(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.”...

(The entire section is 833 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 entire section is 981 words.)