In Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, love is a disease that is to be avoided at all costs, and one that everyone above the age of eighteen is cured of through surgery. Those who show signs of falling in love, or are caught with an uncured member of the opposite sex are called infected, and are stigmatized. The general population fears love and avoids anyone who is or has been infected, creating a stigma attached to the disease. We argue that in Oliver’s Delirium, love is constructed as a disability through the medicalization and stigmatization it receives. This construct of disability impacts Lena’s life and her experience of girlhood through her relationships with her family, friends, and romantic partner.
Love in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium is constructed as a disability. Therefore, anyone who is infected with the disease of love is disabled, and forced to receive a ‘cure’. Utilizing Rosemarie Garland-Thompson’s concept of the misfit, we assert that in Oliver’s dystopic society, love is a disability and anyone infected with it is a misfit in their world. Garland-Thompson’s concept of the misfit is multifaceted; it says that disability is a social construction that heavily relies on the physical spaces inhabited by people with disabilities not fitting their needs. That is to say; if the physical spaces change to be accommodating to people with disabilities, they are no longer disabled in that environment. The concept of a misfit works in parallel with the term “fit”, the two exist in a dichotomy, wherein “the discrepancy between body and world, between that which is expected and that which is, produces fits and misfits” (Garland-Thompson). In Oliver’s Delirium, those who suffer from the affliction of love are the misfits, and those who have been cured are the fits. Lena works very hard to make sure it is known that she is a fit, even before she becomes infected. When preparing for her evaluation she memorizes her answers and practices her delivery of them, so that she can make it clear she is a fit. The moment when Lena says her favourite colour is gray in her first evaluation is a huge moment for Lena, because it is the first time she realizes she may not be a perfect fit in her society. To be a fit in Lena’s world is to be someone who follows the rules of the totalitarian government, receives the cure and has a healthy fear of those infected with the disease of love. Lena’s mother was a misfit in their society because the cure did not work for her, she still felt love for her husband and for her children. She had to work to hide her love by closing the windows when she cried or danced with her children, and pretending not to feel love for her children in public settings. The social space she inhabited were not made for her, and she had to change the ways she inhabited physical spaces so that people would not realize she was a misfit. The only place in Delirium where it is relatively safe to be a misfit, is the Wilds. The Wilds remove the social and physical constraints that construct the binary of fits vs. misfits, and create a space where those who misfit under government control can fit. The idea of fits and misfits inform girlhood, specifically they inform Lena’s girlhood by making her fear misfitting, and seek a place where she can fit.
In Delirium, Lena’s identity is greatly influenced by the intersections of various life factors; specifically, gender, age, and disability. In the context of Oliver’s Portland, the traits of love and emotion are tied to adolescence. With the coming of age at 18, an individual receives the cure and enters into adulthood. The marginalization of girls based on gender and age is “further compounded when disability intersects with their identity” (Pearce et al. 122). Love is presented as a disability, a disease that must be cured in order to preserve a nation and community. As a result of the stigmas attached to love, the ‘uncured’ are considered disabled and to have emotions is considered a mental illness. Lena’s narration presents the reader with a sense of fear surrounding mental illness and disability. She describes experiences of bullying at school based around the label of ‘sympathizer’ as a result of her mother’s suicide. Within a dystopian context, the exaggeration of modern day society is evident through the extreme fears and stigmas surrounding mental health and disability. As Pearce et al. assert, “ [s]ocial noms related to disability are built around the stigmatization of people who look or behave in a way that is perceived as different, and misconceptions about the capacity of such individuals to make their own decisions and to contribute to communities” (Foster and Sandel in Pierce et al. 122). The intersections of age and disability are exhibited in this statement when the author describes the perception that individuals with a disability are unable to make decisions or contribute to civil society. In Delirium, love as disability is tied to adolescence which is stigmatized with the inability to think for oneself and make positive contributions to society. Lena explains that one of the many symptoms of amor deliria nervosa (love) is that “it affects your mind so that you cannot think clearly, or make rational decisions about your own well-being” (Oliver 3). This description can also be applied to stigmas surrounding adolescence, and more specifically girlhood. Pearce et al. argue that “girls without disabilities are perceived as ‘symbols of purity’ [whereas] girls with disabilities are perceived largely as asexual and undesirable” (Pearce et al. 122). Within the context of Delirium, girls who have received the cure are symbolic of purity, and perfection, whereas the uncured are seen as diseased and inherently imperfect. Lena’s perception of girlhood is greatly shaped by her intersectional experiences as a result of her; age as an adolescent, gender as a girl, and disability as both experiencing and witnessing love.
It is impossible to define girlhood without taking an intersectional approach, and Lena’s girlhood is shaped by many things, including her experience of love as a disability. Her experiences with the disease and the stigmatization of the love she feels, together with the concept of fits and misfits, help to demonstrate that Lena’s girlhood is greatly impacted by the construction of love as a disability.
Based upon Lena’s intersectional experiences of girlhood and disability, how does this inform the reader about the experiences of adolescent girls with disabilities today? Does the societal definition of the identity of girl shift based upon the specific intersections of gender, age and disability?
In Delirium, there are spaces where people who are construed as diseased or disabled do not fit, and are considered a misfit. What are some ways in which our society creates a misfit for people with mental illnesses?
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept.” Hypatia 26.3 (2011): 591-609. Web.
Oliver, Lauren. Delirium. New York: Harper, 2011. Print.
Pearce, Emma, Kathryn Paik, and Omar J. Robles. “Adolescent Girls with Disabilities in Humanitarian Settings: “I Am Not ‘Worthless'”I Am a Girl with a Lot to Share and Offer”.” Girlhood Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 2016., pp. 118-136doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3167/ghs.2016.090109.