Lena's government has probably banned the use of the word dystopia, but until they get ahold of us, we have the definition. In short, dystopian lit is literature that paints a super scary, freaky deaky portrait of life in the future. And by doing so, it serves as a commentary on what's wrong with our contemporary, real-life cultures and governments.
So what is Oliver criticizing in Delirium? Well, a few things. For example, Lena's mom's storyline seems to be a critique of the American health care system.
But the bulk of the book focuses on the fact that people today seem to want to be safe above all else—even at the expense of their most precious freedoms. Like the freedom to love (whomever we choose).
In Lena's world, love is a medical condition: amor deliria nervosa. In other words: delirium. Thankfully there's a cure. Maybe it's like the Felicity Twilight Zone episode, "Help for the Lovelorn."
Anyway, Hana alludes to the cure being "cut[ing] out half our brain" (8.66). But could the government really be performing lobotomies on its citizens? How could they get away with something like that?
Sometimes, we think Lena acts like she's had a lobotomy already, on account of this love business. She gets completely overrun by her emotions. She operates strictly according to how she feels instead of what she thinks. She acts, well, delirious.
Here's what happens when Alex gives her a note:
I'm half-delirious as I open [Alex's note]. [...] I don't remember the run home, and my aunt finds me later half passed out in the hallway, murmuring to myself. (11.18)
It makes her pass out and talk to herself and not realize it. Yeah, Lena be loco.
So, we guess it wouldn't be so bad if Lena wised up and kicked her delirium to the curb. But the real upside to the cure for love's delirium is supposedly that "there's hardly any crime at all in Portland" (21.22). Is that a worthy trade-off for not experiencing any real emotions, in yourself or from other people?
All in all, this book's title points to the problematic ways in which we categorize some things as blessings and others as curses. Because who gets to decide what's good and what's bad for us? What kinds of decisions do we trust our government to make for us, and what kinds of decisions should be left to personal discretion?
Boy, the end to Delirium is quite the heart-breaker, isn't it? Once Lena finally escapes from the confines of her oppressive totalitarian government, she sees Alex shot right in front of her. Her only choice is to run into the wilds. Talk about a cliffhanger.
Right before she runs, though, Lena's family straps her to a bed because she has the deliria. Her aunt and sister tell her, "someday you'll thank us" (25.97). Um, right. While imprisoned, Lena vows to kill herself if she can't be with Alex. Okay, maybe restraining her is a good idea after all.
The very last words in the book are: "I love you. Remember. They cannot take it" (27.132). These were also Lena's mother's last words to her. Hm.
Who do you think Lena is talking to here? Is she speaking to Alex, letting him know that that she'll always love him no matter what? Or is she provocatively reminding us readers that there are some things the government will never be able to take from us humans, no matter what? Or both? You decide.
They walk down the streets of Portland, avoiding the traffic for the allergy pride parade and the people living like it's the 1890s… Oh, that's Portland, Oregon. This book takes place in Portland, Maine.
Really, though, it could be set in any town with stringent rules on life and love. According to Lena, in the U.S., "it has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure" (1.1).
This society dictates who to marry, how many kids to have. They watch everyone like Big Brother. It's very patriarchal. The committee who ranks people has four men and one woman, and women are told how many kids to have.
They've done a good job of perverting the values we currently hold in our nation, like the Fourth of July. Lena describes it as, "the day of our independence, the day we commemorate the closing of our nation's border" (8.2). What she doesn't realize is that this border closing represents their total dependence on the government's sketchy cure for love.
See, the U.S. is totally cut off from the outside world. Lena mentions, "the intranet [...] is controlled and monitored for our protection" (8.15). Notice it isn't Internet: it's intranet. Therefore, this U.S. is more like some of mainland China—it's got no access to the outside world.
The government even controls the music people can listen to. They mandate songs that are "prim and harmonious and structured" (9.33), which we guess is like being forced to listen to Celine Dion all day when all you want to do is jam out to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Once Alex tells Lena to start questioning her government and its rules, she sees Portland as "something in danger of dissolving" (19.7). Maybe she's talking about civilization itself. Or maybe just her own conventions, which have been hammered into her since birth.
The Crypts is Portland's mental health facility/prison. "Mental health" is being generous here. Crazy house or insane asylum might both be better descriptive terms for this place, on account of the horrors that happen inside.
Lena sees that the "prisoners", not patients, don't even look human. They've reverted to a feral state and receive no sort of care. The staff seems to basically be waiting for the prisoners to die.
The Wilds is the big scary world outside of Portland's city limits. But the Wilds aren't actually so wild. The government's portrayal of this area is just propaganda that's meant to help control the people.
By deeming everything outside of the city limits the Wilds, and putting a fence up to keep people inside the city, the government sends the message that it's safe to be in Portland—and it's darn scary out there. So let us protect you. C'mon, you'll be grateful we did.
Most people, including Lena, swallow this Kool-Aid without a second thought. Lena even describes the Wilds as "like a monster reaching its tentacles around the civilized parts of the world" (10.60). What changes her mind? She goes there.
As it turns out, her beloved Alex is from there. So it's not just "dark and dead, full of only the rustle and whispers of animals" (10.9) after all. One day, he takes her through the fence, and she sees that it's actually kind of nice. Sure, they're roughing it, but it's, like, nature and stuff.
And it is safe there. The people who live in the Wilds trade with each other and generally helping each other make ends meet. Unlike Portland, which is surrounded by an electric fence, the Wilds is a place with no walls. No mind control. Just people living peacefully.
The Wilds are the utopia to Portland's dystopia.
In Delirium, the government has banned a lot of books because they're dripping with love. This isn't the case in the contemporary U.S. of A., but if love stories were to start disappearing from the shelves, never fear—you'd be able to fly through Delirium before anyone got around to burning it. The narrator of the book, Lena, is seventeen, and her vocabulary is right on par for someone of her age group. Plus, it's not like she's very well read—books being banned and all—so she won't be making any literary references you won't get. The complexity of this book comes from its themes, not its language or allusions.
There are quotes from The Book of Shhh at the beginning of some of the chapters in Delirium, and Lena mentions it as though it's a sort of religious tome, saying, "defacing or destroying the Book of Shhh is sacrilege" (14.80).
We can only piece together what it is through hints dropped in the text. Lena says it "tells stories of those who died because of love lost or never found, which is what terrifies me the most" (1.11). It seems to serve as both a guide to life, and a way to instill fear in the general populace.
We're not sure where it got the silly title, though. This is Delirium, not Hush, Hush.
The electric fence around Portland is about as literal of a symbol as you can find in any book. It keeps people in, just like the oppressive government keeps people in line. It's also a good symbol for fear. Lena says that "crossing the border is a capital offense, punishable by death" (16.13). In other words: if break the rules, you die.
However, this fence has some flaws. Alex informs Lena that it's not electrified all the way through. There are loopholes that he's able to exploit to get in and out of the city.
Same thing goes for the government's all-encompassing rules. There are some startling oversights in them. How else can you explain Alex passing as someone who has been cured of the love disease simply by making little scars on his neck? Why don't more people try that?
Well, because they're afraid of getting shocked. Or killed. Fear is a powerful tool.
Lena and Hana run past this statue at Monument Square every day. It's described as follows:
He is striding forward, one hand holding his hat on his head so that it looks like he is waking through a horrible storm. (9.140)
There is a statue in the real Portland, Maine's Monument Square, but it doesn't look like that.
Anyway, these two like to high five the statue every time they run by. See, one of the statue's hands is outstretched in an empty fist, like he used to hold something.
By using the fist to pass clandestine notes to Alex, Lena uses this artifact of the past to help her with her present day struggles. But what did the statue used to hold? Maybe it was just a corn dog. Lena guesses it might have been a torch.
We wonder if it was a flag instead. And that flag is now gone, like the rest of the liberties in Lena's world.
The cows that invade Lena's evaluation are a statement of protest by the Invalids. They're to intended to represent that, in this futuristic, government-controlled society, "We're all a bunch of herd animals" (4.63).
Although the protest does have some an effect on Lena, do you think that it is really that effective? It only temporarily delays the evaluations; it doesn't stop them forever. And in fact, we never see the Invalids stage any sort of action that has a real deterrent effect on the oppressive government regime.
Are the Invalids just biding their time until they take more dramatic action against the government, or would the Incompetents be a better term for this group of rebels?
When Alex talks about how hard he's fought for his freedom, he refers to Portland as a cage, keeping everyone inside with rules and walls. He says, "I'd thought that nothing and nobody was free in Portland, but I was wrong. There were always the birds" (14.81). Do you think that's how he views Lena, as a bird in a cage waiting to be freed?
In the bonus features to the paperback version of Delirium, Lauren Oliver states that "birds have always been a symbol of freedom and the possibility of escape." Well, that solves that question, huh? Thanks, Lauren!
One of the only things that Lena is good at—or knows she's good at—is running. With every step she takes, the pounding of her sneakers on the pavement pound the symbolism of this act into our brains.
See, running is one of the few things Lena has control over. She can pick her routes, run whenever she wants (well, as long as she's home for curfew), and get good exercise while she's at it. For a girl so obsessed with appearances, having a svelte figure is probably important to her.
Plus, this act is supposed to demonstrate for us how Lena is always running away from her own problems. She gets in a fight with Hana; she runs. Regulators raid a party; she runs. She doesn't want the cure anymore; she plans to run into the Wilds.
When her beloved Alex is shot before her eyes, he asks her to do one thing: run.
Running symbol of both her fear and her desire for control. Ultimately, though, it ends up saving her life.