A Clockwork Orange is told retrospectively by a character who is both a victim and a great exponent of violence. Alex inhabits a world that is almost thoroughly dispirited, broken down by a daily grind of meaningless work, stultifying mass culture (a combination of government propaganda and silly pop music), and officially sanctioned “milk bars” that serve a variety of drug tonics to send one off on incoherent fantasies. This gray world may well be Anthony Burgess’ vision of a not-too-distant future England suffering under the failure of socialism and liberalism, and Alex’s protest, as shocking and violent as it is, is curiously sympathetic.
The bulk of part 1 is taken up with descriptions of Alex’s exploits in, to use his own term, “ultraviolence.” He and his fellow gang members, Georgie, Pete, and Dim, wander across a bleak landscape each night in a parody of heroic adventures: They spend their time enacting a succession of rapes, robberies, and assaults, usually aimed at almost completely defenseless people. These attacks are surely pathological, yet Burgess is careful not to make them too terrifying. Alex is, ironically, as much a hero as he is a villain, and his violent acts are described in such a stylized, detached, and sometimes almost comical way that the reader tends to focus on his physical and imaginative energy rather than on the pain he causes.
Each of the gang’s actions is random, born of a moment’s opportunity rather than any planned hostility or purpose, but several of the violent encounters are particularly revealing. One of the first targets, for example, is an old man leaving a library with a few precious books: The joyful destruction of these books and pummeling of the man is only the first of many scenes in the novel that dramatize contempt for the life of the mind, a contempt that proves to be not totally unjustified. More significant, the gang later attacks a house clearly labeled as “HOME,” terrorizing the “father” and sexually assaulting the “mother.” Enacting this fantasy—the crucial fantasy, according to Sigmund Freud—releases all repressions but also leads to the disintegration of the family structure and all ties that bind. Shortly after, Alex and his gang have a falling out, and the next raid on a house is a set-up by George, Pete, and Dim, which results in Alex’s capture by the police and imprisonment for murder.
Part 2 is filled with brutality of a different sort. Alex continues his violent ways, and in many respects, life inside the prison is no different from life in society at large: The State preaches obedience and the inmates respond by attacking one another. The most perverse brutality, however, comes not when Alex helps beat one of his cell mates to death but when he volunteers for a new treatment program and is subjected to Ludovico’s Technique. This technique is a kind of behavioral engineering proposed by the current government leaders as a way of making violence abhorrent, thus turning even particularly vicious criminals into model citizens. Alex is injected with a drug, strapped into a chair with his eyes clamped open, and forced to watch films of torture and physical degradation. Instead of being charmed by these scenes as he once was, he is imprinted with a deep sense of physical revulsion which immobilizes him at the first sight or even thought of violence. The prison chaplain complains that such a technique makes a mockery of morality by eliminating free choice, but Alex is nevertheless transformed into a parody of a perfect Christian, always willing to turn the other cheek; he is...
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then released from prison.
The world to which Alex returns in part 3 has also been transformed. It is more peaceful, prosperous, and free of graffiti, teen violence, and other such forms of social disaffection, but this has been accomplished by a kind of broad application of Ludovico’s Technique. All violence has been institutionalized and is now the prerogative of the State, obviously an ominous development. Alex’s former gang members, for example, are policemen whose brutality is acceptable as it serves law and order. Like society at large, when Alex is made incapable of violence and evil, he loses not only his freedom but also his capacity to do good and feel pleasure. He regains his freedom—ironically because of the intervention of a liberal humanist, F. Alexander, who had been viciously assaulted by Alex and his gang earlier in the novel—but Burgess’ concluding vision is deeply equivocal: Alex’s final “recovery” is symbolized by the return of his orgiastic pleasure in bloody violence as well as music. (It is interesting to note that the original British edition of A Clockwork Orange concludes with a chapter in which Alex grows older, dreams of having a child, and laments his earlier violence. Burgess agreed to drop this chapter at the request of the American publisher, and as a result the novel is uncompromisingly violent and unsentimental.)
Burgess’s most memorable novel, A Clockwork Orange, cannot be discussed without addressing its language, “nadsat,” a combination of Russian, English, and slang, which was invented for the novel and which catapults its narrator, Alex, into the reader’s consciousness as few other books can. Alex invites readers along with him and his “droogs” (buddies) as they sit in a bar, eyeing the “devotchkas [girls] . . . dressed in the heighth of fashion” and wearing “make-up to match (rainbows round the glazzies [eyes], that is, and the rot [mouth] painted very wide).” He narrates their adventures as they do a bit of ultraviolence: They “razrez” a teacher’s books to bits, then “tolchock” him and treat him to the “old bootcrush”; they come across Billyboy and his five droogs, which leads to a gang fight with “the nozh [knife], the oozy [chain], the britva [razor], not just fisties and boots”; they beat to death an old woman and her “pusscats.”
Throughout part 1, the extreme violence of the novel is made palatable by the unusual language, which presents repulsive acts with strange, new words, drawing the reader into the book and into the violence itself. The language of the novel captures the reader and makes him or her one of Alex’s “droogs,” maintaining sympathy for Alex throughout his violent activities. When he rapes two ten-year-old girls in his room, he tells the reader that “this time they thought nothing fun and stopped creeching with high mirth, and had to submit to the strange and weird desires of Alexander the Large which . . . were choodessny and zammechat and very demanding. . . . But they were both very very drunken and could hardly feel very much.” When he hints at his brutality toward his father and mother, he reveals that his father was “like humble mumble chumble.” In addition to making the violence more acceptable, Alex’s inclusion of biblical language, “Oh, my brothers,” makes the narrator more than just an uneducated criminal; at times, in fact, Alex sounds suspiciously like a preacher addressing his congregation on the nature of good and evil. The language of A Clockwork Orange, innovative, powerful, and original, becomes almost like a character in the novel. The language not only distances the violence being described but also forces the reader to reevaluate that violence. Indeed, the language is one of the things that makes A Clockwork Orange so powerful.
The novel opens with the line “What’s it going to be then, eh?” This question, which serves as the structure to open each of the novel’s three sections, introduces the reader not only to the “humble narrator” Alex but also to one of the novel’s major themes: the nature of free will. In part 2, Alex, who is only fifteen and who has been incarcerated for murdering the old woman with the cats, is subjected to reconditioning by the State. In this, “the real weepy and like tragic part of the story,” the State tries to take away Alex’s free will by making him ill when he views sex and violence, and also when he listens to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which had been a favorite of Alex after his violent activities. The nature of free will and determinism is one of Burgess’s most oft-repeated themes; Alex and the prison chaplain, who constantly addresses Alex as “little 6655321” rather than by his name, discuss the fact that Alex is going “to be made into a good boy.” Burgess’s attack on behaviorists and on totalitarian states is obvious: Alex is made ill by drugs, is forced to view nauseatingly violent films, and is reduced to a sniveling, whining victim.
Part 3 presents the reader with a new, reformed Alex, an Alex without free will or freedom of choice, an Alex who has become a victim, and an Alex who ultimately tries to commit suicide. Something of a celebrity after his reconditioning by the State, Alex views a photograph of himself in the newspaper, looking “very gloomy and like scared, but that was really with the flashbulbs going pop pop all the time.” Upon arrival home, Alex learns that his parents have rented his room to a lodger and that he is no longer welcome there. All of his personal belongings were sold to pay for the upkeep of the orphaned cats of the woman Alex had murdered. Alex staggers away, only to encounter some of his former victims, who beat him and subject him to the same treatment to which he had originally subjected them.
Throughout, Burgess makes it clear that without freedom of choice and free will, even when that choice is used to commit evil, people become helpless victims of society and life. In his despair at his life without choice, Alex tries to commit suicide, leading the State to be accused of failure in its “criminal reform scheme” and to be accused of figurative murder, since the State has, indeed, murdered the real Alex. Alex’s attempted suicide makes him feel “filled up again with clean.” It also makes his parents repent for their abominable treatment of him after his release from prison. The government authorities try to restore Alex to his former, unreconditioned self.
Until 1986, the published novel excluded the final chapter, as did Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, and the second to the last chapter ends with Alex’s imagining himself doing some ultraviolence and his ironic comment, “I was cured all right.” The final chapter, however, though often considered weak by American audiences or critics, reveals another of Burgess’s important themes: an essentially optimistic view of humankind. Alex chooses to reject his formerly violent ways. He tells his audience, “And all it was was that I was young.” Alex decides to grow up and have a family. Just as he had chosen to commit violence, with free will Alex can choose to avoid evil.