YA dystopian fiction is a relatively recent phenomenon in terms of its genre and popularity. It is widely recognised that the female protagonists in YA dystopian novels strive to fulfil a need for representation of powerful female figures that can save the day with their diverse portrayals of femininity and the potential that comes with it. Lauren Oliver’s Delirium can be read as differing from this trope through the negative way the novel brings into play ideas of femininity and autonomy in the lead protagonist, Lena Hallway.
The dystopian element of Lena’s world is the concept that love is now viewed as a disease and therefore eradicated as part of a procedure implemented by the government. Lena is looking forward to being ‘cured’. However after falling in love, Lena questions everything she knows as she begins her rebellion into the Wilds. Throughout the novel Lena Haloway is set up to be as a powerful female character. Arguably the ways in which Oliver writes Lena’s character in relation to passivity, love, other characters and gender dynamics in the novel ultimately contradicts the reader’s expectations what it means to be a ‘heroic’ female figure. Instead Lena comes across as one dimensional, weak, and passive to the point of uselessness.
Oliver’s exploration of relationships within Delirium holds great significance through the way it comments on the construction of femininity and it’s relation to female power. Lena and her best friend Hana often mirror each other and hold parallel stories throughout the novel. Examining their relationship brings to light different ways in which Oliver has undermined Lena’s femininity, and instead pigeon holes Lena as another passive, love struck, female protagonist; seen in many YA novels. Femininity does not have to be viewed as weakness. Hana is invested in fashion, appearance and loved by all who meet her because of her agreeable and bubbly personality. Through stereotypical feminine traits, Hana stands in stark contrast beside Lena as a female character with the potential to be autonomous and hold power outside of a heterosexual relationship dynamic. Lena herself always describes Hana in vibrant terms. Hana is involved in the rebellion much before Lena after she falls in love with music that has been banned by the government for being too “emotional”. This is what encourages Hana to disobey the rules set in place and look for a space where she can truly express and find herself within the arts.
In comparison, Hana’s passion and drive for music is mirrored in Lena’s passion and love for Alex. Hana’s passion only propels her into a more fully formed and dynamic character, whereas Lena’s obsession with Alex merely groups her in as another trope of the YA female protagonist who can only find and save herself and the world, by falling in love and drawing strength and inspiration from a man. Heterosexual love as the reason for Lena’s rebellion and her awakening as a “strong female character” is yet another negative construction of femininity that only goes to weaken female characters and tie their sense of self worth in with a man.
Furthering this, Lena’s passivity is a significant feature of her personality that comments on constructed views of femininity. As Hana encourages Lena to listen to illegal music, she subtly pushes for Lena to rebel with her, which in turn unnerves Lena. Lena addresses Hana’s rebellion by stating, ‘Listen, I’m not going to get arrested just for looking at some websites… We shouldn’t even be talking about this’ (107). It is clear that there is a complete lack of rebellious spirit within Lena’s character. She lives everyday consumed by fear and willing to conform to the oppressive society built around her, and although Hana prompts slight curiosity, it is not enough to impact Lena. Continuing this, there is a crucial moment in the plot where Alex convinces Lena to escape into the Wilds, ultimately triggering her rebellion. Lena hastily informs Alex that she is willing to go with him, ‘I do want to go’ (268). It is through this line the reader witnesses Lena for the first time wanting to rebel. However, Lena needed to be pushed to do so, by a man, and prior to the influence of her peers she would have willingly accepted the rules enforced upon her by the government. It is widely recognised that passivity is viewed as a stereotypical feminine trait, it suggests that a women is typically less dominant and relies on help from a male in order to succeed, thus Lena’s character merely perpetuates the sexist views that exist within our society and in turn highlights the conflict between what the reader expects of her ‘heroic’ character and instead the gender norms and preconceived ideas of femininity that she conforms to.
Oliver sets up Hana and Alex as Lena’s two main combating relationships throughout the novel. Both Hana and Alex are involved in some sort of a rebellion against their government. Lena feels uncomfortable by Hana’s choices and ultimately rejects her longing to rebel, yet in antithesis willingly accepts Alex’s nonconformist attitude. By stating, ‘I feel so safe. I can’t believe anything bad can happen” (267) Lena confirms that she is comfortable doing anything for Alex and that all her trust lies within him, a trait absent from her friendship with Hana. Moreover, this line marks a poignant moment within the text where the female friendship is broken and sacrificed for Lena’s interest in Alex; it signifies that Hana’s push for rebellion wasn’t enough. Susan Lehr writes that ‘heterosexual relationships are more important and supersede friendships and bonds between women’ (Lehr 15), which we can see evident within this point of the novel. The mere notion that Lena is willing to rebel against society for a boy at the expense of her best friend highlights the significance of romantic relationships In YA fiction. It confirms that heteronormative relationships will always overcome and consequently destroy platonic friendships; it places male and female relationships as more important and in turn reinforces the stereotype that girls are ‘shallow, competitive creatures incapable of camaraderie (188)’ for this relationship to be priority to them. The idea that the presence of a male is needed for a relationship to be significant proliferates society’s negative emphasis on fragility of female friendships; it gives men a sense privilege, suggesting that women are reliant on them in order to succeed. Ergo, the friendships explored within Delirium contribute to the formulaic idea of gender roles and femininity with in society.
Love itself is most times characterised as a feminine trait and ideal. The fact that in this dystopian future love is seen as societies biggest weakness already seems to be putting stereotypical femininity at a disadvantage. Though the capability to love is taken away from both genders in this novel, the readers are only introduced and shown female characters that struggle conforming to this new life. Lena’s mothers, her sister, and Lena herself all fall in love before their surgery (all heterosexual romances), and suffer and are held in contempt by their peers because of it. Readers can assume their male partners also fell in love, but Oliver does not focus on the shame or trials men face because of it.
Whether it is through the exploration of relationships or the passivity of Lena as a character, it is evident that Delirium is a novel conflicted in the way it portrays the idea of femininity. Although we are presented with a protagonist fighting a government with oppressive views on girlhood, the process in which this is done ironically fulfils negative ideas of femininity, which one could argue as problematic being a novel with the audience of YA dystopian fiction.
If Oliver had pursed a queer relationship, (potentially between Lena and Hana) rather than the route of heterosexual romance that dominates YA lit, would this have changed Lena’s passivity and made her a more autonomous character? Could a queer Lena have meant a more three dimensional and engaging main character?
To what extend to do you agree that Lena as a character reinforces negative ideas of femininity?
Childs, Ann M. M. “The Incompatibility of Female Friendships and Rebellion.”in: Day, Sara K., Green-Barteet, Miranda A. and Montz, Amy L. eds. Female Rebellion in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction. Farnham: UK: Ashgate, 2014. p. 187-201.
Lehr, Susan S. Beauty, Brains, And Brawn. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001. Print.
Martin, K. A. and E. Kazyak. “Hetero-Romantic Love And Heterosexiness In Children’s G-Rated Films“. Gender & Society 23.3 (2009): 315-336. Web.
Oliver, Lauren. Delirium. New York: Harper, 2011. Print.