The fact that Alex is one of the most menacing figures in all modern fiction does not prevent him from also being one of the most fascinating. Because the story is told completely from his point of view, the reader may tend, if not to sympathize with him, at least to suspend judgment of him. Alex is no ordinary juvenile delinquent, sullen, mindlessly destructive, and uncommunicative. He is, on the contrary, extraordinarily bright, passionately alert, and a master of expression. One of Burgess’ great achievements in A Clockwork Orange is his creation of an imaginary dialect for Alex, a brilliantly contrived amalgam of rhyming slang, Russian root words, and modern teenage rhythms and abbreviations. This language can be self-explanatory—for example, the reader needs no interpreter to understand what a “cut throat britva” is, which Alex wields when he and his “droogs” are out doing battle with other “malchicks”—but even when it is not readily understandable, the reader cannot help but be overwhelmed by Alex’s linguistic vitality. In many places, Alex is not so much a narrator as a jazz performer, and even at its most confusing, his talk is dazzling. Burgess’ inventive wordplay links him with other masters of imaginative prose satire such as Jonathan Swift and James Joyce, but “nadsat” talk is by no means simply a stylistic tour de force: Alex’s playful language frequently distances the reader from a full awareness of the violent acts he gleefully commits.
Part of the reason why A Clockwork Orange has proven to be so controversial is because Alex is such an inextricable combination of attractive and reprehensible qualities. He is too relentlessly destructive to be a thoroughly admirable hero, yet compared to everyone else in the novel, he is a beguiling rogue and perhaps the only person able to stand up to society’s increasing threats against individuality. Unlike his lumpish, unimaginative companions, he is not a mass-man pounded into conformity but an individual capable of leadership and high pleasures. Furthermore, although many of his victims are innocent and pathetic, he also triumphs over enemies whose philosophical and political ideas may well be more insidious than his sporadic assaults. Dr. Brodsky, for example, the implementer of Ludovico’s Technique, is in a position to do far more harm than Alex. Working in collusion with shadowy officials of a state government growing more and more repressive, Brodsky is perfectly willing to sacrifice all aspects of human passion, freedom, and pleasure if the end result will be the elimination of violence and disobedience. Opposition to Brodsky and the government is pathetically impotent: The Prison Chaplain sees the threat posed by such dehumanizing behavior modification but can do no more than raise a homily against it; F. Alexander takes Alex into his home and bewails the government’s efforts to turn people into “clockwork oranges,” mechanical beings devoid of life, but he is not only an ineffectual revolutionary but just as much a selfish manipulator as the government officials are. Only Alex is a worthy antagonist of and alternative to the growing institutional and political tyranny, and Burgess never lets the reader forget the irony in his proposition that, in order to avoid a society in which human development is severely limited, one may have to tolerate a society in which violence is not only possible but also likely.
Alex, the narrator, who speaks in “nadsat” (a teenagers’ slang incorporating elements of Elizabethan English and modern Russian). At fifteen years of age, he is the leader of a gang made up of himself and three “droogs” (droog is Russian for “friend”), each a year or two older than he. Three years later, he will lead three droogs, each younger than he. His pleasures consist of violence—theft, mugging, vandalism, and rape—and classical music, especially that by Mozart and Beethoven. His droogs—Georgie, Pete, and...
(The entire section is 1,415 words.)