In Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, love is considered a disease. Its scientific name is amor deliria nervosa, and American scientists have found a way to cure it. When people reach adulthood, they undergo surgery on the brain that prevents them from feeling love. It also stops them from engaging in all the emotional and violent behaviors that are associated with powerful desires and attachments. The surgery is not optional; the United States government requires all citizens to be "cured." The country’s borders are closed to outsiders, and approved cities are walled off from surrounding countryside in order to prevent the spread of the disease.
As the novel begins, Lena Haloway Tiddle is seventeen years old and looking forward to being cured soon. She wants to be happy, and everyone she knows who has experienced love has been unhappy: most notably her sister, who was infected at the time of her procedure and had to be dragged to the operating table, and her mother, who committed suicide because the cure did not work on her. Like all Americans, Lena is well-educated about the ill effects of the delirium, and she knows all about how people in the past sometimes chose to die for love. This scares her—but it scares her even more that people in the past sometimes killed themselves because they never fell in love. She considers the disease
the deadliest of all deadly things: It kills you both when you have it and when you don’t.
As a high school senior, Lena has to undergo an evaluation. She puts on a see-through gown and stands before a panel of judges, who rate her on her physical appearance and on her willingness to conform to patterns of thought that are considered safe and healthy. Lena knows that her performance in this evaluation affects her whole life, because it will determine her choices of a husband, job, and so on. If she performs well, she will also partly exonerate her family, which has been tainted by scandal. Her mother’s suicide is a large part of this bad reputation. Also, Lena’s cousin Marcia died from stress when she was suspected of sympathizing with an anti-government rebellion.
At her evaluation, Lena answers questions about her favorite subjects, books, activities, and even her favorite color. She knows that the only acceptable answers to the color question are blue and green, but in the stress of the moment, she chokes and admits that she loves the “pale nothing color” that comes into the sky just before sunrise every morning. Her mouth runs away with her, and she gives several other unacceptable answers even though she knows it will ruin her chances at a normal life. As she is talking, she hears a rumbling sound, and a herd of cows runs through the room. At first Lena thinks she must be dreaming, but then she sees that the cows are wearing signs saying, “NOT CURE. DEATH.” She realizes that the cows are a publicity stunt. Invalids, uncured people who live in the unregulated borders between cities, sometimes commit strange attacks like this one as part of their rebellion against the government. Lena’s exam ends early, and soon afterward she gets word that the results have been thrown out. She will get another chance on another day.
Lena’s best friend, Hana, is beautiful, rich, brave, and somewhat cynical about the strict laws that govern their lives. The day after the cow incident, she convinces Lena to poke around and see if they can learn what happened. On that excursion, Lena meets a good-looking security guard, Alex, whom she saw during the cow incident. She feels attracted to him. Although he has the neck scars that show he is cured, he pays attention to her in a way that makes her nervous. He asks her to meet him at the beach, and Lena almost does it. At the last second however, she changes her mind and goes home.
Lena decides to forget about Alex. She wants to spend her summer having good, clean fun with Hana. Hana, however, wants to rebel a bit. She invites Lena to an underground party where they can hear live music that is very unlike the censored songs they normally hear. Because of her family history, Lena has far more experience with the consequences of rebellion. The two girls fight, and Hana suggests that Lena is too weak to rebel. Lena hears this comment as a challenge. That night, she sneaks out of her house and finds Hana at the party.
To Lena’s shock, the party is co-ed. Uncured boys and girls drink alcohol, dance, and even touch each other—all highly dangerous, forbidden behaviors that are likely to infect them with amor deliria nervosa. Even though the music is beautiful, drawing Lena in, the whole scene is too much for her to handle. She refuses to stay and hang out, and Hana refuses to leave. Lena leaves on her own, feeling that her friendship is crumbling. On her way out, she runs into Alex, who confesses that he has been admiring her from afar from a long time. He has seen her out running, and he thinks she looks like a happy, uninhibited person. Lena, who does not consider herself pretty or remarkable in any way, is flattered that someone would pick her out and pay attention to her. Even though she knows it is wrong, she lets Alex dance with her and agrees to meet him at the beach the next day.
On their date, Lena tells Alex about her family history. For some reason, the cure for amor deliria nervosa did not work on her mother, even though the scientists performed the operation three times. Lena’s early life was infused with love—a fact that she knows is shameful. When the scientists scheduled her mother to undergo the operation a fourth time, with no anesthetic, her mother committed suicide by jumping off a cliff into the ocean.
Lena expects Alex to be disgusted by this story, as most people are, but he seems to feel sorry for her instead. She confesses that she sometimes imagines her mother swimming away to the Wilds instead of dying. When Lena mentions the Invalids beyond the city’s borders, Alex stiffens up. He confesses that he is not who she assumes him to be. He is an Invalid who was born in the Wilds, and both of his parents are dead. He came to the city at the age of ten in order to help with the resistance, which is larger and more powerful than the government admits. The cure scars on his neck are fake; he has never undergone the cure. When she hears this, Lena panics and runs away.
For days after this experience, Lena checks herself for signs of the delirium, but she seems to be okay. Lena resolves to be a model citizen, to carry herself with the...
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