In “Delirium”, Lauren Oliver envisions a future in which love is a disease (termed amor deliria nervosa or ‘the deliria’) mandatorily cured at eighteen years of age by an invasive lobotomy-style procedure. Oliver’s novel taps into the huge demand in the YA market for dystopian fiction and the author astutely links her dystopian premise with another ostensible YA prerequisite – the star-crossed teenage romance. “Delirium” shares huge similarities with Ally Condie’s “Matched” (which I reviewed here) yet expands upon Condie’s imagined obligatory matching process and her consequent rumination on free will, with a stronger, more ambitious concept with wider-reaching implications: the medical diagnosis of love as a severe affliction and the root of all conflict and unhappiness. Oliver depicts a United States devoid of passion – whether it be passion for a romantic partner, a friend, music, literature, colours, a hobby, or even a family member. Perhaps the most nightmarish aspect of Oliver’s vision is the passive acquiescence of the citizens, who give up their ability to feel sadness along with their ability to feel anything at all.
‘Hate isn’t the most dangerous thing…Indifference is.’
In the futuristic society in “Delirium” William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” is on the high school curriculum in order to educate students about the dangers of the deliria: it serves as a cautionary tale. Dancing is banned and dreaming is rare. Those infected by love are ‘cured’ against their will, and are depicted thrashing like rabies victims against their physical restraints until a portion of their brain is forcibly excised. In Oliver’s society our perception of love is turned completely on its head. Rather elevating love as the transcendent goal most people aim for and feel incomplete without, Oliver presents love as a mental illness which impedes rational and ordinary function. Oliver’s depiction doesn’t stray far from reality, and the author clearly recognizes that the more relatable the nightmarish world, the scarier it is. As Spike Jonze writes in “Her”, falling in love ‘is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.’ The inextricable nature of love and obsession are indeed often acknowledged within our own society and the chemical nature of desire really isn’t all that different from any other kind of chemical imbalance. Dopamine leads to attraction. The ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin leads to attachment. The colloquial term ‘lovesick’ demonstrates the synonymic nature of ‘love’ and ‘madness’: it is, in its early stages, as physical a reaction as it is emotional, despite our attempts to romanticize the notion.
‘The most dangerous sicknesses are those that make us believe we are well.’
In one sense, “Delirium” is comparable with Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. In this film, the fictional pseudo-scientific company Lacuna Inc offers heartbroken adults the chance to erase memories of their loved ones in order to ease their emotional turmoil. Yet halfway through his procedure one man realizes the pain is worth keeping the good memories of the relationship. Likewise, “Delirium” is a proponent of passionate love (along with the sweaty palms, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, sadness, and other pathological symptoms that are part of the package).
The medical cure administered in “Delirium” is reminiscent of the aversion therapy ‘Ludovico technique’ in Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”, a 1962 novella which also deals with the issue of free will v the state’s authority. Similarly, in his 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Ken Kesey details various controversial psychiatric procedures, namely electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and lobotomization. Oliver also clearly borrows from the sordid history of psychosurgery for her shadowy and non-specific descriptions of the procedure in “Delirium”. It must be noted that the most terrifying aspect of dystopian fiction is the fact that the most ghoulish and terrifying practices included within the dystopian corpus are actually borrowed liberally from humanity’s history. Indeed, it’s probably impossible to imagine humans doing worse things to one another than have already been done at some point and somewhere in the world. On a more cheery note, the central romance is squee-worthy. A ‘squee’, FYI, is defined by urban dictionary as ‘the cry of the rabid fangirl’ and looks something like this:
There’s no trope more popular in YA fiction than lovers torn apart by external circumstances (cough and so the lion fell in love with the lamb cough) as fangirls love nothing more than rooting for a seemingly hopeless case. Oliver, thankfully, manages to find a fresh set of obstacles which provide protagonists Lena and Alex with plenty of conflict. Namely, Lena is a seventeen year old who wants to follow the rules and be cured, and Alex is an ‘Invalid’ (an uncured member of the resistance from the Wilds). In addition to this central romance, Oliver fleshes out an interesting dynamic between Lena and her childhood best friend Hana, with both girls realizing that post-cure their attachment to one another will be non-existent.
The best YA literature doesn’t patronise its audience. Teenage readers are as capable of recognizing weak characterisation and underdeveloped relationships as their adult counterparts. A great YA book should explore relevant and serious themes and treat its readers with respect. Yet at the same time the best YA literature isn’t afraid to be sincere and earnest, and to wear its heart and its message on its sleeve. The message of “Delirium” is serious but simple: all the pain and rejection and humiliation of growing up and feeling things is better than feeling nothing at all.
‘Love is merely a madness; and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punish’d and cured is that the lunacy is so
ordinary that the whippers are in love too.’ – Shakespeare
‘Well, love is insanity. The ancient Greeks knew that. It is the taking over of a rational and lucid mind by delusion and self-destruction. You lose yourself, you have no power over yourself, you can’t even think straight.’ – Marilyn French
‘Isn’t what we mean by ‘falling in love’ a kind of sickness and craziness, an illusion, a blindness to what the loved person is really like.’ – Freud
‘Love is a serious mental disease.’ – Plato
‘Love is a madness.’ – Socrates