I admit that I approached Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange with a fair bit of trepidation. Watching Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel was a shocking revelation for me a number of years ago. However, I seemed to have missed the point in the film, but, thankfully, the book corrected this for me. It is easy to focus on the ultra-violence of Alex and his droogs, nadsat for henchmen or gang members, rather than on the overall moral questions that Burgess asks in the novel. For those who have not had the experience of either novel or film, Alex is the first person narrator of A Clockwork Orange and he leads a gang of four youth who terrorise the streets of England (at least that’s where I think it is set) at night. The novel can be quite difficult to get into at first because Burgess has completely adopted Alex’s nadsat, teen slang, that takes at least several pages to get used to reading. Alot of the controversy over Kubrick’s film and Burgess’s book focuses on the ultra-violence (Alex’s term) they commit, and, trust me, this is not family friendly material.
What this criticism misses are the second and third acts of the book. In the second act, Alex is put in prison for killing an elderly woman and, once there, he undergoes a radical new therapy to cut his sentence. The new therapy is a form of extreme aversion therapy whereby he is drugged to feel sick to his stomach while he is forced to watch films of violence, rape, and brutality. Eventually his body takes over and he becomes violently ill with the thought of or sight of any form of violence. His problem now “fixed,” being unable to commit any crimes simply because his body will not let him, he is free to go. The third act concerns his attempts to return and re-enter society. He is caught by some former victims and beat up several times before he tries to take his own life. In the hospital, doctors manage to reverse the psychological treatment and the Government is saved from a growing scandal that Alex had become an unwitting centre of. The film ends with Alex once again able to enjoy listening to Beethoven’s music, but the book does not end here. It gives a final chapter where, and I think this is important in terms of what the novel is doing, Alex grows out of his violent youthful ways.* Although he blames what he does on youth, he decides to leave that life behind and find a wife so he can have children.
At the heart of A Clockwork Orange, then, is the question of free will and choice. If a human, even a criminal, has no ability to choose, then are they really living a moral or full life? The epilogue of the novel suggests that Alex must choose to leave his violent ways behind and that any attempt to short-circuit violence by removing Alex’s ability to choose is short-sighted. I am convinced that Burgess is not interested in indulging in violence for its own sake (unlike say Fight Club), but instead uses Alex as an extreme case for a moral dilemma concerning the human condition. Yes, Alex is an evil man, but does this legitimize totalitarian measures including the removal of the human ability to choose? This question nicely sidesteps many issues including whether Alex should be allowed to continue brutalizing others so that his free will can remain intact and what forms of punishment are appropriate or necessary.
I should say that I think the novel does a much better job of addressing this question because Kubrick’s film can be construed as revelling in the violence and rape. In many ways, the visual impact of the film can prevent access to the deeper questions of free will and choice whereas Burgess’s novel often sidesteps direct depictions of what Alex and his gang do. Moreover, there are a number of parts, including the final chapter, that do not make Kubrick’s film and hence make it easier to construe in a manner it was not intended. This is not to say that Kubrick’s film is not good in its own right, but rather that the two works achieve very different things and that each should be judged on its own merit.
I would not recommend this book to sensitive readers, but for those interested in a controversial yet deeply thoughtful philosophical book, I would say jump in.
Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. 1962. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2011. Print.
* Apparently the early American versions of the novel omitted this chapter, so be sure to look for a copy that includes a 21st chapter (part 7 of part 3) if you are going to read it.