More than Just a Name

While reflecting on recent class discussions and blogs concerning the novel Middlesex written by Jeffrey Eugenides, I could not help but think about the debate over whether Jeffrey Eugenides chose Detroit because he was from Detroit and knew the city well or if there was a greater purpose at hand.  This thinking caused me to take a closer look at Middlesex.  But in this attempt to find insights on Eugenides’s choice of setting the novel in Detroit, I instead discovered the care to which Eugenides chose the names of the characters.  His incorporation of both humoristic and symbolical names shows his particular attention to detail that indirectly advocates his usage of Detroit for reasons other than familiarity.

Beginning with the more simplistic names, Eugenides introduces Bob Presto into Cal’s story when Cal exits the hotel after a traumatic experience with Ben Scheer.  In search of a means to escape, Presto, Bob, arrives on the scene with a means of transportation.  Not only is Cal’s current problem solved, but Bob also takes Cal all the way to San Francisco.  Later, when two homeless men rob Cal in the park, Bob Presto again arrives on the scene to provide Cal a place of subsistence.  Presto’s quick remedies seem no coincidence.  Eugenides deliberately choose Presto to draw attention to this feature of Bob’s character.

Along these lines, the name Ben Scheer rhymes a little too much with queer for me to overlook it.  Whether it is Scheer’s unusual behavior that resembles no other trucker Cal has previously encountered, the questionable motive behind Scheer’s actions, or whether it is his homosexual identity, Eugenides probably choose Scheer’s name to foreshadow Cal’s unconventional night in the hotel.
Besides Scheer, what about the characters, Myron and Sylvia, that take Cal from Ohio to Nevada.  This may seem like a stretch, but do these names make you think of Milton and Tessie?  After all, they travel in a vehicle resembling a home – an RV.  Additionally, Cal seems to take on a son-like role in relationship to Myron and Sylvia.  Furthermore, like Milton’s business oriented character, Myron is a salesman.  Also, Sylvia waits on Myron with tea as Tessie waits on Milton and his friends.

Even if the names Cal encounters on his trip from New York to San Francisco seem a bit of a stretch, they only resulted in my identification of more undeniably symbolic names.  For example, does anyone remember where the name Desdemona was previously used?  If you guessed Shakespeare’s Othello, you would be absolutely correct.  Those familiar with the play Othello, will recognize the allegorical representation of Desdemona in Middlesex to Desdemona in Othello.  As Shakespeare’s Desdemona refuses to follow conventional marriage terms, so too does Eugenides’s Desdemona who marries her brother.1  Also, Shakespeare suggests Desdemona’s sexuality that Eugenides’s similarly associates to Desdemona’s fascination with her father’s porno magazines and her mother’s girdles.  Therefore, as Bob Presto, Ben Scheer, and Myron and Sylvia’s names show evidence for Eugenides’s high level of consideration to detail in writing Middlesex, so too does Desdemona’s name.

I am sure that you can find several more examples of name significance in this book, and I believe it would be extremely interesting to hear others or different interpretations of the ones that I have presented here.  But before I leave the development of this blog to the rest of my classmates, there is one name that caught my particular attention and has since then baffled me.  What about Julie Kikuchi?  It seems that Julie may be Cal’s final lover in the end and offers rays of hope, but did you know that Kikuchi is a type of disease?  Kikuchi is a lymphatic disease that often occurs unnoticed or is misdiagnosed.2  Either way, Kikuchi causes lymph inflation and can cure itself over a couple of months.2  So why does Eugenides give Julie a last name associated with an often unnoticed and subsequently untreated yet self-curable disease?  Perhaps it suggests that Julie has a prior misfortune that attracts her to Cal in the same manner that Olivia, Cal’s first girlfriend, appreciated Cal’s enlarged clitoris. Or maybe, Eugenides incorporates the word kikuchi because the disease somewhat resembles Cal’s hermaphroditic secret – Dr. Phil fails to diagnose it, and when it is discovered, though no treatment is taken, Cal seems to come to terms with his status.  Whatever the purpose, Eugenides certainly took into consideration several factors prior to giving each character their name, and probably in the same manner chose to set the novel in the city of Detroit.

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Nicole Shen


~ by shennt on March 28, 2008.

One Response to “More than Just a Name”


    I also found the names in the novel Middlesex to be very interesting. First, I am certain that the irony of Jeffrey EUGENIDES’ own name has not escaped him. The Greek prefix eu has multiple meanings: “good, well, normal; happy, pleasing” and means “true” as well. The Greek root gen also has a variety meanings: “ race, kind; line of descent; origin, creation; pertaining to sexual relations, reproduction, or heredity; and more recently, a gene or genes” according to wordinfo. Eugenides’ very name on the cover of Middlesex boldly proclaims the novel’s themes of sexuality, descent, inheritance, origin, and identity: family, personal, and cultural and the struggle to define what is true and normal. How conveniently coincidental…

    CALLIOPE is an appropriate choice; the goddess of poetry is the perfect narrator for a novel that operates in epic form, weaving together the threads of various story lines with divine skill. And of course, the Greek origins of the muse, the literary tradition, and of Calliope Stephanides are essential to Middlesex.

    FATHER MIKE at first appears to be a fitting description: “one who is like God”, Father Mike appears to be as righteous and holy as his namesake, Michael the Archangel. It is only at the end of the novel that we truly appreciate the irony of this innocent and godly name.

    DESDEMONA, of course, fully lives up to the boldness of her namesake in Othello. Just as Shakespeare’s Desdemona leaves her father’s house and disobeys his wishes by marrying Othello, Desdemona Stephanides also defies social norms when she chooses her own marriage partner: her brother. Both women defy social taboos—one by marrying a black man, the other by marrying her brother—and both struggle with the subsequent consequences of their bold actions.

    REX Reese certainly lives up to his kingly status as a popular high school male, basking in the glory of wild parties and his sexual conquests.

    MARIUS GRIMES—the reference to the god of war is clear when Marius incites his neighbors to participate in the Detroit race riots and particularly in the glimpse we see of him retreating from his attack on the Zebra Room.

    DR. LUCE—perhaps a reference to his “loose” ethical standards in dealing with Calliope’s medical records and with her parents’ concerns? Or possibly the “lucidity” with which he thinks he sees the nature of Calliope’s problem, while both Calliope and her reader know that the only reason his research is so “lucid” is because he skews his patients’ histories to see what he wants to see?

    Of course, it’s fun to get carried away and read too much into character names. However, even without a deep analysis of etymologies and symbolism, it is safe to say Eugenides’ intentional use of ironic and appropriate names certainly contributes to the rich literary quality of Middlesex.

    Kelly Bouquet

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