Close female friendships play interesting roles in young adult (YA) dystopian fiction, often serving as literary tools for the development of the protagonist and the progression of the plot. Within the genre, the close female friend typically follows the same trajectory, ultimately helping the protagonist grow into a stronger, more rebellious leader within her dystopian world. In Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, Lena and her best friend Hana’s relationship is no exception. Hana’s role serves two important functions within this novel: Hana is integral to Lena’s initiation into rebellion, and she absorbs the consequences of rebellion allowing Lena to succeed and become the symbol of hope. Furthermore, maintaining the modality of the YA dystopian genre, their relationship also works to reinforce societal expectations of girlhood.
Firstly, Hana plays a pivotal role in Lena’s initiation into the world of rebellion, and thus their relationship is an imperative mechanism for plot development. As Hana and Lena approach their ‘cure’ procedures, Hana becomes apprehensive. In a heavy moment of confrontation, Hana shares her distrust of the oppressive society with Lena, and introduces her to the underground world of rebellion she has discovered. She challenges Lena’s beliefs by taunting her, saying: “you don’t have it in you” (111), trying to convince her that the cure is not the answer. In pushing Lena to start thinking about other alternatives to life, she ultimately drives Lena into rebellion.
This night, when Lena witnesses a community that does not submissively adhere to societal expectations, is undisputedly her initiation into rebellion. She sneaks out past curfew, has a chance encounter with her soon-to-be love interest Alex, and begins to feel emotions that are foreign to her. Though Alex plays a large role in pushing Lena into rebellion as the novel progresses, it is Hana’s introduction that establishes the foundation for all future rebellion. Hana is thus central to the development of Lena’s character, and to the progression of the novel. Without her influence, Lena would simply have continued to await the cure, the story ending once it finally took hold. Hana can thus be understood as Lena’s leading edge, she clears the path so that Lena can experience life and begin to rebel.
Secondly, Hana serves the role of the hopeless rebel, challenging the government and accepting the consequences. She has no hope for the future, and believes there is happiness in being free of constricting rules and regulations. However for Lena, although her mother’s experience with the procedure frightens her, her desire to be normal overpowers that fear. “Often such conformist societies embrace their uniformity out of a fear that diversity breeds conflict,” (Basu, Broad, Hintz 3) thus Lena reflects this mode of YA dystopias, eagerly awaiting her conforming procedure, the ‘cure.’ Hana, however, has no hope in a future as a cured, as she says to Lena “you know you can’t be happy unless you’re unhappy sometimes, right?” (Oliver 23). In this single phrase Hana loses her calm composure and shows Lena how scared she is for the future. Hana believes going through with the procedure will ultimately take away who she is, making her emotionless and robotic. However, Lena disagrees with Hana, continuing to see the cure as a way to escape judgment for her mother’s past.
The difference between Hana and Lena’s attitudes regarding the cure and their perceptions of hope directly reflect the consequences they each face as they rebel against the government. Hana, dreading her emotionless future as a cured, starts listening to unapproved music, and attending unsanctioned parties. With dystopian novels specifically, there are often consequences for rebelling, therefore “the female friends’ suffering makes the threat that the protagonists face real, creating narrative tension” (Childs 197). Oliver follows this formula in Delirium as, although Lena also begins to rebel as the novel progresses, it is Hana who absorbs the negative consequences of their rebellion. This allows the negative aspects of rebellion to be present while still allowing Lena to succeed. Furthermore, throughout the novel, Hana remains the epitome of hopelessness; in the end she is powerless to the governmental forces. Lena, on the other hand, becomes the symbol of hope, as she searches to find a way to keep her emotional memories alive and overcome the oppressive government.
Lastly, although Hana’s role mainly has positive outcomes for Lena and the novel, their friendship also has negative consequences. As Ann Child’s discusses, close female friendships in YA dystopias often suffer a falling out in order for a romantic relationship to grow, thus reinforcing negative stereotypes about girls. This occurs as Hana starts to engage in illegal behaviour that Lena feels uncomfortable participating in. Simultaneously as their relationship deteriorates, Lena and Alex’s romantic relationship begins to flourish. This new romantic relationship also takes over as the primary reason for Lena’s rebellion, which further devalues her once powerful relationship with Hana. Although the love story is captivating for young readers, “the romance in the novel does not exist in a vacuum, but rather as a zero-sum game where female friendship is devalued in favour of love, and heterosexual love is the only worthy end-game” (Childs 195). In the world of YA dystopian literature, it appears that only one strong relationship can exist for the protagonist, and it is the heterosexual, romantic relationship that always seems to prevail. In devaluing platonic friendships to favour romantic love, the novel works to reinforce negative stereotypes about girls, as Lena nonchalantly throws away a long-standing friendship in exchange for a boy’s attention. Lena thus becomes the token stereotypical girl, conforming to societal expectations as her ‘shallow’ desires push her to prioritize her romantic relationship over her friendship with Hana.
Throughout this piece we have worked to highlight the pivotal role that Hana plays in the plot and in the development of Lena’s character. Ultimately, this female friendship is imperative to the progression of the story, as she allows Lena to accept herself and find hope in an uncertain future. However, in using Hana solely for character development, Oliver negates the opportunity for a subversive YA dystopian story where a female friendship is valued over romance. Rather than allowing a platonic friendship to be the primary focus, in placing Hana as the secondary character who accepts the consequences for Lena’s rebellion, Oliver allows their relationship to deteriorate and stereotypes of girls remain unchallenged.
In what ways would a YA dystopian novel featuring a strong female friendship, without the presence of a heterosexual romantic relationship, disrupt and subvert gendered stereotypes about girls and girlhood? Would such a novel succeed in the publishing world? Explain.
Looking at Rue’s role in Katniss’s rebellion, Zahra’s role in Lauren’s rebellion, and Hana’s role in Lena’s rebellion, it appears as though the YA dystopian female protagonist requires a secondary character to aid in her progression through rebellion. Could it be possible for these protagonists to initiate rebellion without the help of a female friend and/or secondary character? Why or why not?
Basu, Balaka, and Carrie Hintz. “Introduction.” Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults: Brave New Teenagers. By Katherine R. Broad. New York: Routledge, 2013. 1-15. Print.
Childs, Ann M. “The Incompatibility of Female Friendships and Rebellion.” Female Rebellion in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction. Farnham, Surrey: Ash Gate Limited, 2014. 187- 201. Print.
Oliver, Lauren. Delirium. New York: Harper, 2011. Print.