Burgess seems not only fascinated with language but also obsessed with it. Though he claims to have avoided “overmuch word play and verbal oddity” in deference to his reading public, his novels are nevertheless filled, occasionally distractingly so, with wordplay. Sometimes, as in A Clockwork Orange, this playing with language creates a new language, one that becomes more powerful than English could have been for portraying the subject matter. When A Clockwork Orange’s gang member-narrator, Alex, describes “a bit of the ultra violence” as fine and “horrorshow,” or describes as “sophistoes” two adolescent girls intent on seduction, the language defines Alex as much as, if not more than, his behavior does. In fact, in A Clockwork Orange, language is a character. Burgess also uses language effectively in Nothing Like the Sun, his fictional biography of William Shakespeare. In this novel Elizabethan language and idiom create a Shakespeare that no other rendering of language could have produced.
The language of Shakespeare, whom Burgess calls a “word-boy,” involves the reader more intensely than traditional usage of English. In The Eve of Saint Venus, Burgess parodies overinflated poetic language, with language again becoming one of the characters of the novel. Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy has been called “not so much plotted as it is orchestrated,” and the integration of music with language is vital in his most experimental novel, Napoleon Symphony, in which he attempts to synthesize the language of the novel and the musical elements of Beethoven’s Eroica. Though Burgess often calls unnecessary attention to his play with language and can overdo his linguistic games, he manages, in most of his work, to make language powerful, effective, and noticeable.
Burgess’s work often deals with the duality of nature: good and evil, free will and determinism, romanticism and realism, comedy and tragedy. His characters must grapple with their behavior in terms of these dualities. In his attempt to discover his own beliefs, Hillier, in Tremor of Intent, has many debates with several characters on the nature of good and evil. The conflict and paradox of opposing forces pervade the three novels that constitute the Malayan Trilogy.
Kenneth Toomey, the homosexual narrator of Earthly Powers, wrestles with the question of good and evil. Toomey and the pope’s discussions of good and evil and of free will and determinism form the philosophical backbone of the novel. Zverkov, a character in Honey for the Bears, represents philosophy and thought; Karamzin, of the same novel, represents force and physical strength. Like the characters in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), the characters in Burgess’s One Hand Clapping are confronted with the predicament of living a meaningful life in a spiritual and cultural desert. Alex, the narrator of A Clockwork Orange, complains about all the discussion and debate over good and evil; since no one ever tries to determine the essential source and nature of goodness, Alex claims that he does not understand the insistence on dissecting the nature of evil. Burgess seems as much a philosopher as a novelist, with his constant analysis of the duality of the nature of life, but it is these philosophical ruminations that lend depth to his work.
Sometimes subtle, but more often blatant if not slapstick, the comic elements of Burgess’s work are essential Burgess. The violence and depravity of A Clockwork Orange are made palatable by its narrator’s irrepressible sense of irony, lending humor to the most gruesome aspects of the novel. In the Malayan Trilogy, Burgess’s engaging representation of life transforms depravity into comedy. The narrator of The Right to an Answer is cynical and ironic. Devil of a State is a farce, while Honey for the Bears is comic throughout. The comic elements of...
(The entire section contains 4291 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Anthony Burgess study guide. You'll get access to all of the Anthony Burgess content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays