In Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, love is treated as a disease. Anyone who acquires the love disease, known as amor nervosa deliria, is punished in one of three ways: they are quickly cured, placed in a psychiatric hospital, or executed. This pathologization of love echoes the way queer people have been and continue to be oppressed by the medical system. Despite this parallel, the novel renders queer people invisible. In this article, we argue that Delirium co-opts and subsequently disregards queer oppression. We do so by using queer theory, a framework that “is concerned with the ways of being and relating that are possible when the normative sequence of heterosexual romance, marriage, and reproduction renders those who do not follow the sequence invisible, irrelevant, or impossible” (Owen 259). Delirium’s erasure of queer experience is evident in the similarities between the fictional cure and the real medical oppression of queer people, the absence of government surveillance to combat “Unnaturalism”, and the lack of concern adults have with Lena and Hana’s close relationship.
Delirium frames heterosexual love in the same way that queerness has been framed historically. The deliria is referenced as “The deadliest of all deadly things” (Oliver 52) in all mental health documents. Those who contract it are supposed to have “obsessive thoughts and actions” and eventually experience a “complete breakdown of rational faculties” (147) that is reflective of mental illnesses. Until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Doctors tried to rid homosexuals of their disease, which was seen as a perversion or sign of stunted development (Dresher 565). This continues today in the form of conversion therapy, an unscientifically proven and traumatic practice that is supposed to cure homosexuality (Lang). This focus on curing queer people is similar to the way teenagers are cured of heterosexual love in Delirium, in which “everything [is supposed to] get better” (Oliver 107) after undergoing the surgery. In this way, the deliria is explained and resolved similarly to oppressive medical approaches to homosexuality.
Queerness is briefly acknowledged in Delirium and then never addressed by its social structures. Early in the novel, Lena mentions “Unnaturalism”, which is “a result of the same kind of chemical and hormonal imbalances” (Oliver 52) as the deliria and results in “boys being attracted to boys and girls to girls” (52). Despite this medicalization of queerness, there is a distinct lack of governmental surveillance of Unnaturalism. Gender segregation is used to prevent interaction between uncured boys and girls to the point where Lena has “hardly ever exchanged two words with a boy before” (60) meeting Alex. However, the segregation does nothing to prevent romantic interaction between those of the same gender. As such, relationships amongst one gender are allowed with little to no intervention. This segregation establishes heterosexuality as the default with no explanation. Although queerness is considered a part of the disease, Delirium does nothing to address queerness in its society. These concerns are instead shifted onto heterosexual characters, where virtually all surveillance fixates on their experiences.
Lena and Hana share a close relationship which can be subtextually read as homoromantic. Throughout Delirium, Lena is preoccupied with Hana’s beauty, frequently describing her physical appearance. During their final run together, Lena comments, “I really think she might be the most beautiful girl in Portland, maybe in the whole world, and I feel a sharp pain behind my ribs, thinking of how she’ll grow older and forget me” (386). When Lena is confronted with her last moment with Hana, she thinks, “now I know why they invented words for love, why they had to: It’s the only thing that can come close to describing what I feel in that moment, the baffling mixture of pain and pleasure and fear and joy, all running sharply through me at once. […] I love you” (418). Lena’s feelings for Hana culminate in this moment and she is able to acknowledge them internally. Lena’s love for Hana and concern for their future demonstrates their deep connection, one that can easily be interpreted as homoromantic.
Despite the emotional intensity of Hana and Lena’s relationship, Carol shows no concern about Lena being infected with Unnaturalism. Instead, Carol emphasizes the fleeting nature of their friendship, which is ultimately viewed as harmless. As Lena’s cure approaches, Carol begins to limit communication between the two. Lena believes this is her aunt’s attempt to “hurry up the inevitable, skip us both to the ending, the part where Hana and I aren’t friends anymore” (186). As far as Carol knows, Lena has been spending an increasing amount of time with Hana, but does not dissuade her from doing so. Carol only intervenes to explain how their friendship will inevitably change after their procedures, reminding Lena that “it won’t be like this for very much longer” (305). When Lena tries to leave before her approved match, Brian, arrives, Carol simply says that “You’ve been spending enough time out of the house as it is” (310), with no further questioning or discussion. With no mention of Unnaturalism and no clear queer representation, all possibilities outside of heterosexuality are “ignored or marginalized instead of explored as logical options and extensions of contemporary life” (Day 90), reinforcing the heteronormativity of Delirium.
Delirium uses the medical oppression that queer people experience without including queer people in its narrative. Although the government constantly surveils for heterosexual romance, there are no measures to monitor queer sexuality. Lena and Hana’s friendship is intense and deeply intimate, but never seen as a potential sign of Unnaturalism. Delirium creates a world where heterosexuality is policed while ignoring that queer people are the ones who society is trying to cure “for being trans and having different gender expressions and ‘same sex attractions’ and for simply daring to be ourselves” (Condren 2013). As a result, Delirium reinforces heteronormative ideas of how young people should behave and denies them the opportunity to see the medical repression currently happening in their own world.
- Allyson and I had difficulty finding sources about queerness in YA dystopia for this assignment. Why do you think there’s an absence of queer characters in YA dystopia as a genre?
- Have you seen a similar co-opting of queer experiences in other YA dystopias or other literature?
- Are you familiar with any YA dystopias that do include queer representation? If so, how were they framed in comparison to Delirium?
Bansheeheart. “Delirium Meme | Four Relationships | Lena & Hana.” Tumblr, http://bansheesheart.tumblr.com/post/76668090017/delirium-meme-four-relationships.
Brunskill, Tina. “The symptoms of love. Delirium by Lauren Oliver.” Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/407153622535832428/.
Condren, Chelsea. “The Government Can’t Stop Our Heterosexual Love: YA Dystopia From A Gay Perspective.” Young Adult Library Services Association, 27 May 2017, http://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2013/05/27/the-government-cant-stop-our-heterosexual-love-ya-dystopia-from-a-gay-perspective/.
Day, Sara K. “Docile Bodies, Dangerous Bodies: Sexual Awakening and Social Resistance in Young Adult Dystopian Novels.” Female Rebellion in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction, edited by Sara K. Day, Miranda Green-Barteet, and Amy L. Montz. Ashgate Publishing, 2014, p. 75–92.
Drescher, Jack. “Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality.” Behavioral Sciences, vol. 5, no. 4, Dec. 2015, p. 565–575.
Lang, Nico. “Conversation therapy is ‘torture’: LGBT survivors are fighting to ban ‘pray the gay away’ camps.” Salon.com, 21 March 2017, https://www.salon.com/2017/03/21/conversion-therapy-is-torture-lgbt-survivors-are-fighting-to-ban-pray-the-gay-away-camps/.
Oliver, Lauren. Delirium. Harper Collins, 2011.
Owen, Gabrielle. “Queer Theory Wrestles the ‘Real’ Child: Impossibility, Identity, and Language in Jacqueline Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 3, Fall 2010, p. 255–273.