A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

There are two reasons I did not want to read A Clockwork Orange. The first had to do with the movie. I’ve seen it more than once and what always stands out, besides the bizarre grossness of Alex having his eyelids held open, was the ultra violence. The scene that sticks in my brain the most is when the droogs break into a house and terrorize a couple, beating them both and raping the woman. It’a a horrific scene. Because the scene has always bothered me, why would I want to read the book? The second reason I was reticent is due to the language. I’d heard from others that the author, Anthony Burgess, made up his own language which made the book slow-going for some. That very feature would turn many off the book straightway and never attempt it at all. So, with much trepidation, I began the book.
     My paperback version has an intro written by the author “Introduction: A Clockwork Orange Resucked.” I wrote at the top of the page, “Please read. Very revealing.” Burgess explains that in the American version of the book the final chapter had been deleted to make the book twenty even chapters, yet the final 21st chapter is where we learn that Alex is maturing. Burgess writes, “He grows bored with violence and recognises [sic] that human energy is better expended on creation than destruction. Senseless violence is a prerogative of youth, which has much energy but little talent for the constructive” (xi). In chapter 21 Burgess says for Alex, “It is with a kind of shame that this growing youth looks back on his devastating past. He wants a different kind of future.” While his American publisher argued that Americans were tough; they could enjoy a story of pure violence and evil without a denouement that came round to growth and change, Burgess disagreed. “I do not think so because, by definition, a human being is endowed with free will. He can use this to choose between good and evil. If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange–meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State. It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be totally evil. The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities” (xiii). I did notice while reading that Alex more than once states that doing wrong is just one choice of many; he does not place a moral judgement on the choice itself; it is one of many ways to go and he exercises his right to make his own choices. Regarding the title, he says it is a known phrase with “old Londoners. The image was a bizarre one, always used for a bizarre thing. ‘He’s as queer as a clockwork orange’ meant he was queer to the limit of queerness” (xiv). [Any younger readers must realize that the word “queer” here does not mean homosexual, but unusual or out of the ordinary.] Back to a clockwork orange Burgess states, “I mean it to stand for the application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism oozing with juice and sweetness” (xv). Lots of good groundwork set in the intro; please read it if you have a version that contains Burgess’s point of view.
The main character’s name is Alex and he runs with a small group of boys named Pete, Georgie and Dim. When I first entered the chapter I contemplated the necessity of making a vocabulary list so I could understand the slang. I attempted this by writing droogs = friends; rassoodocks = plans, but even by the second page I felt no need for this work. For experienced readers, the sensation is very much like filling in the blanks of a word or sentence. For example, if we see the sentence “Th cat wnt up te tre” we can can, with little effort, see that the cat went up the tree. That’s what reading this slang is like. The unknown words, in a sentence surrounded by known words, still allows one to comprehend what is being said. Before long, you find a pattern in the slang and begin learning what some of the words mean. If you are an adventurous reader and have read Old English, African American colloquial narratives or old Greek and Roman myth stories, then reading A Clockwork Orange will be no problem.
Fashion: One theme from the book that comes across in the movie as well is fashion. These boys may not have much, but they are well going to look right while doing wrong. “The four of us were dressed in the heighth of fashion, which in those days was a pair of black very tight tights with the old jelly mould, as we called it, fitting on the crutch underneath the tights, this being to protect and also a sort of a design you could viddy clear enough in a certain light, so that I had one in the shape of a spider, Pete had a rooker (a hand, that is), Georgie had a very fancy one of a flower, and poor old Dim had a very hound-and-horny one of a clown’s listo (face, that is)…(4). I believe this is what we would call a cod piece!
Violence: Yes, the ultra violence runs throughout the story. They beat up a professor type coming from the library. They beat up two shop clerks for money and cigarettes. They kick around a drunk guy in the street and fight a rival gang. They steal a car and later dispose of it by pushing it into a lake. In chapter two the horrorshow scene occurs with the gang breaking and entering while an older couple is home. The woman later dies from the trauma. Alex lures two ten-year-old girls from the record shop, gets them drunk and rapes them. They hear of a rich old lady who lives alone with her cats. The scene with Alex trying to attack while the cats are attacking him is vastly entertaining. But see here: breaking into an old woman’s house to beat and rob her is entertaining? I hate to say it is. Later we learn that two of Alex’s female victims have subsequently died at the hospital. Two different women on two different violent occasions. He is a murderer at age fifteen. At one point Alex tries to explain why he’s bad. “But, brothers, this biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into what is the cause of goodness, so why of the other shop? If lewdies are good that’s because they like it, and I wouldn’t ever interfere with their pleasures, and so of the other shop. And I was patronizing the other shop. More, badness is of the self, the one, the you or me on our oddy knockies, and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty. But the not-self cannot have the bad, meaning they of the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self. And is not our modern history, my brothers, the story of brave malarky selves fighting these big machines? I am serious with you, brothers, over this. But what I do I do because I like to do” (45). Alex is found guilty of his crimes and sentenced to 15 years in prison. His number is 6655321. He learns that Georgie was killed during a home invasion. Due to overcrowding and horrible food and living conditions, the guys in Alex’s cell, (but especially Alex) end of beating the new guy to death. In the second part of the book, section 6, Dr. Brodsky says, “Delimitation is always difficult. The world is one, life is one. The sweetest and most heavenly of activities partake in some measure of violence–the act of love, for instance; music, for instance. You must take your chance, boy. The choice has been all yours” (130). This refers back to the idea that violence is interwoven into life and is not a thing set outside it. Choice is reiterated just as Alex stated before.
Adults: One thing we see from adults in this novel is that they are not much different from the kids. For example, there are a group of old lady barflies. The boys learn that if they buy the old ladies drinks, the women will become the gang’s alibi and tell the police the boys had been there all night. The ladies just want to sit, gossip, play cards and get drunk. They don’t care who buys them drinks, they just want to drink! This group could easily have been another group of less adventurous boys who’d rather stay in and out of trouble. Alex lives at home with two parents who cook for him and ask about his life. He has his own room and nice clothes. Alex’s stable home life adds a layer of confusion as to why he is so bad. Just like the barfly women, Alex’s parents are ineffective when it comes to influencing his behavior. They are just there, yet without any power to actually effect change. They seem rather comforting, but Alex makes sure the audience knows that in the past he must have schooled his dad a time or two because Alex always gets what he wants. Alex has a parole officer that visits if he doesn’t attend school. Alex puts on a clean persona in front of this man and pretends to be everything he’s not. The parole officer warns him that if he messes up again Alex will no longer be in juvenile detention, but real adult jail. Of course, Alex goes on to break the law again rendering the parole officer of no use in Alex’s world. Just as his parents never knew what their son was up to in real life, they also know nothing of Alex’s length of sentence or the experimental treatment he is being given in jail. They have been separated and silenced from Alex’s life as long as the reader has known him. When Alex begins his jail sentence they decide to take in a boarder to help with finances. The parents do not know when their son will be released, do not visit him, and seem to simply find a replacement body when he leaves. They eat meals with the border and they bond like family. There is a disconnect between the adults and kids in the novel as if they are all interchangeable cogs with no identity that makes a unique impression upon another. As long as the machine keeps turning no one seems to care very much for the individual cog. After Alex jumps from a high window and ends up in the hospital his parents finally come to visit him. They invite him back home to live even though he’s acting like an asshole (their true son). Alex says he will return as long as they both understand that he’ll be in charge. They agree, rendering them exactly as ineffectual as before.
Leadership: Alex is forever on the lookout for anyone who wants to crush his position of power. His comrades, his parents, and a dude named Billyboy are all suspicious targets and must be kept in line. At one point the boys are in the bar and a girl sings for a second. Dim acts dumb so Alex punches him. This sets up a new dynamic within the group; they’ve never turned on each other before. Alex wants to keep Dim in line but the others, especially Dim, don’t take kindly to fists being used between them. By chapter five Georgie states there will be no more picking on Dim. Alex says they’ve been talking behind his back and he wants to know more. Pete chimes in that they’d like a more democratic group, not just Alex telling them what to do and not do all the time. The gang ends up physically fighting each other with Georgie’s hand and Dim’s wrist getting cut. When the blood begins to flow Alex thinks “So they knew now who was master and leader, sheep, thought I” (59). When Alex has broken into an old lady’s house to rob her he determines he can do the entire job alone…he doesn’t need to let in the other guys. When he gets to the exit, Dim chains him in the face as the police sirens sound in the distance. The other gang members leave as Alex stands red-handed and red-faced. There is no loyalty, as Alex gives up all the guys in his gang the minute he hits the back seat of the cruiser. What kind of leader does Alex actually make? What kind of leaders are the parents, the barflies? Who is really in charge of this fiasco we call life?
Music: Alex prefers classical, and he knows all the greats and the parts he likes best of all the greatest works of classical music. There are scenes where he listens to music in his bedroom, he visits a favorite record shop and music is later involved in his rehabilitation therapy. One would think that classical music is a high brow Alex characteristic, yet he twists this bit of culture into something low by imagining violent scenes while listening. He deeply loves the music and uses some rather technical language to engage it. At the same time he can sully something so brilliant by picturing what he would do to this or that person on the street if he had the right energy and time. It is an odd juxtaposition.
Society: and its (legal) mechanizations. We see columns in the newspapers asking what is wrong with the youth. What has made them all so bad? Would culture tamp down the violence? (Yet we know Alex to be a great fan of classical music and fashion.) Alex has always been a delinquent, so he has been assigned a parole officer. When the police officers catch Alex they beat him. His parole officer spits on him. We get the distinct impression that the “good” guys are no better than the bad guys. While Alex is in jail we see that every cell is overcrowded. He comes to hear of some type of experimental rehabilitation that, if undergone, will make one a candidate for immediate release. After Alex and his cellmates beat the new guy to death they decide Alex is ripe for rehabilitation. When discussing what the rehabilitation is to do we come across what could be considered the novel’s thesis statement: “You are to be made into a good boy, 6655321. Never again will you have the desire to commit acts of violence or to offend in any way whatsoever against the State’s Peace. I hope you take all that in” (106). After a stint in jail Alex seems to be looking forward to returning to his old life; it now doesn’t seem so bad after all. When it comes to this method of rehab, the readers come to know that the doctors are reluctant; they are not at all excited. We can see this method had been handed down as an experiment that the doctors cannot get behind; they are being bullied as well. The Ludovico Technique involves shooting the patient with a nausea-inducing chemical, strapping them down and making them watch ultra violent film clips. The idea is for violence to be coupled with a sick feeling ever after. The treatment begins to work. As rehabilitation begins to take hold within Alex, one of the observers states that Alex is making non-violent decisions not because he has developed morals, but because he does not want to be sick. This is not the same thing as actually being nice and actions coming from a place of kindness. “He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice” (141). Alex begins to scream “Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?” They are turning him into a human machine; when wound up by violence he reacts in a prescribed manner. During his treatment his parents are never contacted. Government and law enforcement want to be able to create promising stories for the press so they will appear competent and in control. “The Government’s big boast, you see, is the way it has dealt with crime these last month” (179). The old man who helps Alex recover from a police beating wants to use Alex to make an anti-government statement…just like the government wanted to use Alex to make a pro-reform statement. Alex states that he had always just waited “to have done to me what was going to be done to me, because I had no plans for myself” (181). What a huge statement regarding wayward youth! If you do not determine a legal path for yourself, you will be given one by the authorities. The men who want to reform Alex into an anti-government, anti-reform cause lock him up (just like jail) and leave on the classical music (just like torture) that Alex had experienced before. Alex wants to kill himself and jumps out the window hoping to die. Alex sums it up when he says, “…not one chelloveck in the whole horrid world was for me and that that music through the wall had all been like arranged by those who were supposed to be my like new droogs and that it was some veshch like this that they wanted for their horrible selfish and boastful politics” (189). After Alex hits his head and returns to his hateful self, the government uses this development to show ‘Hey! See? We didn’t fuck up anyone’s mind. He’s fine!’
Change: The gang that was once a fighting unit begins to divide. When the boys become unsatisfied with Alex as the sole leader, they begin to break ranks. When Alex goes to jail the group changes again with Georgie being killed during a home invasion. Alex changes through harsh rehabilitation. The family unit changes by taking in a lodger. Alex’s room and all his stuff is gone when he returns. When Alex returns to his favorite record store he finds that popular music has changed and the kids are dancing funny. The guy he always knew to work at the store is no longer there. Alex, who had been so strong before, changes into a person who wants to commit suicide. The professor type the boys had beat before ends up recognizing Alex, calling his cronies, then the old men beat up the young boy. “It was old age having a go at youth, that’s what it was” (163). Billyboy and Dim, former gang members, are now cops who take Alex to the edge of town, beat him, and leave him. This shows us the youth turning into the very things they couldn’t stand while growing up. In a strange twist, Alex ends up in the house they had broken in with the couple. The woman has since died. The boys had on masks during the horrible attack, so the old man does not recognize Alex; he’s just a young man who has been beaten and dumped by the police. Instead of a home invasion, this time Alex is coddled and cared for by the man, not knowing this is the boy who wrecked his life. When the anti-government group holds him hostage Alex jumps from the window hoping to kill himself. Instead, he knocks his head in such a way that he’s no longer prone to sickness when thinking of violence. After his release from the hospital Alex is again found in the milk bar, but he has a new set of friends and an actual job. Now that he actually works for his money he doesn’t like throwing it around like before. When the gang wants to go out and terrorize the city, Alex says he’s not feeling into it; they should go on without him. As Alex sits and thinks about what he’d like to do he surprises himself to learn that what he really wants is a nice cup of chai and a fire to sit by. Just as Alex longs for a nice boring adult evening alone he runs into old gang member Pete. He barely recognizes him from the grown up attire, the kind demeanor and the wife on his arm! Alex thinks about being 18 and how so many people had already made a name for themselves by that age. Alex thinks about having a son of his own and all the things he would teach him. Then he realizes that because youth is like a wind-up toy without a brain, his son probably won’t listen to him, probably won’t care for his father’s hard-earned experience and advice.

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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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