A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian novel, one that shows a seriously malfunctioning society. Dystopian stories contrast with the long tradition of visions of an ideal society, which began with Thomas More’s De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula (1516; Utopia, 1551). After World War II, the dystopian novel, expressing a deeply pessimistic view of human nature and social possibility, became a literary staple. Probably the most famous example remains George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
A Clockwork Orange became Anthony Burgess’s most popular novel in a long and varied literary career, but he protested what he believed to be its gross misinterpretation in an introduction to a new American edition (1988). In all earlier American editions the last chapter had been omitted, though it had always been present in the English and other versions. That last chapter gives a more hopeful view of Alex’s life, describing him as eventually abandoning violence and yearning for marriage and fatherhood. The truncated American version, however, became the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s film (1971) of the same name, which gave the story a brilliant visual and dramatic edge and was largely responsible for its popularity. The movie presented a starkly nihilistic world in which all institutions were corrupt and no hope was offered.
What Burgess intended to emphasize, as he points out in his introduction, is the necessity of free will and moral choice in the human makeup. Alex is a highly intelligent and articulate young man who chooses an evil life and later chooses to move away from it. Alex is a human creature only to the extent that he retains his free choice; when conditioned, he is reduced to nothing. Evil, the book argues, is a better condition than blankness. Alex is not given the usual excuses for being a criminal. He is not poor. His...
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