Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
A Clockwork Orange presents a frightening picture of the direction in which Western civilization seems to be heading. “Respectable” working-class and middle-class people live a drastically attenuated life, trapped in their decaying homes at night after “rabbiting” all day at mindless occupations. Teenagers, before their inevitable decline into a similar pattern, spend their time soaking up one-dimensional pop culture during the day as a prelude to nights of violence or easily available and officially sanctioned drug stupor. Liberalism does not help: Even well-intentioned functionaries such as P. R. Deltoid, Alex’s truant officer, can barely mask their contempt for delinquents, and as a result, they preside over but never combat the process of decay. Authoritarianism is even worse. It is effective, but at too great a price: As in Fascist Italy and Germany, the trains may run on time for a while, but too many people are in concentration camps.
All this is a familiar part of the future that modern man has already begun to endure, but Burgess’ point is not only to satirize the conditions of modern life but also to examine some of the basic and perhaps inevitable contradictions of psyche and society. The perennial problem of evil allows for no easy solution, Burgess suggests, as long as one continues to value human freedom; otherwise, evil could be curbed quite handily by a combination of behavioral engineering and governmental tyranny....
(The entire section is 534 words.)
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A Clockwork Orange explores the ideas of good and evil by asking what it means to be human. Burgess asks and answers the question, "Is a man who has been forced to be good better than a man who chooses evil?" Alex chooses evil because it is in his nature to do so. His impulse towards good is artificial because it comes from outside of him, instilled by a government bent on controlling the populace by controlling their desires. By eliminating all of the bad in Alex through the Ludovico Technique, the government also eliminates that very thing that constitutes his humanity: his freedom to choose. They treat the symptom, not the cause of Alex's evil, oblivious of their own complicity in his behavior. For Burgess, an evil Alex is a human Alex and, hence, preferable to an Alex who has been programmed to deny his own nature. F. Alexander, the writer Alex and his droogs beat up, is one of the mouthpieces for this idea. At one point he says to Alex, "They have turned you into something other than a human being. You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable only of good." Later, he adds, "The essential intention [of the Ludovico Technique] is the real sin. A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man." The repetition of Alex's phrase "What's it going to be then, eh?" throughout the novel also underscores the theme of free will and individual choice.
(The entire section is 944 words.)