Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange may be best known for the movie adaptation which came afterward. The novel has seen massive critical praise since its publication in 1962. This is a dystopian novel that imagines a future in which people are generally numbed by boredom and the general tedium of life under a repressive government, which largely dictates how people live their lives. The only escape for young people seems to be drug abuse and unrestrained violence. Such is the future imagined by Burgess in his novel.
The novel primarily foregrounds the problem of good and evil against the question of free will. Can we call someone a moral and ethical person if they have no choice but to act according to a prescribed set of actions? Or, is such a person little more than a machine, or a clockwork orange? Burgess has offered several explanations for the title, but suffice to beware that the image of an orange which is in fact a mechanical orange has all of the features of an orange, but is not actually an orange. Thus the guiding image of the novel should also guide our reading of the novel. Is our protagonist a “good” person when he has no choice in his actions?
The novel is told from the point of view of our main character who speaks in a strange slang. This can be difficult to follow, but most editions of the novel contain a dictionary of “nadsat” terms to help with reading.
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In a dystopian future city, the main character and narrator, Alex, and his gang of “Droogs” (friends), run wild through a society which has fallen into a complacent stupor. The city is governed by a repressive government which operates as a totalitarian state. Alex and his droogs speak in a slang dialect called “nadsat” which incorporates aspects of Cockney English, Russian, and proper English. His gang of droogs consists of Pete, Dim, and Georgie; with Alex they spend their time committing acts of random violence and rape. They fill the rest of their time in the Korova Milkbar or the Duke of New York drinking milk which has been laced with drugs. Alex and his gang seem to represent a youth culture which has fallen to boredom and violence.
The story begins with Alex narrating from the Korova. He and his droogs are sitting around drinking drug fueled milk drinks when they decide to go out for a night of what they call “ultraviolence.” Their run of ultraviolence consists of muggings, robbery, auto theft, and rape. They eventually steal a car and after riding around in the countryside for some time, they find a lone house occupied by a couple. Alex and his droogs proceed to brutally beat the man and rape his wife while forcing the man to watch.
After the night of ultraviolence, Alex and the droogs head back to the Korova, and which point they begin bickering and fighting with each other. One of Alex’s droogs, Dim, mocks an opera that Alex is particularly fond of (Alex loves Beethoven) and Alex punches Dim in the face. We can tell at this point that Dim will attempt revenge on Alex.
On their next night of crime and violence they break into a women’s house, but she is able to call the police. As they attempt to flee, Dim hits Alex in the eye with a chain. Dim and the other droogs get away but Alex is apprehended. After he is arrested and taken to the police station, he learns from the police that they woman Alex raped the previous night has died. This will be added to his charges.
Alex is convicted of his crimes and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. He has a difficult time in prison at first. It is an environment which proves to be more brutal than he is used to as he encounters other prisoners who brutalize him and even some who want to rape him. However, after a time, he adjusts. Eventually a prison chaplain notices that Alex likes to read the Bible, and the chaplain arranges for Alex to read in the chapel. There he is allowed to listen to classical music and read. The chaplain does not realize that Alex reads the Bible for the violence and sex he finds in the Old Testament.
After fighting with one of his cellmates, Alex is selected to receive and experimental treatment—a form of brainwashing called Ludovico’s Technique. Alex is injected with a drug which causes severe nausea and headaches while being forced to watch exceedingly violent movies and images. In this way, he will come to associate violence with the nausea and headaches. The treatment takes about two weeks and apparently achieves its goal. Unfortunately, the treatment involved listening to classical music, particularly Beethoven, which accompanies the films. As a result, the treatment has the side effect of making Alex just as sick from exposure to this music as from violence. The conclusion of the state and the prison officials is that the results are sufficient and the side effects are of no real consequence.
So it is that Alex is released after only two years in prison. He is now harmless and physically averse to violence. Upon release, Alex is forced to reckon with some of his old victims and adversaries. He eventually encounters Dim and one of his old enemies, Billyboy, who have now become police officers. These two decide to settle their old scores and take Alex to a field in the country and proceed to beat him. Not only is Alex outnumbered, he is sickened by the violence and unable to defend himself. The two thugs/police officers leave Alex in the field in the rain.
As he stumbles around searching for help, Alex happens upon a cottage. He bangs on the door pleading for help. A man answers the door and lets Alex in. Alex immediately recognizes the man as the husband of the woman who he raped. However, the man does not recognize Alex and he tends to Alex in his beaten state.
This man is F. Alexander. He is a political dissident. After hearing Alex’s story, he decides to use Alex as an example of the violence of the state. F. Alexander want to have Alex make a series of public appearances to create outrage toward the government. Alex, however, is tired of being an experiment. He verbally attacks the man and, speaking in nadsat, berates the man. Once Alex speaks in his strange dialect, F. Alexander recognizes who he is. He remembers the language of the people who attacked him and his wife.
F. Alexander and his associates decide to lock Alex in an attic and force him to listen to classical music. They do this in an attempt to drive Alex insane and compel him to commit suicide. This will serve as their indictment of the government. Alex does become overwhelmed by the sickness induced by the music and jumps from the window of the attic. However, he does not die.
While Alex recuperated in the hospital, a political struggle gets underway. The repressive government wins out. The doctors who tend to Alex undo the Ludovico Technique and restore Alex to “normal.” As he returns to his violent old self, Alex assembles a new gang and they engage in the same violence. However, Alex is growing tired of this life, and he eventually runs into one of his old droogs, Pete. Alex sees that Pete is now living a normal life. He is married and settled down. Alex decides that he too wants to live a normal life. Alex meets a woman from a coffee house and begins dreaming of a future with a wife and a son.
The protagonist and narrator, Alex is a violent and antisocial teenager. He derives satisfaction from brutalizing others. He leads his gang on nightly outings of robbery, rape, and other forms of ultra-violence. He seems to enjoy only one decent thing and that is classical music. Eventually brainwashed by the government into being sickened by violence, Alex is then brutalized by those he once attacked. Here we see Burgess’s themes of free will and morality at work. Alex does avoid violence but not of his own will, and the government “cures” Alex of his violent tendencies by a procedure of extreme violence. Nothing is resolved in the absence of free choice and fee will. Violence is violence no matter who commits it.
An anti-government dissident and the author of a book on free will, F. Alexander is the counter to Alex. The similarity in their names operates as a clue. At first F. Alexander is one of the principal victims of Alex and his droogs. He is beaten and his wife is raped in front of him. Eventually, the tables turn as Alex shows up at F. Alexander’s door after being attacked.
F.Alexander, a writer and anti-government activist, is the author of A Clockwork Orange,a book about the importance of free will. In the first part of the novel, Alex and his droogs burst into F. Alexander’s home and tear up his manuscript, then beat him and rape his wife. In the third part of the novel, Alex returns to his home by accident and is exploited by F. Alexander and his fellow dissidents as a tool to further their “cause.” At the end of the story, F. Alexander is thrown in prison by the government, presumably forever. Even as F. Alexander tries to exploit Alex to further his political ends, he becomes another perpetrator of violence through his attempt at revenge against Alex. The doubling of Alexander/Alex demonstrates the doubling of state violence and individual violence.
The leader of a rival gang who Alex and his droogs do battle with early in the novel. He returns in the novel as a police officer who takes revenge on Alex. The gangster/police officer furthers the theme of state and individual violence.
The chief psychologist who proposes and administers the Ludovico Technique designed to “cure” Alex of his violent and antisocial tendencies. He is described by Alex as being fat with curly hair and a “spuddy nose,” as if to demonstrate the repugnant nature of those in power. He lacks empathy and any capacity to care about Alex’s pain. Even the unfortunate side effect of Alex’s revulsion to classical music is of no consequence to Dr. Brodsky. The doctor exemplifies the callous and sociopathic tendencies of state power. As Alex is antisocial and violent, so is the system of “reform” which punishes and treats this violence. Burgess is adept at showing that the problem is violence, not the authority or individual who carries out the violence.
The Prison Chaplain
A sympathetic character, the chaplain actually tries to warn Alex about the Ludovico Technique. The Prison Chaplain seems to operate as a moral voice in the novel. He sees the potential for good in Alex by observing his love of classical music. Unfortunately he underestimates Alex’s antisocial tendencies. It is the Prison Chaplain who speaks the line, which encapsulates another of the main themes in the novel. Freedom to choose good or evil is the only way to determine the good. He says: “Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” We lose our humanity when we can no longer choose. We become like a clockwork orange, not a real orange, but a machine which has the appearance of an orange.
The member of Alex’s gang of droogs who is the most stupid and most like a simple-minded ape. He is valuable to Alex because he gives no thought at all to committing the worst violent crimes. However, because he is simple he is embarrassing and insulting to Alex. It is no small irony that Burgess has Dim make the transition from thug to police officer.
Minister of the Interior
A stern and severe character, the Minister of the Interior is the major advocate of the Ludovico Technique. His method is to mete out punishment equal to the crime without any concern for the ethics of what is being done to the inmate. He is unscrupulous in getting what he wants, even becoming an advocate of undoing the brainwashing of Alex when this serves his ends.
Burgess dramatizes throughout the novel the idea that without free will, we do not have the ability to determine good from evil. In order to designate someone as acting on behalf of the good, they must have the free will to choose good or evil. Without this choice, we are neither good nor evil. We are not even human. Alex is violent. He commits murder and rape, but when he goes through the Ludovico Techniques, his ability to choose to be otherwise is taken away. He is transformed not into a good person, but into a victim of the violence of others. He has no choice.
The Minister of the Interior is the counter to Alex. He stands for things which are ostensibly good. He maintains the order of the state, but he has no interest in doing good. He simply follows rules even if the rules allow him to commit acts which are otherwise reprehensible. He has no interest in Alex being a decent and good citizen. He wants only to transform Alex and render him incapable of doing violence. Likewise, he sees Alex as a useful thing to exploit in order to serve the ends of the state. None of this depends on right or wrong. The Minister of the Interior is as much a machine — a clockwork orange — as Alex after his “treatment.”
Violence of the Individual versus Violence of the State
Alex is utterly evil throughout most of the book. He is violent and enjoys hurting other people. Even those who are close to him are not safe, witness his treatment of Dim. Once he is caught and sent to prison, he becomes the victim of the state. As the government denounces and punishes violence, it commits violence in the service of this mission. Burgess is adept at impugning all elements of a society for falling to violence. When an individual commits crimes, they commit violence against other individuals and violence against the power. When forms of power seek to punish that violence with violence, they do not achieve good. They become just another form of evil. It is violence that is evil, not one side of the law or the other.
Even after his treatment, Alex is not made into a proper servant of state violence, and for this reason he serves no one. As his humanity is stripped, he becomes a useless machine until he can be transformed into a violent example for the state.
Obviously, Dim’s re-appearance as a police officer is fine example in which Burgess shows how individual and state violence are equal. Dim is a brute and a violent goon while he is one of Alex’s droogs. He is virtually the same person in his role as a police officer.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
This simple line appears numerous times throughout the novel. It emphasizes the problem of free will and freedom of choice. In Part 1, Alex asks this question of his gang mates regarding the choice to go on with their spree of violence and crime. It is a legitimate question at this point because all characters have a choice at this stage to proceed or to not commit their heinous crimes. The question also carries the tinge of malevolence coming from Alex as we know that he has no empathy or moral compunction about hurting or even killing people.
The line returns in Part 2 as the question is put to Alex after his conviction. He is presented with the choice to undergo the Ludovico Technique at a point at which he really has no choice. Under the pressure of state power and implied state violence, this question becomes a matter of dark irony.
Finally, Part 3, as Alex is being tortured by F. Alexander he is asked this question again. At this point the choice is to endure the agony of torture or die. He chooses to attempt suicide. The dark irony of the quotation finds its ultimate expression as the choice becomes to have no choice but death.
“The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen.”
This is spoken by Alex as he reads from the manuscript written by F. Alexander while he attacks him and his wife. Alex reads and speaks this line with faux intellectual haughtiness as if to mock the line, but it is also a distillation of the primary theme of the novel.
Alex is dismissive of this line at this stage but he is reminded of it later in the novel as he becomes the victim of the kind of state violence Alexander’s manuscript denounces. The moment is one of bitter irony as Alexander and the novel itself warn and denounce the process of removing freedom of choice and reducing a human to a machine while the process of doing just that is being performed. We see in this line the cautionary ideas while the violence that comes from not heeding these ideas is already taking over.
“And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers. And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round, like some bolshy gigantic like chelloveck, like old Bog Himself (by courtesy of Korova Milkbar) turning and turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his gigantic rookers.”
Spoken in the slang the Alex uses throughout the novel, we witness in these lines Alex’s own internal speculation on his future son. He wonder whether his son will listen to Alex’s fatherly advice and avoid the path of violence and crime that he has led. Alex concludes that it is likely his son will follow directly in his father’s footsteps including the violence and crime, that it is inevitable and preordained that we all follow a path of depravity and sin before finding our way to a better life.
These lines bespeak a Christian idea that man is essentially fallen and has a natural tendency toward sin. The only way out is through penance and grace. The lines encapsulate the course of the novel as we follow a turning toward sin and crime, to penance, and finally toward salvation. Alex endured this circular process and is pondering completing the circle in the form of his son. It all unfolds as if ordained by “Old Bog Himself,” or God Himself. Burgess is clearly darkly ironic again in this quotation. Putting these deeply profound sentiments into the language of the droogs provides little hope for anything different in the future. It is a suitably dark ending.
The Korova Milk Bar
The symbol of a milk bar comprises both innocence and transgression. Milk is a symbol of innocence itself yet the milk in the Korova is laced with drugs. Even the most symbolically innocent features are tainted with vice. The milk in the bar is dispensed by female mannequins. Thus, the milk comes from a maternal figure, but one that is not even real. The symbol of innocence dispensed by an inhuman maternal figure carries the taint of violence and inhumanity which pervades the novel.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
Alex’s favorite, by far, of all the classical music he loves. The symbol is ironic in that classical music in general and Beethoven’s Ninth are historically viewed as signs of the highest achievements of human culture and therefore the good of human endeavor. In this symphony, Beethoven traces the four stages of human ascent toward God. The first movement expresses the worst offenders in the lowest reaches of Hell. The second, depicts the common pleasures of human life. In the third movement Beethoven depicts man’s turn toward religion and God.
Finally, the symphony concludes with the finale which is essentially a hymn to God. As the symphony appears in the novel, it is always linked to the various stages of the fall and return of Alex. The fact that Alex loves this symphony demonstrates the horrifying results of the good as it is expressed within the aims of evil. There is no Good without the human qualities which make it good. An empty good is a machine that is neither good nor evil.
Listed by Time Magazine as one of the Top 100 novels of the English language.
Burgess claimed to have written the novel in just three weeks.
Made into a film starring Malcom MacDowell and directed by Stanley Kubrick.
The novel originally only included 21 chapters. The 22nd chapter was added by Anthony Burgess for American audiences.
The germ of the novel comes from an incident in which Burgess’s wife was beaten by American servicemen during World War II.