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Eugenides’s critically-acclaimed novels The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Middlesex (2002) are praised for their inventive point of view and narration. Middlesex won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club.
Biographical and Historical Context
From Grosse Pointe to Calcutta to Gettysburg
Eugenides was born in 1960 to a Greek-American family in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where The Virgin Suicides is set. He attended Grosse Pointe’s University Liggett School, followed by Brown University in 1983. Before graduating from Brown, however, Eugenides had a variety of jobs, including cab driver in Detroit and volunteer for Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India, at her Home for the Dying. He even entertained the notion of becoming a Trappist monk. He later earned a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing from Stanford University. In 1988, he published his first short story in the The Gettysburg Review.
Suicides and Coppola
The Virgin Suicides was inspired by his babysitter who had contemplated, along with her sisters at one time or another, committing suicide. The novel gained the interest of the mainstream public when it was adapted into a film by Sofia Coppola, but the novel had gotten its start when the writer George Plimpton published the first chapter in his magazine The Paris Review. The excerpt garnered the journal’s Aga Khan Prize for Fiction that year. Though the book was unfinished, an agent signed Eugenides, which inspired him to finish the novel. The Virgin Suicides sold to the first publisher who read it.
Marriage and Middlesex
After The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides married and started a family. They traded New York for Berlin, where he finished Middlesex (2002), which was inspired by an autobiography written in the nineteenth century by Herculine Barbin. Barbin was identified as a female at birth and raised in a Catholic orphanage, but at age twenty-two, became identified as a male during a medical examination. Middlesex won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003.
Eugenides’s work has been published widely, including short stories in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Best American Short Stories, and The Gettysburg Review. He has been honored with fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Harold D. Vursell Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. In 2008, Eugenides edited the short story collection, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro. The title of the collection comes from a line created by the Latin poet Catullus, whose pet sparrow was a constant obstacle in his desire for his girlfriend Lesbia.
Works in Literary Context
Many critics find the most distinctive thing about Eugenides’s writing is the point of view. In an interview with 3 AM. Magazine, Eugenides acknowledged the unique narrative voices that have made his work popular with readers and well-received by critics:
I don’t know why I seem to like impossible voices. There’s something I like about … not being able to know exactly where the voice is coming from.
Certainly, that’s the case in The Virgin Suicides where you don’t know how many boys it is. Is it one, two or a hundred, you don’t know. But the voice is compelling and holding your attention and it seems to me that only in novels and in literature can you come up with such voices. So I, at least in these two novels, tried to take advantage of the ability of novels to be told by voices that you don’t encounter every day.
The Voices of Middlesex
In a review of The Virgin Suicides in The Times, columnist Michael Wright wrote, ”Literary novelists are forever experimenting with narrative voices first person (‘I’) or third person (‘she’) in the quest to find an authentic and original means of expressing their vision.” For Eugenides, authentically capturing the self-conscious voice of the Middlesex narrator was difficult: ”The voice was one of the big problems, because I wanted to tell his story in the first person—I wanted this intimate portrait of an intersex person written from the inside.” The novel also features elements of third-person narration, necessary to convey a story that spans generations. According to Eugenides, ”After a while I stopped worrying about the voice from moment to moment, whether it sounded like a woman or a man, I just let the voice be either masculine or hermaphroditic, whatever it was.”
Classical Themes in Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides
Critics find classical allusions running through both of Eugenides’s novels. Some see similarities between the boys in The Virgin Suicides and a Greek Chorus, but the epic Middlesex evokes the most obvious references, particularly since the story deals with three generations of a Greek family. In fact, in a book review for Daily Press, Jeff Turrentine wrote, ”[Eugenides is] well on his way to becoming a spectacular mythologist.” Turrentine describes the ”origin” of the protagonist in Middlesex as ”mythic” and points out that ”Odysseys, shape-shifters, incest, Sapphic lust and generation-spanning ‘curses’ fill the book.” Eugenides was inspired by the ancient myth of wise old Greek Tiresias, who had experienced life both as a woman and a man. Calliope, the protagonist, was named for the goddess of epic poetry.
Works in Critical Context
Critics and scholars find similar themes holding up both of Eugenides’s novels. For example, Mark Lawson of Europe Intelligence Wire compares the novels, noting that while The Virgin Suicides ”reflected on connections between sex and death, its successor considers the links between sex, life and inheritance.” But, critics do find pointed differences: Keith Gessen of Nation believes Middlesex is a ”politically effective” novel that puts ”too much energy” into ”the assurance of the author’s good intentions” and results in ”a measured, highly adequate bloodlessness.” Kristin McCloy of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, however, said of The Virgin Suicides, ”Mordant to be sure, and always understated, Eugenides’s sense of the absurd is relentless.”
Most critics of Middlesex praise the novel’s characterization. Max Watman, in New Criterion, commented that Eugenides made normal ”the experience of a hermaphrodite and turns Cal into something other than a freak.” James Wood, in the New Republic, agreed: ”Eugenides makes Calliope credible: she is not merely a theme.” Joanne Wilkinson for Booklist applauds his ”affecting characterization of a brave and lonely soul and [his] vivid depiction of exactly what it means to be both male and female.”
The Virgin Suicides
In his review of The Virgin Suicides in The Times, Michael Wright noted that ”the extent to which text resonates is utterly dependent on . . . the reader’s creative participation, on his or her willingness to scratch away at the black waxy surface to reveal the bright colours hidden beneath.” Wright also suggests Eugenides ”has a macabre imagination, and he paints his weird images with memorable intensity.” Similarly, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described the novel’s ending as ”lyrical and portentous, ferocious and elegiac.” In the same vein, New York Review of Books critic Alice Truax wrote, ”On [the novel’s] first page, he makes it clear that his title means what it says, and that he plans to spin a dreamy, elegiac tale from its terrible promise.”
- ”Eugenides, Jeffrey (1960-).” Major 21st Century Writers. Edited by Tracey Matthews. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
- ”Middlesex.” Novels for Students. Edited by Ira Milne. Vol. 24. Detroit: Gale, 2007.
- Kakutani, Michiko. ”Review of The Virgin Suicides.” New York Times (March 19, 1993).
- Lawson, Mark. ”Gender Blender” Europe Intelligence Wire (October 6, 2002).
- Mesic, Penelope. ”Identity Crisis.” Book (September-October 2002).
- Turrentine, Jeff. ”She’s Come Undone.” Chicago Tribune (September 1, 2002).
- Wright, Michael. ”Cosmic Tragedy of Small-town Nymphs; Books.” The Times (London) (June 10,1993).
- Moorhem, Bram. ”Bram Moorhem Interviews Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides.” 3 A.M. Magazine. Retrieved October 11, 2008, from http://www.3ammagazine.com/litarchives/2003/sep/interview_jeffrey_eugenides.html. Last updated September 2003.
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