In Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, the government of a futuristic America decides that love is a deadly disease called amor deliria nervosa (or more commonly “deliria”) that must be eliminated through a lobotomy procedure. The novel, told through the perspective of Lena, a seventeen-year-old girl, examines the value of emotionality as Lena’s initial anticipation to receive the cure, a right of passage, slowly dissipates until she actively resists treatment. While the disease supposedly affects all citizens, Oliver solely depicts female characters as being dangerously infected, portraying their actions as extreme and irrational. In looking at the ways in which deliria parallels with the historical treatment of hysteria in women, we can recognize that the experience of deliria is ultimately gendered as the cure for deliria requires the elimination of traditionally feminine traits in favour of strengthening traditionally masculine traits.
The procedure, which cures young individuals of the disease, rather than being an actual and official ceremony, is nonetheless a significant marker of coming-of-age. At eighteen, each young person is required to go through the surgery, and as such, the procedure acts as a passageway into adulthood. Adolescents, who are uncured and unmarked, and therefore, at risk of contracting deliria are transformed from emotionally-driven children into reasonable and responsible adults. While all individuals are required to undergo the procedure regardless of their identity, the experience and portrayal of deliria is nonetheless gendered. The cure for deliria rids individuals of the pleasures and pains of love and its associated emotive states, but the problem is that it is routinely women, rather than men, who are portrayed as being overly emotional and caring (Plant, Shibley Hyde, Keltner and Devine 81). Although men are emotionally expressive as well, according to Plant, et al., they are perceived as stereotypically only expressing anger or pride, which are not emotive states (at least that we are shown) that are met with disgust in Delirium, unlike displays of empathy and care (83). An example of this occurs in Lena’s memory of her mother caring for her after she fell off her bike and a passing woman shamed Lena’s mother for expressing care and empathy (Oliver 114). In a society similar to contemporary America, it is disproportionately women who are socialized into embodying traditionally feminine traits and roles, and therefore, it is the female characters who have to relinquish a significant part of their identity as to be feminine in Delirium is seemingly undesirable.
As such, the transition from girlhood into womanhood requires young girls to abandon stereotypically feminine traits – emotionality, passion, empathy, and care, among others – in favour of typically masculine traits – reasoning, detachment, disconnection and self-interest. The division of feminine and masculine traits ultimately reinforces the notion that femininity is equated with childishness and immaturity while masculinity is equated with adulthood and maturity.
Though all young adults need to be cured, there is a discrepancy within the novel in the way the disease manifests in women and men as female characters are portrayed as more emotionally affected by deliria than their male counterparts. All of the drastic cases of deliria described in the novel, come from women who are painted as “crazed” in their contraction of the disease, closely reflecting hysteria as it was historically understood as a medical ailment: “[hysteria was] understood to be a [form] of love sickness, related to love melancholy… [a] gendered [disease], namely the [disease] of women, particularly young women” (Schleiner 661). At the beginning of the novel, Lena warns of the effects of deliria with a story of a girl who jumped off a roof on the day of her procedure to avoid being cured (Oliver 3). She later references the story of her sister Rachel, who “cried all the time,” “couldn’t eat,” and “spit and hissed and kicked” when it came time for her procedure (Oliver 174). Medical professionals described “hysterical women” as “violent and aggressive, exhibiting dramatic symptoms that call for physical restraint” (Schleiner 671), mirroring the way Lena’s family and restrain her to the bed after knowing she has contracted deliria (Oliver 425). Finally, throughout the novel, she continually recalls what deliria did to her mother, who was never cured, and eventually committed suicide (Oliver 31) which mirrors what Schleiner writes about hysteria as it “was considered a matter of life or death” (672). Doctors suggested that the retention of menstrual fluid and female semen was linked to hysteria (Schleiner 665) – and that through marriage, the introduction of a male presence, a woman could be cured (Schleiner 674). Upon receiving the procedure, young girls and boys are paired off to be married in heteronormative couplings because they no longer experience the symptoms of deliria and are viewed as being able to safely come in contact with the opposite sex – and more so, as needing to marry and start a family to maintain traditional social structures. By paralleling deliria to hysteria, we can recognize how Oliver’s narrative further accentuates the ways in which women have to discard femininity and adopt more traditionally masculine traits in their the transition from girlhood to womanhood in order to be productive members of society.
In order to maintain social order, it seems that what makes one a socially responsible and productive member of society is inevitably a denial of and elimination of character traits typically associated with femininity. The presumption here is that such emotional states distracts members from being reasonable and logical – they risk becoming physically and emotionally unwell and disturbing social order. However, without love, individuals do not feel strong emotive states such as anger and passion, and without anger and passion to drive individuals through their lives, there is no motivation to challenge or change existing social circumstances. Rather than necessarily maintaining social order by making citizens primarily reasonable and logical, American society simply procures citizens (though not always successfully) that do not question the status quo. The division between emotionality and reasoning that is sustained through gender stereotypes and treats emotionality (and by association, femininity) is ultimately challenged in Oliver’s narrative as Lena comes to reject the necessity of the cure in her transition from girlhood to womanhood.
1) Both Alex and Brian (Lena’s assigned life-partner) are the two male characters who contract deliria. Both seem rather rational and in control of their emotions despite their experiences with love. So, does the transition from boyhood into manhood compare to the transition from girlhood to womanhood?
2) While Delirium is an exaggerated example of the way in which emotionality is seen as childish and immature and needing to be eliminated in order to maintain social productivity, in what ways does the novel mirror real life examples of women and men needing to subdue their emotive states for the sake of social order? (E.g. think of how women are supposed to be unemotional in politics or how men are not supposed to cry, etc.)
Oliver, Lauren. Delirium. HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.
Plant, E. Ashby, Janet Shibley Hyde, Dacher Keltner, and Patricia G. Devine. “The Gender Stereotyping of Emotions.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol. 24, 2000, pp. 81-92.
Scheiner, Winfried. “Early Modern Green Sickness and Pre-Freudian Hysteria”. Early Science and Medicine, vol. 14, no. 5, 2009, pp. 661-676.