Anthony Burgess Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 94) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Time for a Tiger (novel) 1956
The Enemy in the Blanket (novel) 1958
English Literature: A Survey for Students [as John Burgess Wilson] (criticism) 1958
Beds in the East (novel) 1959
The Doctor Is Sick (novel) 1960
The Right to an Answer (novel) 1960
Devil of a State (novel) 1961
One Hand Clapping [as Joseph Kell] (novel) 1961
The Worm and the Ring (novel) 1961
A Clockwork Orange (novel) 1962
The Wanting Seed (novel) 1962
Honey for the Bears (novel) 1963
Inside Mr. Enderby [as Joseph Kell] (novel) 1963
The Novel Today (criticism) 1963
The Eve of St. Venus (novel) 1964
Language Made Plain [as John Burgess Wilson] (nonfiction) 1964
Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare's Love-Life (novel) 1964
Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader (criticism) 1965; also published as Re Joyce, 1965
A Vision of Battlements (novel) 1965
Tremor of Intent (novel) 1966
The Novel Now: A Student's Guide to Contemporary Fiction (criticism) 1967; revised edition, 1971
Enderby Outside (novel) 1968
Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (criticism) 1968
Shakespeare (biography) 1970
MF (novel) 1971
Morning in His Eyes [translator...

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Julian Mitchell (review date 18 May 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Horrorshow on Amis Avenue," in The Spectator, Vol. 95, No. 6986, May 18, 1962, pp. 661-62.

[Mitchell is an English novelist, playwright, and critic. In the following positive review, he lauds A Clockwork Orange as a brilliant mixture of horror and farce, calling Burgess's use of language an "extraordinary technical feat."]

Anthony Burgess must have garnered some excellent reviews in his short, busy writing career (A Clockwork Orange is his eighth novel since 1956). No one can match his skill at anguished farce about the end of empire. His characters seem to be trapped in a tent whose pole has just been sawn in two by an over-enthusiastic...

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Stanley Edgar Hyman (review date 7 January 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Oranges," in The New Leader, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, January 7, 1963, pp. 22-3.

[Hyman was an American critic and educator, long associated with the New Yorker magazine. In the following positive review, he praises Burgess as a satirist and calls A Clockwork Orange "an eloquent and shocking novel that is quite unique."]

Anthony Burgess is one of the newest and most talented of the younger British writers. Although he is 45, he has devoted himself to writing only in the last few years. Before that he was a composer, and a civil servant in Malaya and Brunei. His first novel, The Right to an Answer, was published in...

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William H. Pritchard (essay date Summer 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Novels of Anthony Burgess," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 525-39.

[Pritchard is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, he discusses the effect of Burgess's invented language, "nadsat," on the violent content of A Clockwork Orange.]

A Clockwork Orange, The Wanting Seed, and Honey for the Bears are (at least the first and last) Burgess' most popular books and they ask to be considered together. All of them concern the individual and the modern state; all of them are felt to have a connection with the quality of life in the 1960's, but they approach life obliquely by creating fantasies or...

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Robert K. Morris (essay date 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bitter Fruits of Freedom," in The Consolations of Ambiguity: An Essay on the Novels of Anthony Burgess, University of Missouri Press, 1971, pp. 55-75.

[Morris is an American critic, educator, and biographer. In the following excerpt, he compares the structure and philosophic themes of Burgess's dystopian novels, A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed.]

What followed from Burgess' preoccupation with the transition and ultimate death rattle of colonialism abroad and the atrophy of "self-indulgent" England at home were his two dark visions of dystopia—A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed. Even the parboiled paternalism of the Empire...

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Robert O. Evans (essay date March 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nadsat: The Argot and Its Implications in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 1, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 406-10.

[Evans is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he discusses the use of the "nadsat" slang in A Clockwork Orange, and its effect upon the novel as a dystopian vision.]

The dustjacket of the Heinemann edition of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962) promises that "it will take the reader no more than fifteen pages to master and revel in the expressive language of Nadsat." Perhaps that is what it will take to guess most of the meanings from context, but to master the...

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A. A. DeVitis (essay date 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "England, Education, and the Future," in Anthony Burgess, Twayne, 1972, pp. 96-118.

[DeVitis is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, he interprets A Clockwork Orange as a black comedy which illustrates the "horror of life without choice."]

In a chapter entitled "Utopias and Dystopias" in The Novel Now, Anthony Burgess appraises the influence of H. G. Wells on the modern utopian novel:

Many novelists set themselves the task—before and after the war—of exposing Wells's optimistic scientific liberalism as a sham. Science and education, said Wells, would outlaw war, poverty, squalor. All...

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Anthony Burgess (essay date 17 February 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Clockwork Marmalade," in The Listener, Vol. 87, No. 2238, February 17, 1972, pp. 197-99.

[In the following essay, Burgess discusses the violence in A Clockwork Orange and reacts to criticism that both the novel and Stanley Kubrick's 1972 film version of it are gratuitous in their depictions of such content.]

I went to see Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange in New York, fighting to get in like everybody else. It was worth the fight, I thought—very much a Kubrick movie, technically brilliant, thoughtful, relevant, poetic, mind-opening. It was possible for me to see the work as a radical remaking of my own novel, not as a mere interpretation,...

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Anthony Burgess with Carol Dix (interview date Spring-Summer 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Anthony Burgess, in Transatlantic Review, Nos. 42 and 43, Spring-Summer, 1972, pp. 183-91.

[In the following excerpt, Burgess discusses the novel and film versions of A Clockwork Orange.]

Anthony Burgess is one of England's most talented, scholarly and entertaining contemporary writers. He is 54 now, and has been writing for only twelve years. In that time he has published eighteen novels, six critical works, and one language primer; as well as a mountain of freelance journalism, reviewing, lecturing, TV scripting and screen playwrighting. In 1965, he left England to live in Malta, disgusted with tax laws that made it impossible for a writer...

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John Cullinan (essay date June 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange: Two Versions," in English Language Notes, Vol. IX, No. 4, June, 1972, pp. 287-92.

[In the following essay, Cullinan discusses the effect of the final, twenty-first, chapter of A Clockwork Orange, which was left out of the original American editions.]

American readers of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess' best-known novel, are reading a truncated version of which the author does not approve. The Norton and Ballantine editions published in this country both omit the concluding twenty-first chapter which the English Heinemann edition contains. According to Mr. Burgess the discrepancy arose as a result of...

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Wayne C. Connelly (essay date December 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Optimism in Burgess's A Clockwork Orange," in Extrapolation, Vol. 14, No. 1, December, 1972, pp. 25-9.

[In the following essay, Connelly argues that the untruncated version of A Clockwork Orange is a story of "life's movement, of growing up and of renewal."]

Some ten years after its publication Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange is finally beginning to receive justly deserved popular attention. It is unfortunate, however, that this attention is being given to a misleading and inferior version of the original novel. In both its British hardcover edition published by William Heinemann and its Pan paperback, the novel concludes with a...

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Samuel McCracken (essay date 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Novel into Film; Novelist into Critic: A Clockwork Orange … Again," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 32, No. 3, 1973, pp. 427-36.

[McCracken is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he argues against interpreting A Clockwork Orange as a didactic novel concerning free will, taking issue specifically with Burgess's stated intentions for the book. He also notes some of the significant differences between the novel and the film.]

Although A Clockwork Orange had a respectable little reputation before its visual enshrinement by Stanley Kubrick, it was not upon its publication widely or intensely reviewed. One of its champions,...

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Esther Petix (essay date 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Linguistics, Mechanics, and Metaphysics: Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962)," in Critical Essays on Anthony Burgess, edited by Geoffrey Aggeler, G. K. Hall, 1986, pp. 121-31.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1976, Petix discusses the philosophical underpinnings of Burgess's fiction and examines the ways in which they are manifested in A Clockwork Orange.]

The second half of the twentieth century has passively acknowledged the emergence of its most controversial gadfly, John Anthony Burgess Wilson: philosopher, critic, theologian, linguist, musician, academician, and author. Yet the seemingly facile task of the Burgess critic is...

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Julie Carson (essay date Spring 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pronominalization in A Clockwork Orange," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 200-05.

[In the following essay, Carson argues that pronoun usage in A Clockwork Orange is indicative of the power relationships between Alex and the other characters.]

What discussion there has been of the language of A Clockwork Orange has dealt mainly with the gypsy talk of Alec, "nadsat," a hybrid of Russian and onomatopoetic words. Virtually no critic, however, has investigated a linguistic technique certainly as obvious as the nadsat lexicon: Alec's system of pronominalization. It is with the thou/you pronoun distinction,...

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Rubin Rabinovitz (essay date Winter 1978–1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mechanism vs. Organism: Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4, Winter, 1978–1979, pp. 538-41.

[Rabinovitz is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he argues that the twenty-first chapter of A Clockwork Orange reveals a thematic synthesis of free will and determinism.]

In his most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess explores a number of interesting issues such as free will, the meaning of violence, and a cyclical theory of history. Resolving these issues, however, is complicated by an extraneous factor; the American editions of the novel lack Burgess' original...

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Rubin Rabinovitz (essay date Spring 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ethical Values in Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XI, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 43-50.

[In the following essay, Rabinovitz comments on Burgess's presentation in A Clockwork Orange of the notion of "social history as a cyclical alternation" of diametrically opposed views of human nature and morality.]

In Anthony Burgess's most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange [1962 British edition, which includes the final, twenty-first chapter], the most obvious clash of values is between the lawless hero and a society that hopes to control him. This struggle obscures another conflict which is nevertheless very important:...

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Philip E. Ray (essay date Autumn 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alex Before and After: A New Approach to Burgess' A Clockwork Orange," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3, Autumn, 1981, pp. 479-87.

[In the following essay, Ray argues that the structure of A Clockwork Orange reflects the theme of inevitable human growth.]

Most interpreters of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange have tended to follow the lead of such early commentators as Bernard Bergonzi, A. A. DeVitis, Carol M. Dix, and Robert K. Morris in defining the theme of the novel as the conflict between the natural and untainted Individual and the artificial and corrupt State. Bergonzi's observation that "in its emphasis on the nature of...

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Robert Bowie (essay date December 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Freedom and Art in A Clockwork Orange: Anthony Burgess and the Christian Premises of Dostoevsky," in Thought, Vol. LVI, No. 223, December, 1981, pp. 402-16.

[In the following essay, Bowie compares the thematic treatment of freedom and beauty in A Clockwork Orange and in works by Fyodor Dostoevsky.]

In 1961 Anthony Burgess interrupted his work on A Clockwork Orange and made a trip to the Soviet Union. Later he wrote a different novel, Honey for the Bears, based in part on his experiences in Leningrad, a novel that surely would never have been written if he had not made the trip. But there is also reason for asserting that without his...

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Anthony Burgess (essay date 26 March 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Introduction: A Clockwork Orange Resucked," in Rolling Stone, No. 496, March 26, 1987, pp. 74, 76.

[In the following essay, which appeared as an introduction to the first publication of the last chapter of A Clockwork Orange in America, Burgess discusses the publication history of the twenty-first chapter and how its inclusion changes the meaning of the novel.]

I first published the novella A Clockwork Orange in 1962, which ought to be far enough in the past for it to be erased from the world's literary memory. It refuses to be erased, however, and for this the film version of the book, made by Stanley Kubrick, may be held chiefly responsible. I...

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Anthony Burgess (essay date 31 May 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alex on Today's Youth: Creeching Golosses and Filthy Toofles!," in The New York Times Book Review, May 31, 1987, pp. 7, 18.

[In the following essay, which takes the form of an interview conducted by Burgess with Alex, the main character of A Clockwork Orange, Burgess examines Alex's personality by having him critique contemporary youth culture.]

This month W. W. Norton & Company published a new edition of A Clockwork Orange, including the 21st chapter, which had appeared in the British edition in 1962 but was dropped from the first American version. In that chapter, the teen-age thug Alex, who is the narrator, tires of violence and resolves...

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Jean-Pierre Barricelli (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beethovenian Overlays by Carpentier and Burgess: The Ninth in Grotesque Juxtapositions," in Melopoiesis: Approaches to the Study of Literature and Music, New York University Press, 1988, pp. 140-54.

[Barricelli is an American fiction writer, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, he argues that the use of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in A Clockwork Orange is arbitrary and inappropriate, "overlay[ing] with negative associations one of the supreme compositions in the musical repertory."]

[The] Ninth Symphony, with its lofty reputation, is not ipso facto always an object of celebration, and it continues to appear in grotesque contexts. With...

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John J. Stinson (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dystopias and Cacotopias," in Anthony Burgess Revisited, Twayne, 1991, pp. 47-63.

[Stinson is an educator and critic specializing in modern British literature who has spent many years studying the work of Burgess. In the following excerpt, he discusses themes and stylistic aspects of A Clockwork Orange, and comments on the history of the major critical issues involved with the novel.]

Any reasonably informed discussion of utopian and antiutopian fiction in our own century must soon involve the names of H. G. Wells and George Orwell. Wells, the cheerful apostle of rationalism, scientism, and technology, believed that the world's people, all basically...

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William Hutchings (essay date March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'What's It Going to Be Then, Eh?': The Stage Odyssey of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 35-48.

[In the following essay, Hutchings discusses the stage adaptations of A Clockwork Orange, focusing on the two written by Burgess.]

Since its publication in 1962, A Clockwork Orange has remained Anthony Burgess's best-known and most controversial work, distinguished not only by his stylistic virtuosity in creating the polyglot, pun-riddled teenage slang in which the novel is written but also by the vividness of the violence-wracked dystopian society within which Alex, the book's narrator...

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Deanna Madden (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Women In Dystopia: Misogyny in Brave New World, 1984, and A Clockwork Orange," in Misogyny in Literature: An Essay Collection, edited by Katherine Anne Ackley, Garland Publishing, 1992, pp. 289-313.

[In the following excerpt, Madden discusses elements of misogyny in A Clockwork Orange.]

The future society of A Clockwork Orange is a violent world in which the weak are at the mercy of the strong. Like Brave New World and 1984, A Clockwork Orange portrays a patriarchal culture in which women are subordinated and peripheral. Women are perceived through the male gaze, in this case that of a fifteen-year-old delinquent,...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Coale, Samuel. Anthony Burgess. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981, pp. 209-15.

Listing of secondary sources, including doctoral dissertations on Burgess.

――――――. "Criticism of Anthony Burgess: A Selected Checklist." Modern Fiction Studies 27, No. 3 (Autumn 1981): 533-36.

Listing of secondary sources, including general essays, interviews, and discussions of specific works.


Dix, Carol M. Anthony Burgess. Burnt Mill, Harlow, Essex, England: Longman, 1971, 31 p.


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