Study Guide

Delirium Themes

  • Love

    Lena and Alex sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. In any world, this rhyme is annoying enough to make you want to poke out your own eardrums. In the world of Delirium, however, it's more than irritating—it could very well be a death sentence. Lena lives in a world where the United States has outlawed love. They see it as the root of all evil. Suicide, greed, jealousy, crimes of passion, and so on are all caused by the complex concoctions of emotions we've boiled down into a simple four letter word: love. K-I-S-S-I-N-G? More like K-I-L-L-I-N-G.

    Questions About Love

    1. Is Alex's love the only thing that matters to Lena, above all else?
    2. Lena says "Love: It will kill you and save you, both" (24.74). What does she mean by this?
    3. What do you think the cure for love actually is? Does it seem to work?
    4. Is love the root of all the world's problems, like the government thinks it is? What about love's companion, hate?

    Chew on This

    The love cure has its benefits: reduced crime, population control. It's not such a bad thing after all.

    The love cure infringes upon everyone's right to live their lives the way they want to—not only to choose a romantic partner, but to have feelings at all.

  • Fear

    Fear is an emotion we've all experienced, and one we all want to get under control. Whether you spend your free time watching reality TV or listening to self-help videos from the 80s‎, you know that fear limits your ability to reach your true potential.

    In Delirium, fear sure limits Lena. Maybe the government in this book would have made a productive society if they had outlawed fear instead of love. However, fear is how this government works.

    It instills a fear of love, of companionship, of success into its people, which isolates them and makes them easier to control. It is only when she acknowledges her feeling of love—her relationship with Alex—and her ability to do things without falling over, that Lena finally starts to overcome her fear.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What is Lena really afraid of?
    2. What helps Lena get rid of her fears? Does she overcome them completely?
    3. Hana tells Lena, "Turns out you're braver than I am" (24.63). Do you think Lena is actually braver than Hana? Why or why not?
    4. How does Lena's government instill fear in its people? Is fear an effective strategy for control?

    Chew on This

    Lena is a product of her society, which teaches people to fear just about everything—from their own emotions to each other.

    Lena is able to control her fear through her love with Alex. Keeping people apart is yet one more way the government keeps its people afraid.

  • Lies and Deceit

    If we told you the world was flat, you wouldn't believe us. Why not? It's not like you've circumnavigated the globe and witnessed the roundness of our planet for yourself. No, you learned this fact from people or institutions you trust: teachers, textbooks, the National Geographic Channel. But what if all of these things and people were working together to deceive you? In Delirium, the U.S. Government controls the news we see, the books we read, the shows we watch, even the music we listen to. And Lena has no reason not to believe in these sources. No wonder she finds it so easy to lie; she's lived in a world of lies her whole life.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. In what ways has the government (in Delirium) deceived its people?
    2. Why does Lena think so many people are going to betray her?
    3. Is Lena as good at lying as she thinks she is?
    4. Does Lena have a double standard when it comes to lying?

    Chew on This

    Lena prides herself on being in control of her emotions, so anything that goes against her beliefs or makes her question them, she sees as a betrayal.

    Lies are part of any dystopian society's secrets to success. For example, in Delirium, people are told that the Wilds are dangerous. If they were told the truth, no one would think the love cure was a good thing.

  • Madness

    The DSM-V is the American Psychiatric Association's "bible," featuring a plethora of mental illnesses. Odds are you have at least one. We're not sure if the DSM-V exists in Delirium, but if it did, it would only be one page long. And that page would have on it: amor deliria nervosa (love). To the government in Lena's world, love is the cause of all our problems. Supposedly, it can be cured. But the brain, like love, is complicated, and the cure isn't foolproof. Plus, people have to wait until 18 to be cured anyway. So if love makes you crazy, well, everyone in Lena's world has been crazy at one point or another. At least all this madness makes Delirium a fun and interesting read.

    Questions About Madness

    1. In what ways does the diagnosis of and treatment for amor deliria nervosa mimic our real-world diagnosis of and treatment of mental illness?
    2. Should love be classified as a mental illness in our world?
    3. Is Lena's mom crazy? Is Lena crazy?

    Chew on This

    Classifying love as a mental illness stigmatizes it, which makes people automatically more afraid of it.

    People who are in love (or in lust) aren't mentally ill—they're normal humans. But the government tries to impose its own definition of normal by making these people feel like freaks.

  • Lust

    There's a simple four-letter word for the impossibly complex combination of psychology and physiology that gets hearts racing, palms sweating, faces blushing, and more when two people are attracted to one another. Not love. Lust. It can be pretty difficult, if not impossible, to tell the two apart. In Delirium, Lena sure doesn't know the difference. In fact, the word "lust" isn't even used in the book. But the way Alex gets her motor revving before she even knows his last name tells us that it's not simply love that's driving everyone crazy: it's lust, too.

    Questions About Lust

    1. Is Lena in love with Alex, or just in lust?
    2. Is love or lust the stronger emotion in Delirium?
    3. Does the Cure cure people of love, or of lust, or both?
    4. Do you think the government (in Delirium) believes love is more dangerous than lust, or vice versa? Why?

    Chew on This

    Lena doesn't seem to be able to differentiate between love and lust, probably because most teenagers (let alone adults) can't either.

    Lena is more in lust with Alex than she is in love with him. She hasn't had any time to get to know him; what she's experiencing is simply physical attraction.

  • Dissatisfaction

    Utopian societies are supposed to be perfect. No crime. No difficult choices. Paradise, right? That's never how it works out. Utopian societies are always a dystopia to someone, and the someones in this case are the lower classes. Even if it weren't for the skyrocketing oil costs and rampant poverty, Lena would still have plenty to be dissatisfied about. Her whole life is decided for her, and so her life is completely devoid of surprises. All she has to look forward to is going to a boring school. Then having a boring job. Then having a boring husband. When Lena realizes that this complete lack of free will just isn't for her, she decides that something has to change.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Why is Lena's self-esteem so low?
    2. What aspects of Lena's society is she dissatisfied with? What is she just fine with? How do these opinions change during the course of the book?
    3. Hana is richer than Lena. Is Hana dissatisfied with anything, or does she have a perfect life?

    Chew on This

    The rules of Lena's society have basically taken satisfaction out of the equation. You do what the government tells you, and, well, they don't care if you like it or not. By being dissatisfied, Lena is questioning her society's rules without realizing she's doing so.

    People won't try to change something if they're satisfied with it. Since satisfaction isn't a consideration for most people in Delirium, they blindly follow the government's rules.

  • Passivity

    If there's one good thing about some dystopian societies—and that's a big if—it's that the heavy lifting is done for you. Lena doesn't have to apply to colleges, go to job interviews, or even go on dates. Her education, career, and marriage are all decided for her in Delirium. This complete lack of free will is problematic for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest ones is that Lena ends up acting like a doormat. She feels like she can't do anything about what's happening to her because that's what she's been taught. In fact, she's so accustomed to doing what she's told, we wouldn't be surprised if she turned out to be a puppet. And a lame one, too, like Howdy Doody. Eventually, Lena's going to have to realize that if she wants to be happy, she must take charge of her own life.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Is Lena a strong-willed or weak-willed character? Support your answer with quotes from the text.
    2. Does Lena's government encourage its people to be weak? If so, how does it do this?
    3. What are the consequences of passivity when the Regulators conduct their raids?

    Chew on This

    Lena has been conditioned to do what she's told, so it's only natural that she lets people walk all over her.

    Hana lives in the same city and goes to the same school as Lena, but she's a rebel—she seeks out boys and banned entertainment. So it's Lena's own nature that makes her passive, not her environment.

  • Appearances

    Some people go beyond looks when formulating a first impression. They try to understand what someone does and what they stand for. You know, their character. Lena is not one of those people. Not only is she a gullible teenage girl in America—a culture obsessed with looks—she's also a first-person narrator. And one of the most economical ways to describe people when they first appear on the page is by, you guessed it, their appearance. However, Lena goes a bit further than just objectively describing other characters. She often tells us whether she approves of their appearances or not. Even when it comes to herself, the answer is most often: not. This girl's a harsh critic. If shows like Fashion Police weren't banned in Lena's world, Joan Rivers would have a worthy successor in Lena.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Is Lena shallow? Why or why not? What about Alex?
    2. When Alex says that Lena is beautiful, does he mean physically, or something else?
    3. Does Portland appear, at first, to be a utopia? Or are its flaws immediately apparent?

    Chew on This

    Lena's so big on appearances because she's a teenage girl who, because of her totalitarian culture and/or her own predispositions, is really insecure. And she's never been around boys before, so of course they're a big deal for her.

    Lena doesn't have much going for her in the way of character—she's selfish, she steals, she has no convictions, she changes her mind constantly—so evaluates people on something more superficial: their looks.

  • Betrayal

    Betrayal comes in a variety of flavors, from mild—e.g., calling shotgun, and still being forced to sit in the back—to extra spicy—e.g., leaking government secrets and putting people in danger. Some people react to mild betrayals the same way they'd react to international treason: screaming, running, generally freaking the heck out. Lena is one of those people. To her, almost everything is a betrayal. At some point, she's betrayed by her best friend, her boyfriend, her mother, and her country. It all comes with the territory. By territory, we mean the totalitarian government that runs her society, and has been lying to its people for decades. It might as well be renamed the United States of Betrayal.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Why is Lena so afraid of betrayal?
    2. Who, if anyone, actually betrays Lena during the course of the novel?
    3. What lies does the government tell to its people? Why do they lie about these things?

    Chew on This

    When you're born into a world of betrayal, you inevitably have chronic trust issues.

    Lena is more betrayer than betrayed.