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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.

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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.” Enacting this fantasy—the crucial fantasy, according to Sigmund Freud—releases all repressions but also leads to the disintegration of the family structure and all ties that bind. Shortly after, Alex and his gang have a falling out, and the next raid on a house is a set-up by George, Pete, and Dim, which results in Alex’s capture by the police and imprisonment for murder.

Part 2 is filled with brutality of a different sort. Alex continues his violent ways, and in many respects, life inside the prison is no different from life in society at large: The State preaches obedience and the inmates respond by attacking one another. The most perverse brutality, however, comes not when Alex helps beat one of his cell mates to death but when he volunteers for a new treatment program and is subjected to Ludovico’s Technique. This technique is a kind of behavioral engineering proposed by the current government leaders as a way of making violence abhorrent, thus turning even particularly vicious criminals into model citizens. Alex is injected with a drug, strapped into a chair with his eyes clamped open, and forced to watch films of torture and physical degradation. Instead of being charmed by these scenes as he once was, he is imprinted with a deep sense of physical revulsion which immobilizes him at the first sight or even thought of violence. The prison chaplain complains that such a technique makes a mockery of morality by eliminating free choice, but Alex is nevertheless transformed into a parody of a perfect Christian, always willing to turn the other cheek; he is then released from prison.

The world to which Alex returns in part 3 has also been transformed. It is more peaceful, prosperous, and free of graffiti, teen violence, and other such forms of social disaffection, but this has been accomplished by a kind of broad application of...

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