Of the fifty books Anthony Burgess wrote, this satiric, futurist novel surely is the most famous. It was popularized by the controversial film adaptation made by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. The book speaks to the social and political concerns of its times—random violence by teenagers, crime and punishment, scientifically engineered rehabilitation, and the power of the state over the individual. The novel is autobiographical, in that it concerns a writer whose wife was raped and brutalized by a gang of thugs. Burgess’ own wife, Lynne, was beaten by American soldiers while pregnant, lost the child, and could never have another. Reared as a Roman Catholic in Protestant England, Burgess was sensitive to Catholic notions of sin and redemption and to the importance of free will.
Philosophically, the novel is about moral choices, and each section begins with the question, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” There is satiric justice in Alex’s choices and their consequences. Science is able to change Alex by a process of psychological and moral castration, but the “cured” Alex can survive only in an orderly, neutered world of automatons. The transformed Alex is an “innocent,” discharged into a world that is still brutal and corrupt.
The novel is a satirical allegory in the guise of science fiction. Burgess satirizes scientists who remove themselves from ethical and moral issues in the service of a politically corrupt police state. The novel shows forcefully that there are no easy answers to complex questions involving the nature of good and evil or crime and punishment. Alex is shaped by the brutal technological world he inhabits. The psychological reasoning that motivates his violence and the perverse, sadistic pleasure he derives from it are not fully investigated. There is no attempt made to alter Alex’s beliefs, only to change into pain the pleasure he derives from violent sadism. Science is interested only in achieving results that will be beneficial to society and cares nothing about the individual in this dystopia.