A Clockwork Orange
A Summary and Analysis of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange
John Anthony Burgess Wilson, FRSL who published under the name Anthony Burgess, was an English writer and composer. Although Burgess was primarily a comic writer, his dystopian satire ‘A Clockwork Orange’ remains his best-known novel.
The dystopian had its origins in a horrific incident during WWII, when four American deserters attacked and assaulted Burgess’s wife Lynne in London during an air raid in 1940.
A Clockwork Orange is set at some indeterminate point in the future. Alex the narrator is a fifteen-year-old boy and the head of a gang of criminals. He and his friends all speak a kind of slang called Nadsat. Alex uses it to narrate the events of the novel.
Some critics consider it one of the most original and endlessly thought-provoking dystopian novels of the twentieth century. But what is the message behind this curious novel?
Stanley Kubrick’s famous 1971 film adaptation of the novel departed from the novel in some respects. Arguably the greatest difference between the book and film is the entire ending.
One evening, Alex and his ‘droogs’ as he calls them go on a crime spree, engaging in robbery and rape. They break into the cottage of a couple and rape the man’s wife, making him watch. They then fight each other. Another night, they break into the home of an old lady (who owns lots of cats); she calls the police.
Alex’s fellow gang members abandon him and the police arrest him and take him to the station. Alex finds out the old lady with the cats has died from shock. Consequently, they sentence Alex to fourteen years behind bars.
Prison life is tough, and Alex kills a cellmate during a scuffle. The authorities intervene and subject him to a new treatment called the Ludovico technique. They force him to sit down and watch violent films until he finds the mere thought of violence sickening; literally, any thought of committing a violent act himself induces nausea.
Alex likens his treatment to a ‘vaccination’: they give him enough ‘ultra-violence’ to make him physically ill so it will make him immune to any thoughts of committing acts of violence in future.
Alex is released two years later, to find everything has changed. His parents replaced him with a lodger, Joe, and treat like him a son. Joe lives in Alex’s bedroom, and they sold all of Alex’s things to raise money for the old lady’s cats, who are without someone to look after them after their owner died.
He goes and listens to some Mozart, but finds that, as a result of his treatment, he associates classical music with violence, and so hearing it makes him feel sick. He runs into his former droog, Dim, and an old rival named Billyboy, who have both become police officers, and they beat Alex up, leaving him outside on the outskirts of town. A man in a cottage takes Alex in and cares for him, recognizing him as the boy from the papers who has undergone the controversial new Ludovico technique.
Alex realizes he is in the home of the man whose wife he and his droogs raped; the man tells Alex that his wife died shortly after her ordeal. But the man doesn’t recognize Alex, who tells us that he and his droogs wore masks when they carried out their crimes.
The man tells Alex that his name is F. Alexander, and that he and his friends are pushing back against the authoritarian government. Alexander plans to use Alex (the fact the two of them share a name is loaded with significance, as Alex himself notes) as an example of how the State goes too far, and to parade Alex in front of the world as an anti-government spokesperson.
When the men refuse to tell Alex what he will get out of all this, he lapses into Nadsat, and F. Alexander recognizes the slang as the same language used by the masked youths who attacked his wife. When Alex mentions his old droog Dim and Alexander recalls hearing that name on the night of the attack, the final piece of the puzzle falls into place.
Alex falls asleep in a room where the men have left him. When he wakes up he’s locked in by the men, who are blasting classical music through the walls in an attempt to drive him to suicide. In his desperation, Alex throws himself out of the window, but he survives the fall, and ends up in hospital.
Doctors reverse the Ludovico technique; when Alex is released, he’s back to his old, gang-running days. However, when he sees his old friend Pete (who is married now), he has a change of heart and decides to pack in the gangs and violent behavior and settle down.
Literary Analysis of A Clockwork Orange
The novel is a criticism of the government and society of the time, the semi-totalitarianism of the government. Burgess depicts is a nightmarish, oppressive force that seeks to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
The novel satirizes extreme political systems that are based on opposing models of the perfectibility or incorrigibility of humanity. Written in a futuristic slang vocabulary invented by Burgess, in part by adaptation of Russian words, it was his most original and best-known work.
Nadsat, from the Russian word meaning ‘teen’, is the name of the invented slang in which Alex narrates the novel. Anthony Burgess decided to use Russian because he had learned the basics of the language before visiting Leningrad in 1961.
Related: Writing Systems
Burgess mentions one of the themes of A Clockwork Orange in the novel’s title it alludes to by F. Alexander, the dissident who takes Alex in following his beating at the hands of the police: ‘To turn a decent young man into a piece of clockwork’. He tells Alex, should not be seen as a triumph by a government. The central question is how free we are as individuals, and how much our behavior is socially, legally, and politically conditioned or controlled. This question was of particular interest to Burgess, a Catholic, who was interested in the idea of free will versus determinism.
Alex DeLarge displays all the hallmarks of antisocial personality disorder, though being younger than 18 he would be diagnosed with conduct disorder. He also is far more of a psychopath than a sociopath. At the beginning of the novel Alex is 15 years of age, but through the book ages to end up 18. The story’s humble narrator begins listening to Mozart instead of Ludwig Van, and decides, at 18, he’s getting a little too old for petty things like crime.
In 1962, two versions of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange were published. One concludes with Alex growing up and turning away from violence, while the second, darker version leaves out that final chapter.
Burgess says he was desperate for money at the time in his life when he wrote A Clockwork Orange. As such, he allowed the excision of the final chapter of the novella from its American edition because it was more important to him that it to sell than that it be whole.
Bowie was a sci-fi junkie, one well-versed in the writings of Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, and George Orwell. He especially loved Orwell’s dystopian landmark Nineteen Eighty-Four, which served as the thematic basis for 1974’s Diamond Dogs. On top of all that, he starred in the cult flick The Man Who Fell to Earth. In 2013 was inducted into the Museum of Pop Culture’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. But the fact that Bowie returns to A Clockwork Orange on Blackstar, which he knew would be his last album, drives home the work’s stature in his personal universe. Deep down Bowie really was a droog.
I remember going to The Strand in NYC to buy a hard copy of ‘A clockwork Orange’. I had read that it was David Bowie’s favorite book and the Strand was favorite bookshop.