Lena, the protagonist of Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, is a character that has inspired much debate in our class. She is anxious, obedient, and unassertive, especially in comparison to Hana. However, different forces are at work in their lives. Lena is a victim of the weaponized capitalism of her society, unlike Hana, who has led a privileged life. Hana’s privilege affords her leisure time, enabling her to contemplate her society, its structures and rules, and ultimately how to rebel. Lena and her cousins, meanwhile, have joined the ranks of the underclass of walking wounded.
Hana comes from a wealthy family and has all of her needs met. Unlike Lena and her family, Hana’s house has air-conditioning, a gate, and her own bedroom (Oliver 99-100). The privacy that comes from having her own room, and a door that closes, is crucial for her rebellion (100). Hana’s house is also “shielded on four sides by trees and lawn, and no one will sic the regulators on her” (100). The privacy her home affords her creates a space where Hana can safely question her society and experiment with rebellion. She can explore the intranet and play illegal music without fear of being caught or heard (108). The rebellious intranet space is critical for Hana’s development as a rebel. She gained access to the intranet and music in middle school, whereas Lena began working in her uncle’s store at that age (101, 245). Hana has access to a potentially rebellious space because of her privileged life, her own room and the stability it provides her.
Lena indicates resentment towards Hana’s privilege. Lena critiques Hana’s ability to rebel: “if you’re not scared, it’s just because you have the perfect little life, and the perfect little family, and for you everything is perfect, perfect, perfect. You don’t see. You don’t know.” (110, emphasis ours). Hana is unable to understand Lena’s anger towards her ability to experiment and rebel, and rejects the idea that her life is wonderful (110). Hana does not see or understand the pressures on Lena which stop her from participating in rebellion. Hana is focused on her experiences and how society is constraining her; she is not acknowledging or examining how the system is containing Lena in different ways. Lean’s vulnerability as a lower class citizen, who needs to provide for and support her family, stops her from being able to embrace rebellion.
Lena’s family situation is precarious and her evaluation will have a big impact on their future. They are dependent on her performance because a good evaluation, and a good match, means more money, and with it more security and social capital. The pressure on Lena is significant, and causes a self-consciousness she describes as having a hot, crawling itch all up her arms (10). She feels the weight of their worry and expectations and recognizes the importance of these tests: “[i]t’s critical that I get paired with someone good. Jenny and Grace are years away from their procedures. If I marry well, in a few years it will mean extra money for the family” (10). The way Aunt Carol grooms Lena the day of the evaluations and coaches Lena’s answers can be seen as invoking a pimp-prostitute dynamic. Their relationship is more complex than this facet, but examining Lena’s participation in the matching process through the lens of prostitution illuminates how various classes interact with the system to better their lives. There is not a direct exchange of money for sex, but Lena’s agreement to a sexual union will better the family’s standing and finances. Lena’s attempt to perform the good citizen is done in order to survive and thrive within the system. Lena intends to provide for her family in the way she is allowed.
However, Lena’s participation in the coming-of-age process is not strictly for financial betterment, it is also about social perception. A good match “might also make the whispers go away…Sympathizer. Sympathizer” (10). Lena sees the cure as more than just social control over the population, but also an opportunity for the lower classes to rise socio-economically: “[t]hat’s what Hana doesn’t understand, has never understood. For some of us, it’s about more than the deliria. Some of us, the lucky ones, will get the chance to be reborn: newer, fresher, better. Healed and whole and perfect again” (112).
Hana does not understand that need for healing, shared by the lower classes. The physical and social spaces they inhabit expose them to violence, forcing them to live into a constant state of vulnerability. In their Portland, capitalism has been weaponized and is used against sympathizers, or anyone who steps out of line. Upward social mobility is heavily regulated by the government. Lena reports that identification as “potential sympathizers, or troublemakers, or anything” means they “can kiss [their] chances of passing the evaluations with decent scores good-bye” (63). The stakes are high. At the extreme end of what may happen to her, Lena faces life in a neighbourhood like Deering Heights, “avoided, forgotten, condemned” (195), where “a few families still cling on in some of the houses, dirt-poor ones who can’t afford to move anywhere else, or haven’t gotten permission for a new residence” (211). Another possibility, “you do hear occasional horror stories: cases where a poor eighteen-year-old girl is given to a wealthy eighty-year-old man” (10, emphasis ours).
This overtly political maintenance of an underclass is characteristic of dystopias.
To be in the dominant class is […] to achieve a certain liberation from precariousness; for the poor, meanwhile, life is […] a perpetual state of anxiety. Yet precariousness here is not a natural state which the rich are fortunate enough to rise above […but] is deliberately imposed on the poor as a means of controlling and subduing them. (Fisher, 27)
The physical manifestation of this precarious lifestyle can be seen in Aunt Carol, whose “life of dishes and dented cans of green beans and days that bleed forever into one another” have made her face “deeply lined” and her hair “gray” (Oliver 384). She is worn older than her age by the mundanity and consequences of raising the children of less obedient family members.
The scars go deeper for the uncured poor. Lena and her cousins have been repeatedly traumatized by the violence that surrounds them. Wounds from witnessing forcible removals of the “delirious” and suicides are continually reopened by hateful whispers that follow them everywhere; these experiences are compounded by their belonging to the precarious class, with needs just barely met and always under threat. In the real world, research has been done on the effects of childhood exposure to violence. One study found that “children exposed to domestic violence had lower health status and more conditions […] which limited their participation in normal age-related activities”, and that violence has “an adverse influence on children’s social competence and school achievement” (Onyskiw). Another shows that “adolescents who have been exposed to more violence, either as a victim or as a witness, report more psychiatric symptoms, higher levels of depression, and more problems of self-esteem”(Lai). This lens offers an interesting view of tiny, unassertive Lena and her lack of self-esteem, angry Jenny and selectively mute Gracie, especially in comparison to tall, popular Hana.
To conclude, the problematic traits of both Lena and Hana can be seen in a number of lights. Lena and her ilk live in a constant state of vulnerability, victims of the weaponized capitalism that maintains an underclass to punish and encourage docility. Hana, contrastingly, is the product of a privileged life which enables her to question and rebel. Hana and Lena’s relation to rebellion, and how it is framed by class, is representative of obstacles faced when participating in activism in the real world, and the cyclical nature of poverty.
- In The Hunger Games Peeta discusses not letting the games change him and how if he dies he wants to die as himself. This is framed as his own personal form of rebellion. Katniss, however, describes how she doesn’t have that luxury. How has the class difference between Peeta and Katniss affected how they relate to rebellion? Is this framing also applicable for The Parable of the Sower? Does Lauren’s class impact her ability to contemplate an alternative community and religion?
- Considering how class impacts one’s relation to rebellion and their ability to rebel, does this change how you view Lena as a character? Many complained during class discussion that she was not the interesting character in the novel but rather that Hana was more passionate and interesting. Does this explain or excuse Lena’s passive and boring nature?
Fisher, Mark. “PRECARIOUS DYSTOPIAS: THE HUNGER GAMES, IN TIME, AND NEVER LET ME GO.” Film Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 4, 2012., pp. 27-33, https://www.lib.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1027234808?accountid=15115.
Lai, Daniel W. L. “Violence Exposure and Mental Health of Adolescents in Small Towns: An Exploratory Study.” Canadian Journal of Public Health, vol. 90, no. 3, 1999., pp. 181-5 https://www.lib.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/232004605?accountid=15115.
Oliver, Lauren. Delirium. Harper, 2011.
Onyskiw, Judee E. “Health and use of Health Services of Children Exposed to Violence in their Families.” Canadian Journal of Public Health, vol. 93, no. 6, 2002., pp. 416-20 https://www.lib.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/220127832?accountid=15115.