This is my response to a passage from Lauren Oliver’s 2011 novel Delirium. The passage is found below the unseen.
The sound file of the lesson today in which we discussed the passage is included due top absences from the class. It helps my Year 13 to keep up.
The passage is drawn from a 21st century novel aimed at Young Adults. Dystopia has proven to be a common genre for such writing with the exploration of totalitarian states in works such as The Hunger Games providing material for Hollywood blockbusters.
In this passage the contextual settings of era and the condition under which life is lived is clear and typical of the genre. The piece is set in a future world, one run by scientists and doctors who strive to control the emotions and feelings of the people. Such control has been a staple of this genre since works such as Zamyatin’s We and Huxley’s Brave New World. The passage opens with a clear statement that love has been “identified as a disease” by a ruling elite. Time is evidently important to the narrator –a teenage girl- and we are given information about the passage of “sixty four” years and also the countdown to the “ninety five days” before her maturity and the “operation”. This narrative device – introducing a countdown to an important, yet unspecified event – is a key device in Patrick Ness’ novel The Knife of never letting go, in which the male protagonist is on the run in the days leading up to his birthday and entry to adulthood. Another typical device is the reference to the past as the “dark days”. In a Dystopian novel it is necessary for the “now” to be officially portrayed as the good times and for the “past” to be seen in a negative light. We see this clearly in works such as Logan’s Run or Brave New World and here the narrator – a girl still in education seems to accept the official notion of a “dark” time which she is lucky to live outside. Her acceptance of the regime is signalled by her choice of “of course” as she opens paragraph Seven by seeming to accept the need for the operations to continue.
Her acceptance is, however , challenged by the two single sentence e paragraphs earlier in the passage. In the first she tells us that the sight of “uncureds” (reminiscent of Orwell’s manipulation of language) remind he of her “mother” and in the second that her life, however good, is marred by “pain”, whether physical or emotional is not clear, and a possible lack of safety. The narrator, a girl –a feature of 21st century and especially Young Adult Writing and a break from the stereotypically male protagonists in this genre from HG Wells until the emergence of writers such as Malorie Blackman in Noughts and Crosses made a conscious effort to engage a female readership, is clear in her opening statement. She presents information without embellishment and in a direct manner. Her sentences are simple and straightforward: “ Everyone else in my family has had the procedure already”. The lack of a proper noun for the “procedure” suggests the normality of the action and the level of acceptance into everyday discourse, much as the clones in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go refer ot element s of their treatment as ‘donations’ or ‘carers’. The build-up of the unexplained adoption of everyday terms is unsettling and helps to convey the sense of threat found in the new society. She is clear that ‘scientists’ have found a ‘cure’ for the disease ‘amor deliria nervosa’ and the language develops to present love – one of the finest and fullest emotions of a ‘normal’ contemporary world, as something to be feared and shunned. Again, the idea of controlling emotion to ensure loyalty to a state is a feature of many texts such as 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World and so forth.
As she tells the reader about the process in the first paragraph her language becomes more descriptive and emotive: the list of 3 illnesses which can result and the use of a verb such as “writhing” to describe the sensation of love she currently feels suggest an emotional response which is not evident as she begins her narrative. The descriptions of those who are diseased are graphic and unpleasant – ‘dragging their nails… their mouths dripping spit’. The reader notices first that it is only girls who are seen to be behaving in this way and may also infer that far from being uncured, these are the victims of some unspecified operation devised by ‘scientists’ devoid of feeling and emotion which has itself left the victims in this parlous state. It is reminiscent of the state in which Alex is left following his ‘cure’ in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.
Love is ‘cured’ and the narrator looks forward to being ‘paired with a boy’ in a world in which presumably pairing is needed for procreation but little else. She is supported by an older sister and an aunt – both given names- who seem to have convinced her that the process is a good thing. Her wedding dreams are another common convention – dreams tend to display a view of reality and the subconscious as seen in McCarthy’s The Road – and the ‘blurs’ of the face of her husband hints at the lack of closeness that will be found between the couple. This is accentuated by the onomatopoeic heart beat: ‘womp, womp, womp’ suggesting that there is no increase in emotion between the couple. Indeed the narrator seems proud of this fact, suggesting that he rheart does not ‘skip or jump or swirl or go faster’ – a list suggestive of happiness and freedom. This has no place in her new world.
An interesting feature of the passage is that the school system still teaches elements of the ‘old ways’. The symbolism of the ‘dark days’ is clear – a time of threat and a lack of clear vision, yet the narrator is aware that there was a time when love was viewed as ‘something to be celebrated or pursued’. She drops into a second person narrative, speaking directly to the reader as though to a friend or confidant (‘It affects your mind…) and explores the problems which are contained in the ‘Book of SHHH’ and acronym derived from the tricolon title of the book outlining the rules and structure of the new world order, which suggests from its name that this is an area to be kept silent and not to be discussed. The full title of the book, linking ‘safety’ with ‘happiness’, suggests a euphemistic approach to controlling the thought processes and practices of this society.
There are moments of the text in which the writer presents a surprising normality. I find it jarring to read of the United States, as though the geo-political order has not changed. Whilst Orwell or Zamyatin are at pains to remove the continental nomenclature familiar to their readers, writers such as Ishiguro or Steven King make no attempt to hide the location of their texts from their readers. Not only has the geopolitical system not changed, but neither has the counting of the months and years – the narrator has a birthday on ‘September 3’. This tangible link to the world of the reader helps to make the narrative more accessible, perhaps, and creates a heightened horror when reading of the ‘invisible, sweeping tentacles’ with which a personified love is said to be ‘choking us’. The writer uses the easily recognisable feelings associated with love: heart in the mouth, shortness of breath and so forth in a way to accentuate the negativity that has been gathered around the emotion in this passage. The descriptions of suicides – from the hyperbolic and graphic “tear their eyes out or try to impale themselves on the barbed –wire fences” ( the addition of the adjective “barbed” here raising the emotion significantly) to the girl who “dropped quickly” serve to intensify the feeling of entrapment felt by some members of this society.
It is clear that this society, whilst using television to ensure that the deaths are seen as a warning for all, cannot prevent people from taking the ultimate sanction. The feeling of being trapped in an unfeeling system is clear throughout the passage from the clinical descriptions of the ‘cure’ and the scientists by whom it will be delivered. Only at the end of the passage do we get under the cover of the emotions presented by the narrator. Her sentences become short and direct, almost desperate – ‘I’m nervous of course. … I want to get it over with’ both suggest the impending cure as a rite of passage which heralds adulthood. Ultimately the narrator used an extremely short paragraph to draw attention to her feelings: ‘the deadliest of all deadly things: it kills you both when you have it and when you don’t’ suggests recognition of the cognitive dissonance of her situation. She seems to crave love and yet also to crave its removal. The suggestion is of a lose/lose situation –an ideal choice for a dystopia.
[…] unseen: Delirium […]