Girlhood is often associated with passivity. The notion of girls as passive beings can lead to many issues, including oppression, conformity and in the case of Delirium, a lack of free will. This repressive state is created out of a panoptic society where surveillance is a constant factor in everyday life.The society in Olivia Butler’s Delirium acts as a representation of how our own society regulates girls and girlhood. It is only when more closely analysed that it is revealed that Delirium makes the statement that this overcoming of passivity is only possible with the accompaniment of love.
The panopticon is an idea first formed by Jeremy Bentham in the 19th Century. It is a type of ideal structure for schools, factories, hospitals, and other organizations. The most well-known drawn model is of a prison, which consisted of a circular room, with a viewing tower right in the middle. This would allow for the guard within the tower to view every inmate at any part of the building. Additionally, the tinted windows did not allow inmates to see inside, leaving them unaware of whose presence they are in. This causes the prisoners to regulate their behaviours and obey the rules, due to the feeling of constantly being under watch. In this sense, the panopticon is not a building, but a state of mind. The notion of constant surveillance forces a society to obey, thus creating a common hegemony of passivity among its subjects (Bentham).
The community within Oliver’s Delirium can be viewed as a panopticon. There is not necessarily constant physical presence of law enforcers, but citizens still willingly follow the abnormally strict rules and ideals of the society. For example, in chapter three, Lena states “‘Every choice is limited,’ I snap. ‘That’s life’” (Oliver 21). Lena has been conditioned within her society to believe that her choices are limited to a select group of options, stemming from the ideologies that have been present for so long they seem natural. This is created out of the fear of rebelling, which stems from the fear of being punished. Lena and the others are aware of a capital presence in their lives, and know that their actions are being watched. Lena associates this concept in multiple metaphors, including her statement of a “lighthouse light … [as] an enormous, accusing finger” (Oliver 168). Lena personifies the lighthouse in this phrase while simultaneously making reference to the panopticon. The personification references an accusing finger, which can easily be associated to the ‘Uncle Sam’ figure of United States military recruitment. The finger makes it seem like the government is aware of every individual citizen and wants them to aid and comply with their effort. It is also being depicted as a form of surveillance, and its rotating alludes to the circular layout of the panoptic prison. It implies the idea that there is no hiding from the law, and if you disobey it, you will be recognized and dealt with.
Most rules in the Delirium society are implicit and followed without question. This act of passivity, again, is linked to the panopticon. A certain behaviour has been issued within the society as “ideal,” and members of the community, specifically girls, submit to these notions, whose lives are essentially planned for them. They plan their answers in effort to obtain a score which sets them up for “happiness” or “success” in their future. The notion of girlhood in this community is muddled with the ideas of a repressive state, forced passivity and lack of free will. This is an exaggerated representation of our reality. Girlhood is often associated with passivity, docility and submissiveness. This depiction is dangerous because it can reinforce these ideals to the readers, and thus have them be mimicked in our own society.
The transition of Lena from a passive person to an active agent in her own life can be seen as the “Girl Power” message of the novel. As she learns from Alex that she must question what their government has taught them about experiencing love, she begins to question other ways the government controls the society and feels like the borders are used to keep them inside instead of keep others out (229). However, her transition is not an overall positive message for young girl readers as it is caused solely by experiencing romantic love. At the beginning of the novel Lena is a girl who believes, “criticizing the system is the worst offense there is” (20). Her transition from docility to a person with rebellious agency happens in a matter of months. Lena does not question the system of her government until her romantic interest for a man compels her to. She does not consider herself beautiful until her romantic partner validates her beauty for her. Instead of learning from this to view herself positively, she believes she is only special when she is around him and without him she will go back to being ordinary (311).
The most pronounced “Girl Power” message in the novel is the last paragraphs of the novel where she states that no one can stop her, and there are many people like her that will fight injustice. This implies that the young readers themselves have this capacity and they too should be social justice warriors. Until this very last page, Lena is not depicted as a character who can rebel independently. Her rebellious acts are not done because she wants to openly show that her government’s rules are corrupted, they are all connected to being with people she loves. In, “The Incompatibility of Female Friendships and Rebellion,” Ann M. M. Childs states that the novel monitors Lena’s actions to be, “a damsel in need of rescue instead of the strong girl rebelling” (Childs 195). Her heterosexual romantic partner, Alex, is continuously rescuing her throughout the novel. In a scene where she goes to be the hero for her best friend by saving her from a raid, she does not get there fast enough and needs to be rescued by Alex instead. The most pronounced part of the novel to showcase Lena as a damsel character is when she is tied to her bed before her surgery. The entire time she is tied up she is continuously thinking about Alex coming save her, not trying to get out through her own will until the very last night. She imagines herself as a princess waiting for her prince to rescue her (Oliver 420). While she is tied up she thinks of what she will do if she gets out. She limits her options to either finding Alex, or killing herself (428). She never considers going to the Wilds by herself, searching for her mother, or joining the rebellion on the outside of the fence. Lena believes that, “without him, there is no world” (332). The unwarranted final passage of the novel then can be seen Lena’s true gaining of independence. Only when she no longer has a romantic partner can she gain independence and agency, believing she is capable of surviving on her own for the first time.
The message this sends to young readers is that in order for a girl to critically analyze the construction of society and act against societal injustice, she needs to experience romantic love. While this novel advocates for many forms of love the only type that drives people to actively join the rebellion or go to the Wilds is romantic love. The idea of only gaining independence and agency through a heterosexual romantic relationship is not the type of “Girl Power” message many feminists would want promoted to young female readers. The passivity of the people in Delirium, caused by the panoptic nature of their society, represents the docility girls are forced to exhibit in real-life.
- Do you believe that Lena would have reached her “transition point” without her male accomplice? Would the transformation happen without love, or would she not have realized the faults in her community on her own?
- Do you feel that the confident statement Lena makes in the last passage of the novel is an accurate representation of her character? Or is it merely a momentary episode of confidence in an otherwise insecure person?
- The turning point for Lena is her discovery of love. Does the fact that this is a heterosexual attraction between her and Adam hold any significance? What does this signify in terms of the Delirium society, and thus of our own?
Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon or the inspection house. Vol. 2. 1791.
Childs, Ann M. M., “The Incompatibility of Female Friendships and Rebellion.”Female Rebellion in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction, edited by Sarah K. Day, Miranda A. Green-Barteet, Amy L. Montz, Ashgate, 2014, pp. 195.
Oliver, Lauren. Delirium. Harper, 2016.