A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess
(Born John Anthony Burgess Wilson; also wrote as John Burgess Wilson and under the pseudonym Joseph Kell) Born in 1917, Burgess was an English novelist, essayist, critic, playwright, translator, editor, scriptwriter, short story writer, poet, author of children's books, composer, and autobiographer. He died in 1993.
The following entry presents criticism on Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange (1962). See also Anthony Burgess Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 13.
A Clockwork Orange is Burgess's best known and most controversial work. A kind of dystopian bildungsroman relating the "ultra-violent" life of Alex, a teenage hoodlum in a future English society, the novel is told in the first person and features Burgess's invented "nadsat" language, a patois comprised of distorted English and Russian words that is spoken by Alex and his cronies, or "droogs." The novel presents a bleak picture of society terrorized by street gangs and incompetently governed by hypocritical and self-serving officials. Through Alex's story, Burgess explores themes of free will, violence, and state-controlled behavior in a blackly humorous and subtly satirical style. Originally published in the United States in a truncated, twenty-chapter edition (which served as the basis for Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film), the complete novel ends with a twenty-first chapter in which a somewhat older Alex, grown bored with his violent lifestyle, dreams of beginning a family. Burgess later attempted to distance himself from A Clockwork Orange, believing that the novel—inflated by the popularity of the film—overshadowed his other works. In addition to the film version, A Clockwork Orange has served as the basis for three stage productions, two of which were written by Burgess.
Plot and Major Characters
Alex and his "droogs," under the influence of hallucinogenic milk, engage in acts of extreme violence against innocent, randomly-selected citizens and other gangs. One night he and his gang steal a car and travel to the outskirts of town where they happen on a private residence called HOME. There they brutally beat and rape the wife of F. Alexander, a liberal intellectual writer and author of a book called A Clockwork Orange. The next day Alex feigns a headache and stays home from school. He goes to a record shop where he meets two young girls whom he leads to his house and rapes. Alex's starkly violent life is counterpointed by his startlingly inventive discourse and by his love for classical music, particularly Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Later that evening, two of Alex's droogs, Dim and Georgie, challenge his leadership of the gang. A fight ensues in which Alex reestablishes his authority by slashing the two with a razor. Later, however, while escaping the scene of a burglary during which Alex mercilessly beats an elderly woman to death, Dim hits his leader in the eyes with a metal chain and the gang abandons him to the police, or "millicents." Alex spends more than two years in the "Staja" (STAte JAil). In that time, the prison chaplin introduces Alex to the Bible, which he reads as though it were a lurid novel; Alex also kills a fellow inmate who made sexual advances toward him. He then accepts an opportunity to undergo the experimental "Ludovico Treatment," a form of behavior conditioning in which the subject endures drug-induced nausea while being forced to watch films of wildly violent acts. Alex is made incapable of considering violence without becoming physically ill and is released from prison. Lonely and bereft of vitality, Alex eventually runs into and is brutally beaten by Dim and Billyboy, his former droog and an old gang foe who have since become members of the police. Left for dead on the outskirts of town, Alex stumbles to the nearest house—F. Alexander's HOME—where he quickly becomes the pawn of a liberal political organization that attempts to use him as an example of the current government's sadistic and ineffective methods of dealing with crime. Alex then attempts suicide by jumping out of a window; the fall doesn't kill him, but it nullifies the effects of the Ludovico Treatment. After recovering from his injuries he considers himself "cured" and is again free to contemplate and commit acts of violence. In the novel's final chapter, the older Alex loses interest in his old way of life and dreams of being married and having a son. The novel ends with Alex melancholically imagining that his son will be much like himself: that, as a father, Alex will be no more successful controlling his son than his own father was at controlling him.
A major theme of A Clockwork Orange is the ability of the individual to make moral choices. Burgess presents a society that experiments with radical behavior modification techniques on criminals to eliminate socially unwanted behavior; his argument is that it is morally and ethically preferable for the state to allow its citizens the choice between good and evil than it is for the state to destroy the capacity for choice. A side effect of Alex's conditioning is that, because classical music accompanied the films he watched during the Ludovico Treatment, he can no longer listen to Beethoven without getting sick. While this is a negligible by-product from the point of view of the government, it illustrates Burgess's point that destroying the ability to choose evil also destroys the capacity to choose good. The novel also juxtaposes the violence committed by Alex and his gangmembers with the violence committed by the state in the name of justice and security.
A Clockwork Orange has sparked controversy and debate since it was first published. Much of the critical commentary has focused on the novel's violent content. While some critics view it as titillating and gratuitous, others consider the severity of the violence committed by Alex as a thematic counterbalance to the extreme actions of the State. Debate has also focused on the function and interpretation of Burgess's ending. Some commentators argue that the twenty-first chapter detracts from the moral and ironic power of the novel; others find that the final chapter adds legitimacy to the notion of the novel as a bildungsroman, a story about Alex's moral and psychological growth. Views on the function and effect of the "nadsat" language also differ. Some critics see it as a "distancing" device that insulates the reader from the violence and thus makes it easier to identify with Alex. Others contend that the nadsat language reflects Alex's rebellion against his society's standardized and homogenized culture and see the use of nadsat as both parodic and heroic. Most critics agree, however, that the creation of the language itself is an impressive feat. Geoffrey Aggeler stated: "Both as satire and linguistic tour de force, A Clockwork Orange is one of Burgess' most brilliant achievements."