Themes and Meanings
A Clockwork Orange presents a frightening picture of the direction in which Western civilization seems to be heading. “Respectable” working-class and middle-class people live a drastically attenuated life, trapped in their decaying homes at night after “rabbiting” all day at mindless occupations. Teenagers, before their inevitable decline into a similar pattern, spend their time soaking up one-dimensional pop culture during the day as a prelude to nights of violence or easily available and officially sanctioned drug stupor. Liberalism does not help: Even well-intentioned functionaries such as P. R. Deltoid, Alex’s truant officer, can barely mask their contempt for delinquents, and as a result, they preside over but never combat the process of decay. Authoritarianism is even worse. It is effective, but at too great a price: As in Fascist Italy and Germany, the trains may run on time for a while, but too many people are in concentration camps.
All this is a familiar part of the future that modern man has already begun to endure, but Burgess’ point is not only to satirize the conditions of modern life but also to examine some of the basic and perhaps inevitable contradictions of psyche and society. The perennial problem of evil allows for no easy solution, Burgess suggests, as long as one continues to value human freedom; otherwise, evil could be curbed quite handily by a combination of behavioral engineering and governmental tyranny. One of the darkest intimations of A Clockwork Orange is that as human wickedness becomes more and more prevalent, fewer and fewer people may be inclined to resist the growing clamor to prevent it no matter what the price. The right to freedom may yet become an anachronism.
Perhaps even more subtly, Burgess also shows that the problem of violence is extremely complicated: Violence is an intrinsic part of human nature and adheres to mankind’s greatest personal and cultural creations as well as its most destructive actions. Alex’s absolute fascination for his beloved “Ludwig van”—Beethoven, that is—may seem surprising, but it is Burgess’ shrewd way of insinuating that both artistic greatness and delinquent aggression may have the same root. Art is a sublimation and redirection, while, say, a gang war is a not particularly creative way of directly expressing violence; Burgess insists that to eliminate the capacity for one is necessarily to eliminate the capacity for the other. When Alex is cured, he no longer wants to hurt others, but he also has lost his joy in music; the reader is meant to take this loss as a great tragedy and rejoice at Alex’s recovery at the end of the novel.
Burgess may be accused of presenting several crucial moral issues in extremely overstated terms, as if one can choose only from two unacceptable alternatives: dehumanizing repression or absolutely indulgent permissiveness. The overall effect of A Clockwork Orange, though, is not to simplify, but rather to dramatize the urgency and complexity of these crucial moral problems. It is only with nervous apprehension that Alex can be cheered as the “hero” of this novel, and Burgess leaves the reader with the obligation to envision some other possible way out of these dilemmas—a difficult but essential task.
A Clockwork Orange explores the ideas of good and evil by asking what it means to be human. Burgess asks and answers the question, "Is a man who has been forced to be good better than a man who chooses evil?" Alex chooses evil because it is in his nature to do so. His impulse towards good is artificial because it comes from outside of him, instilled by a government bent on controlling the populace by controlling their desires. By eliminating all of the bad in Alex through the Ludovico Technique, the government also eliminates that very thing that constitutes his humanity: his freedom to choose. They treat the symptom, not the cause of Alex's evil, oblivious of their own complicity in his behavior. For...
(The entire section is 1,478 words.)