In Sherri L. Smith’s novel Orleans, disease is a key plot element. We argue that the Delta Fever (DF) parallels HIV/AIDS through the construction of the disease as a blood-borne virus treated as highly contagious by caretakers. Gross, Goldsmith and Carruth argue that HIV/AIDS discourse for young people has been silenced. Referencing Michel Foucault, we argue, however, that this parallel does not take AIDS out of discourse, but rather reintroduces it into the conversation.
Gross et al. posit that there is little written about HIV/AIDS in current research and literature, silencing youth affected by the disease (397). Rather than this silence indicating the discovery of a cure or containment, it suggests “that HIV/AIDS is not a critical issue in the United States,” (Gross et al. 398) meaning silence “[operates] as a sentence to disappear,” (Foucault 4). But Foucault suggests that silencing something admits it exists, seen in Smith’s metaphor for AIDS, suggesting that HIV/AIDS is a problem in youth populations (Foucault 6). Without explicitly setting AIDS in discourse, Smith subtly alerts readers to the fact that “[t]he young adult population is one of the subgroups in which the incidence of newly diagnosed [HIV/AIDS] infections continues to grow quietly. Half of new infections occur in young people under age twenty-five,” (Gross et al. 398).
Smith’s metaphor extends throughout the novel, as both diseases are diagnosed similarly. HIV and DF are both easily spread by sharing blood with someone else who is diseased, through methods such as an open wound or blood transfusion (AIDS.gov; Smith 72). The early symptoms of the DF include weakness, fatigue, and confusion (Smith 21), similar to the early stage of HIV where flu-like symptoms occur, such as fatigue (AIDS.gov). The DF progresses so that its victims’ skin turn a chalky yellow color with bruises, and eventually leads to insanity (Smith 21). Similarly, AIDS is characterized by “red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin,” “tiredness,” “memory loss, … and neurologic disorders,” (AIDS.gov).
It is important to note that a carrier can give HIV, which leads to AIDS if untreated, to another without showing symptoms. The case is the same for Fen de la Guerre, Smith’s protagonist. As a Native of Orleans, she carries the virus but does not show any symptoms (Smith 61). As with those infected with AIDS, those affected by the DF rarely make it to adulthood (Smith 14). Unlike DF, however, HIV “does not survive long outside the human body (such as on surfaces) and it cannot reproduce outside a human host.” (AIDS.gov). Fen on the other hand fears that she is unclean and cannot hold Lydia’s baby because she is “covered in it. Fever be in the water, the air,” (Smith 314).
Another striking parallel between the DF and AIDS is how both diseases were treated by the uninfected. Just as Smith’s character Daniel suggests, the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s caused a “new form of racism,” (Smith 207) constructed as homophobia, as the fear of AIDS was linked to the homosexual population believed to be originators of the disease (Clews). Many were afraid to encounter those diagnosed with AIDS until the disease was given an official name and cause in 1983 (Clews). The US Center for Disease Control aimed to qualm worries about the disease’s contagiousness by stating that “there has been no evidence that the disease was acquired through casual contact with AIDS patients or with persons in population groups with an increased incidence of AIDS,” (Clews). Before this, nurses were afraid to treat patients with AIDS as they feared they would catch the deadly disease as well. In Orleans, we do not get any excerpts of the nuns interacting with DF patients; the nuns do not even touch citizens as they exchange notes through a statue, rather than through direct contact (244). Additionally, AIDS was not taken seriously until it was proven that heterosexuals could acquire the disease as well (Clews). Daniel’s character parallels this selective caring, as he only becomes interested in finding a cure for the virus that has affected Orleans for 50 years after his young brother falls ill (Smith 45).
This brief early history of AIDS parallels the treatment and view of DF, as in Orleans the Southern portion of the United States was put under quarantine to try to prevent people from coming across the disease (Smith 6; 15). We have previously stated that AIDS and HIV cannot be spread by touch or sharing the same air as someone, but the citizens of the Outer States and Orleans do not have the same access to this information about the DF. For them, this quarantine is the only legitimate way to protect themselves. And it is not just the lay citizens who need protection; the Ursuline nuns take precautions to not come in contact with the disease either–just as AIDS caretakers did. The Ursuline nuns place the Fever victims in the furthest recess of the hospital, even a “black curtain [hiding] it from view,” (Smith 21). Caretakers in the 1980s took similar precautions to not come in contact with the virus–such as wearing gloves all the time, as one caretaker explains (Brown 37; 42; 44). But while one caretaker mentioned using bleach to get rid of any fluids an infected person may release, the nuns simply used tarps to cover the walls of the hospital because they were easy to throw out–with or without a body (Smith 21). Even Daniel wears a full-body suit and refuses to eat Orleans food so as to not catch the virus (Smith 53; 156).
To conclude, in Orleans, Smith positions the Delta Fever to parallel the 1980s AIDS crisis in their symptoms and response by the public. We argue that Smith’s parallel brings the current AIDS crisis into discourse as her extended metaphor causes people to rethink who AIDS is affecting today, and how.
- Do you agree that Smith is basing the Delta Fever off of HIV/AIDS? Why or why not? What else could The Fever be representative of?
- Is the author being critical about the way people reacted to those infected by HIV/AIDS in the 1980s? If yes, how so? If no, why not?
- Do you believe that instead of paralleling the virus to the gay population in the early 1980s, Smith creates a parallel to current poor black youth’s complications with AIDS? What would you cite from Orleans to support this argument?
AIDS.gov. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. http://www.aids.gov/. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.
Brown, Rebecca. “The Gift of Skin.” The Gifts of the Body. HarperPerennial, 1994, pp. 37-48.
Clews, Colin. “1980s. HIV/AIDS: Why Was AIDS Called ‘the Gay Plague’? Gay in the 80s, 21 Apr. 2014, www.gayinthe80s.com/2014/04/1980s-hivaids-why-was-aids-called-the-gay-plague/.
Foucault, Michel. “We ‘Other Victorians.’” The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley, Vintage Books, 1990.
Gross, Melissa et al. “What Do Young Adult Novels Say About Hiv/Aids? A Second Look.” Library Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 4, 2008, pp. 397-418.
Smith, Sherri L. Orleans. Penguin, 2013.