Lauren Oliver’s Delirium depicts a dystopian United States of America that bases its governing system on The Safety, Health, and Happiness Handbook (The Book of Shhh). The Book of Shhh informs citizens about the chaos and dangers of amor deliria nervosa (love), “the deadliest of all deadly things,” hailing the need for a cure and justifying the mandatory surgical procedure for citizens 18 and older in order to eliminate the ability to love in all senses of the word (53). The Book of Shhh also indicates the roles that citizens must take within the society: men and women are to enter arranged marriages after personal evaluations, surgical procedures, and schooling are completed. Upon completion, men enter the workforce and women into motherhood; a history of gender oppression is perpetuated as girls must silently accept the fate of having to get married and become mothers without any other prospects.
With deliria being the basis of the governing system, emotions are depicted as the root of all evil in this society. Throughout the novel, readers observe deliria/love expressed chiefly by women, particularly seventeen-year-old female protagonist Lena. Girls and women are depicted as irrational, unstable, and needing to have the cure earlier than age 18 in order to control or silence their emotions so as not to become a danger to society. As such, The Book of Shhh, the government, and the cure become synonymous to silencing entities that not only hold women accountable for jeopardizing social order, but also reinforce gender stereotypes in regards to the construction of girlhood by insisting on a lack of agency and voice in their life.
The Book of Shhh combines the power of divinity through theological/biblical explanations with ‘scientific evidence’ to create a fully formed and sound compendium for the citizens of Delirium to follow. It states: “Humans, unregulated, are cruel and capricious; violent and selfish; miserable and quarrelsome. It is only after their instincts and basic emotions have been controlled that they can be happy, generous, and good,” further stating that the society’s role is to “shelter these systems from infection and decay” (354, 87). In stating so, the government of this dystopian society convinces its citizens they are essentially disabled by emotions and incomplete without a cure. In chapter seven, Lena explains that she was named after Mary Magdelene, a figure from The Book of Shhh’s biblical section, who was “nearly killed from love.” Mary was “so infected with deliria and in violation of the pacts of society” that when Joseph abandoned her, she begged God who heard her prayers and “removed the curse of deliria,” making Mary “the very first cured” (87, 88). Attesting to Mary’s cure, the government likens themselves to a god-like figure, able to cure humans of this innate disease. Furthermore, The Book of Shhh also creates a stigma towards women as unable to control their emotions and needing to be ‘saved’ by the cure.
Delirium perpetuates this stereotype further. In the novel, there are no reports of early cures or hysterical displays of emotion by male characters. However, Lena, Delirium’s narrator, relays stories of perceived excess female emotion: a girl who escaped her restraints and “dropped [off a roof] quickly, without screaming” from deliria (3); her sister Rachel needing to be cured before age 18 due to deliria and a boy breaking her heart (174); Lena’s classmate Willow Marks who apparently was found with a boy and had her cure date moved up six months (92); and Lena’s mother, who went through three ‘cures’ to no avail, committed suicide because of deliria (31). When Lena falls in love with Alex, her cure date is also moved forward in order to protect the society from being ‘infected.’ Despite the possibility for detrimental side effects of an early cure, the society is willing to risk further disability to its young women for a utilitarian cause.
In silencing these women by curing them, the society more quickly initiates the women’s ascent into adulthood and their arranged marriage. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argues that “marriage is not only an honorable and less strenuous career than many others; it alone enables woman to attain her complete social dignity and realize herself [as a mother]” (396). The Book of Shhh echoes Beauvoir’s ironic statement: “Marriage is Order and Stability, the mark of a Healthy society” (11). Beauvoir furthers this by stating “Everyone unanimously agrees that catching a husband…is for her the most important of undertakings” and she “passively and docilely deliver[s] herself into the hands of a new master” (396). The society facilitates evaluations, in which the interviewee must speak prepared words that fall in accordance with the society’s values in order to give them a better chance at being considered for “a variety of positions,” of which none but marriage are ever stated. This effectively silences the citizen’s right to choose a partner in the interest of maintaining order.
Delirium takes the old adage that “children should be seen and not heard” to another level. The governing body in this novel infantilizes the entire society by curing them, with particular emphasis on ‘unruly’ females. In her essay on silence and power, Helen Jaqueline McLaren states that “Those who are silenced send a variety of discursive messages, including that they are weak, passive, powerless or voiceless,” continuing on to say that “Silence may then be interpreted by those with more power as assent to continue the domination” (3). The governing body in Delirium adheres to McLaren’s claims. Silencing their citizens with the cure, taking away their ability to love, make choices for themselves, and rendering them docile and effectively brainwashed is what keeps them in power. The government furthers their silencing as power through claiming hierarchical status, as told when Lena exclaims that “defacing or destroying The Book of Shhh is sacrilege,” and that “criticizing the system is the worse offence there is” (229, 22).
Along with claiming power, The Book of Shhh affects the upbringing of young women by making them believe their voices are not worthy of being heard. Lena, while she believes the cure is the best thing for her, consistently finds herself unable to speak the words she wants to say and struggles with an internal dialogue that refuses to become external. She is “shy, and afraid that [she’ll] say or do the wrong thing” (20), constantly telling Hana to “keep [her] voice down” (47), learned to “say one thing when [she’s] thinking about something else” (49), and “always tried to be as patient and obedient and good as possible… always tried to be as invisible as possible” (76). Lena’s cousin Gracie also remains silent until the end of the novel, only speaking in a rebellious act that aids Lena’s escape.
The Book of Shhh and the government of Delirium are undeniably rooted in traditional ideas of girlhood. Young girls, traditionally, were raised to believe that reserve, docility and marriage were their ultimate goals. Through the implementation of oppressive strictures, the society is separated into traditional gender roles and silenced by having a lack of agency taken away. Beauvoir states “This self-control imposed on the woman becomes second nature for ‘the well-bred girl’ and kills spontaneity” (401). However, the governing system fails on occasion, and Lena is no exception. She rebels against these limitations, proving that self-control and lack of spontaneity can be cured: love is all you need.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. 1949. Vintage eBooks, 2011.
McLaren, Helen Jaqueline. “Silence as a Power.” Social Alternatives, vol. 35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 3-5, https://www.lib.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1806212310?accountid=15115. Accessed 19 October 2016.
Oliver, Lauren. Delirium. HarperCollins, 2011.
How does the intrinsic silence placed upon citizens, particularly females, play out in other characters? How do Hana, Gracie, or Lena’s mother show this silence? How does it affect their rebellious behaviour, if at all?
Some people may argue that silence can be seen as a form of power. Is there an argument for this in Delirium? Is silence as a power effective? How?