A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian novel, one that shows a seriously malfunctioning society. Dystopian stories contrast with the long tradition of visions of an ideal society, which began with Thomas More’s De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula (1516; Utopia, 1551). After World War II, the dystopian novel, expressing a deeply pessimistic view of human nature and social possibility, became a literary staple. Probably the most famous example remains George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
A Clockwork Orange became Anthony Burgess’s most popular novel in a long and varied literary career, but he protested what he believed to be its gross misinterpretation in an introduction to a new American edition (1988). In all earlier American editions the last chapter had been omitted, though it had always been present in the English and other versions. That last chapter gives a more hopeful view of Alex’s life, describing him as eventually abandoning violence and yearning for marriage and fatherhood. The truncated American version, however, became the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s film (1971) of the same name, which gave the story a brilliant visual and dramatic edge and was largely responsible for its popularity. The movie presented a starkly nihilistic world in which all institutions were corrupt and no hope was offered.
What Burgess intended to emphasize, as he points out in his introduction, is the necessity of free will and moral choice in the human makeup. Alex is a highly intelligent and articulate young man who chooses an evil life and later chooses to move away from it. Alex is a human creature only to the extent that he retains his free choice; when conditioned, he is reduced to nothing. Evil, the book argues, is a better condition than blankness. Alex is not given the usual excuses for being a criminal. He is not poor. His parents, however ineffectual, show concern. He demonstrates himself as a gifted natural leader. The title, derived from a Cockney expression, expresses what Burgess intended to emphasize: “A clockwork orange” is something that is “queer to the limit of queerness,” something with its essential nature missing. In general imagistic terms, a clockwork orange applies to the conditioned Alex as well: Though he appears natural from the outside, he is thoroughly unnatural within.
Many readers, however, find that the author’s professed interpretation of his book is not entirely convincing. Should the interpretation of the whole book be changed on the relatively slight evidence of the last chapter? The author’s images of social disintegration and gang violence appear to be the novel’s most compelling aspects and lead quite naturally to their visualization in the film and in the reader’s imagination. Most American readers, at least, have attached their interpretation to what appears to be an uncompromising, nihilistic posture against all authority, attitudes that were popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
There is no such disagreement, however, about the novel’s language. Alex’s first-person narration, an elaborate patter filled with many Russian-derived words, gives the book a highly original and much-admired texture. The mock-Shakespearean cadence becomes part of...
(The entire section is 779 words.)