purchasing a new Cadillac and driving to the promise of distant purity inherent in the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. When his dreams of suburban salvation are momentarily derailed by a succession of realtors’ transparent efforts to protect community standards and property values, the immigrant solves the problem, rather helpfully, by paying for the family’s sprawling new home in cash.With his life in these United States secure once more,Milton goes about the business of becoming rich by transforming himself into a hot dog impresario with a chain of fast-food franchises. Is there anything more distinctly American than that? During the same period in which the Lisbons drift off of the spatiotemporal continuum, the Stephanides family reaches the apex of their immigrant experience. Yet only Calliope, it seems, will continue to make her way along the continuum. Hours before undergoing sexual reassignment surgery, she flees the bosom of her family to live her new life as a man. Milton subsequently dies in a spectacular car wreck in his prized Cadillac, leaving his son to oversee the hot dog business, which he consequently drives into bankruptcy.
We can understand Cal’s continued progress along the spatiotemporal continuum, as well as the Lisbon family’s stasis and ultimate disassociation, via the concepts of culturgens and enculturation. The Lisbon and Stephanides families are both influenced by enculturation, the means by which a person “acquires culture simply by exposure to it,” although differently from others because of their separate experiences (Barkow 233). And despite the slight contrast between the Stephanides’s immigrant values and the uniquely American ideals of the Lisbons, the attitudes of both families rely on the inheritance of culturgens, units of culture that are passed down generationally but often do not cohere with the cultural changes that are routinely overlooked by the inhabitants of that particular culture: changes that humans prefer to ignore because of their innate reluctance to accept the inevitable transformation of any culture. “The culture of the next generation,” Barkow writes, “is always somewhat and often very different from that of the previous generation”; hence, a collision occurs between the culturgens amassed by a particular generation and the inexorably altered culture that ensues. The American Dream that so occupies the ambitions of the Stephanides, and, to an extent, the Lisbons (in their quest for continued prosperity in the face of cultural change) no longer resonates in a culture that rejects stagnation. Thus, the two “realities” of human experience (the reality of the continuum and the constructed reality of humanity) become divergent, leading to desertion-by everyone, that is, but Cal-from the uncontrollable linearity of the spatiotemporal continuum. Barkow adds that “enculturation accounts only for the continuity of culture; it cannot account for the evolution of culture,” thus stressing the stilted nature of the process of enculturation, the effects of which contribute to the eventual demise of both families (233). Robert Boyd, a theoretical biological anthropologist, concurs with Barkow and further asserts that “most people think that culture is free from the shackles of biology because it is learned. That’s wrong. Learned behavior is shaped by psychological mechanisms that have evolved, just like any other trait. Culture is special in that it is transmitted from individual to individual and evolves through generations” (Dreifus D2). As with the highly particularized historical moments in which we live, our cultural contexts exert a powerful influence upon our propensity for adapting (or maladapting) to our environments.
In Carroll’s third and final level of interaction, individual identity acts as the defining, combinatory factor in a given person’s potential for either adapting or maladapting to forces of change. “If innate characteristics form a basis of individual identity and of cultural order,” Carroll writes, “all three areas [of interaction] necessarily overlap, but they do not merge into identity.” Rather, individual identity is formed by the amalgamation of both cultural order and human nature within the context of a person’s highly individualized historical circumstances. “Genotypes vary,” Carroll observes in Evolution and Literary Theory, “and while the environmental factors that affect the individual identity include larger cultural forces, they also include quite particular circumstances of personal history that vary a great deal within any given cultural order. Individual identity is not coterminous either with cultural order or with all speciestypical characteristics, both cultural order and human nature can be represented only within the cognitive map of an individual mind” (153). In Eugenides’s novels, this “cognitive map of the individual mind” can be understood via the choices that his principal characters make in terms of their genetic makeup and their responses to the cultural influences of their day. In The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, we can ascertain their capacity for adaptation by addressing significant moments in which extreme choices are made by individual characters. These choices, then, determine their ability to maintain their progress on the spatiotemporal continuum.
In many ways, The Virgin Suicides functions as the neighbourhood boys’ effort to make sense of why the girls chose to kill themselves in the bloom of youth. What choices did they make, moreover, that led to their removal from the spatiotemporal continuum by means of self-selection? “Human cultures include genetically maladaptive traits and human beings frequently make fitness-reducing [maladaptive] decisions as individuals,” Barkow argues. “These maladaptive tendencies have been and continue to be important selection pressures in shaping the evolution of our species” (320). In the case of her daughters, Mrs. Lisbon herself initiates the deathspiral that results in her progeny’s maladaptive conditions. Mrs. Lisbon’s “maximumsecurity isolation” of her daughters represents her last desperate attempt to stave off the sociocultural pressures wrought by sexual liberation and various other paradigm shifts away from traditional American morality (141). Mrs. Lisbon unknowingly creates the confining setting-”one big coffin,” Eugenides writes (163)-that allows the girls to make their deadly decision, severing her daughters from the outside world by extinguishing the girls’ social ties-even going so far as to force the girls to destroy several of their rock albums. In a confused state shaped by a genuine yearning for love and comfort, Lux begins escorting random suitors to the roof of the Lisbon home for a series of sporadic trysts. A feigned pregnancy and a dire need to escape from the increasingly dreary Lisbon household affords Lux a visit to the hospital, where Dr. Hornicker diagnoses her as suffering from a form of manic-depression. “She was in deep denial,” Dr. Hornicker later told the neighbourhood boys. “She was obviously not sleeping- a textbook symptom of depression-and was pretending that her problem, and by association, her sister Cecilia’s problem, was of no real consequence. But even her delight had a manic quality to it,” he added. “She bounced off the walls.” Dr. Hornicker’s diagnosis- which he neither shared with Lux nor her parents- proved to be remarkably accurate, even down to his conclusion that “there is a high incidence of repetitive suicides in single families” (156-57). Could Dr.Hornicker have saved the girls from doom by acting on their behalf, by functioning as a conduit between medical science and their parents’ staunch resistance to allowing their daughters to merge with the external world? Mrs. Lisbon’s own fatal error in judgment found its origins in her belief that the problem was social rather than medical. Even more problematically, she failed to comprehend, as with nearly everyone else in the novel, the evolutionary qualities of her daughters’ predicament. Eugenides makes this point resoundingly clear when he depicts the girls staging a protest against the Parks Department’s decision to remove a diseased tree from the Lisbon lawn: “Three rings formed around the tree: the blond ring of the Lisbon girls, the forest green of the Parks Department’s men, and, farther up, the ring of onlookers.” In a frantic plea to save the tree from demolition, Therese crafts the very argument that might have saved the Lisbon daughters’ lives. “There’s no scientific evidence that removal limits infestation,” she said. “These trees are ancient. They have evolutionary strategies to deal with beetles. Why don’t you just leave it up to nature?” (181). By stifling her daughters’ own evolutionary potentialities, Mrs. Lisbon enacts a fitness-reducing decision to countermand the girls’ opportunities for living well and flourishing. In turn, her daughters make a fitness-reducing choice of their own by killing themselves and, thus, aborting their place on the spatiotemporal continuum. Although her motives were clearly not punitive,Mrs. Lisbon forced her daughters, nevertheless, into making life-or-death decisions while they were lingering in a collective state of psychological trauma.
In Middlesex, Calliope’s moment of evolutionary truth occurs when she decides to accept her biological reality and establish a new life for herself as Cal. It is especially intriguing that an authority figure functions, in both novels, as the engine for adaptation or maladaptation.While Mrs. Lisbon fulfills that role in The Virgin Suicides, in Middlesex that engine is Dr. Luce, who puts Calliope through a battery of tests- including a scene in which he questions her about her level of arousal while viewing a pornographic film-in order to ascertain whether her gender inclines toward maleor femaleness. Ultimately, Dr. Luce suggests to Mr. and Mrs. Stephanides that Calliope become a full-fledged girl, subsequently prescribing sexual reassignment surgery and hormone treatments that will enhance her female secondary sex characteristics. His diagnosis relies on the fact that she had been raised as a girl, that she feels more comfortable as a girl, and most importantly, that society has accepted her as one. Calliope’s life takes a fateful turn, however, when she stages an impromptu trip to the New York Public Library, where she studies the etymology of the word “hermaphrodite,” which includes the term “monster” as one of its synonyms:
There it was, monster, in black and white, in a battered dictionary in a great city library. [. . .] Here was a book that contained the collected knowledge of the past while giving evidence of present social conditions. [. . .] The synonym was official, authoritative; it was the verdict that the culture gave on a person like her. Monster. That was what she was. That was what Dr. Luce and his colleagues had been saying. It explained so much, really. It explained her mother crying in the next room. It explained the false cheer in Milton’s voice. It explained why her parents had brought her to New York, so that the doctors could work in secret. (431)
After surreptitiously reading Dr. Luce’s report, Calliope discovers that she carries an XY chromosome and is a genetic male. Confronted with the eminent prospect of sexual reassignment surgery, she opts to sever all ties with her family, who raised her as a female, in order to live life as a man by transforming herself into Cal. In short, Calliope decides to avail herself of free will. “Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated,” Eugenides writes, “free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind” (479).
In both cases, free will allows the characters to enact the decisions that will set their respective fates into motion. The Lisbon daughters ultimately make a maladaptive, fitness-reducing decision by choosing to commit suicide, thereby removing themselves from the spatiotemporal continuum. Conversely, Calliope makes an adaptive, fitness-enhancing decision that allows her to remain on the continuum despite her traditionally maladaptive traits. Blonde, beautiful, and reared in a middle-class suburban household, the Lisbon girls would seem to be perfect candidates for survival and adaptation, while Calliope, the cultural “monster,” would seem, rather ironically, like one of the least possible candidates for adaptation. Even after rebirthing herself as Cal, Calliope might still be destined to suffer through life as a pariah because- although she is genetically male-she is not environmentally adjusted to manhood. How, then, do human nature, cultural order, and individual identity contribute to the adaptation or maladaptation of Eugenides’s characters? Why do some of us stay on the spatiotemporal continuum while others choose (or are genetically programmed) to fall off? Is it simply arbitrary?
When examined in context with one another, Carroll’s three levels of interaction demonstrate the many competing factors that impinge upon our capacity for adaptation. In combination, these interacting levels determine our position on the spatiotemporal continuum- whether we are destined to progress or doomed to plunge into nonexistence. Barkow usefully compares human cultural traits and individual decisions to the adaptive qualities of monkeys. As Barkow points out, “Monkeys are arboreally adapted, but sometimes they fall from trees, and this is a genetically maladaptive consequence of arboreal adaptation” (294). Hence, despite the possibility for adaptation that is embedded in every human being, we can make individual choices that profoundly affect that possibility. The Lisbon sisters explicitly choose to end their lives, thus actively deciding to remove themselves from the spatiotemporal continuum -an extreme form of maladaptation that is wholly self-initiated. Although Cal indeed finds a way to remain on the continuum, he will nevertheless continue to face interpersonal and sociocultural challenges that threaten to derail his existence. In each case, Eugenides underscores the ways in which the stark realities of sociocultural change are necessarily unknown, their outcomes always remaining uncertain as the spatiotemporal continuum inevitably moves forward. In The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides offers a rather open- ended conclusion in which the neighbourhood boys posit no easy answers to the trauma evoked by the girls’ untimely loss: “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together” (248-49). In contrast, at the conclusion of Middlesex, Cal-”petrified” but “happy”-looks forward to the possibility of enjoying his first, albeit biologically complicated, heterosexual relationship. But there are no guarantees, of course, that he will continue to adapt and flourish. Like genetics itself, all of our lives are infinitely random and unpredictable.
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Barkow, Jerome H. Darwin, Sex, and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1989.
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Carroll, Joseph. “Adaptationist Literary Study: An Introductory Guide.” Ometeca 2006.
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Dreifus, Claudia. “How Culture Pushed Us to the Top of the Food Chain: A Conversation with Robert Boyd.” New York Times 10 May 2005: D2.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2002.
______ . The Virgin Suicides. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.
Jobling, Ian. “Personal Justice and Homicide in Scott’s Ivanhoe: An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 2.2 (2001): 29-43.
van Moorhem, Bram. “The Novel as the Mental Picture of Its Era.” Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides. 3am Magazine September 2003.
AMY MALLORY-KANI is currently pursuing a degree in Visual and Cultural Studies from Penn State Altoona. She serves as an editorial associate for the Year’s Work in English Studies and an editorial assistant for Interdisciplinary Literary Studies: A Journal of Criticism and Theory.
KENNETH WOMACK is Professor of English at Penn State Altoona.Womack has published widely on twentieth-century literature and popular culture. He serves as editor of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies: A Journal of Criticism and Theory and as co- editor of Oxford University Press’s Year’s Work in English Studies.
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