There has been talk for years about violence and children or youth. But what if instead of worrying over the future impact of video games and the internet we were faced with real gangs of youths terrorizing citizens after dark on the streets and in their homes? In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess shows us exactly that: a society trying to deal with armed gangs of teenagers instigating random acts of ultra-violence nightly.
A Clockwork Orange
Originally published: 1962, UK
Rating: 4 = Recommended Reading
A Clockwork Orange is set in the not-to-distant future in England. The main character is Alex, a teenager who leads a group of boys into acts of ultra-violence at night. After imbibing milk-plus (plus drugs), the boys go around town and do whatever they like, usually stealing money, raping women, beating men, and breaking into homes. Often in trouble with the police, Alex is betrayed by his group and imprisoned for murder. In order to get out early he volunteers to submit to a new technique guaranteed to cure him of wanting to do bad deeds. Alex does not really want to reform but the technique is not all what he expected.
Alex often cited as an unreliable narrator because the reader sometimes cannot believe that he is giving a full, true account of his life. He neither expresses regret or pity for his actions nor justifies them. While the reader has no doubt that Alex has committed the crimes and actions he claims, the reader is also not convinced that Alex has told the whole truth. I personally enjoy reading books with an unreliable narrator because they allow the reader more freedom in exploring interpretations and they generally provide richer themes and questions. A novel that really attempts to get at the heart of human experience or ask an important question of life usually has a narrator that the reader cannot completely trust. Ambiguity is thought-provoking, and Burgess uses his narrator well to that end.
Interesting central themes
The big question in A Clockwork Orange is whether someone can truly be good if they are not given a choice and are instead conditioned to be good. Burgess fundamentally presents the question of free will wrapped up in ultra-violence and a critique of Skinner’s behaviorism. If a man is subjected to aversion therapy and conditioned to avoid bad behavior is he truly good? The prison chaplain expresses it this way:
“Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?”
Burgess doesn’t give Alex the religious perspective on this issue (instead he gets the conditioning), but the prison chaplain provides this very important side of the free will debate: Does God want people to choose goodness?
The other big issue in the novel is whether people can be reformed at all. Can someone who has a true desire to be violent become a person who no longer enjoys violence? Can a person really be reformed? There are two versions of A Clockwork Orange: one published without the last chapter and one with it. These versions cause different readings because the last chapter has to do with whether Alex’s reform holds or not. The US version was published without this chapter, and it caused Burgess to have to defend his novel’s message to American readers since it allowed for a wider interpretation. This question of reform is one that we are still asking in our society when it comes to how to deal with criminals, run prisons, and curb violent behavior.
Burgess invented a type of slang called Nadsat for the novel, a Slavic-influenced mix of Russian-derived words, rhyming slang, and made-up words. Alex and his gang members (droogs) use this language exclusively, and a large part of the novel is in Nadsat since Alex narrates it. Some editions of A Clockwork Orange have a glossary of Nadsat terms in them. The version I read didn’t, but I found it easy to guess the word meanings based on context. There are also glossaries available online to help out. In two of the subheads of this article so far I’ve used two Nadsat words: horrorshow and veshches. If something is horrorshow it is good, possibly even great or wonderful, and a veshch is a thing. Here is a passage with some Nadsat:
“The next morning I woke up at oh eight oh oh hours, my brothers, and as I still felt shagged and fagged and fashed and bashed and my glazzies were stuck together real horrorshow with sleepglue, I thought I would not go to school.”
As you can see from this example, Nadsat is not always very confusing. But sometimes it is:
“How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap stinking chip-oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly, thou.”
That one is a bit more difficult. Basically, this book may slow down your normal reading pace until you get familiar with the Nadsat either because you’re guessing word meanings from context or because you’re flipping back to a glossary often.
A Clockwork Orange is a frequently challenged and banned book mostly due to violence. Alex and his band of droogs participate in ultra-violence—beating up old men in the street with whips, razors, and fists or raping women. These violent acts are cruel, not instigated by the victims, and the perpetrators are unrepentant; for them it is just a bit of fun, a light-hearted distraction from boredom. Because of the off-handed way this ultra-violence is treated in the first part of the book, it has often been censured. And because of the US version’s omission of the final chapter of the novel, the ultra-violence has been glorified by some. The novel itself does not glorify violence and the violent scenes in the novel are brief and lack gory details. The ultra-violence is central to the story and so is necessary to telling it. If it will offend you to read about it, even in the larger context of a story focused on free will and reforming criminals, then I would avoid this novel. But if you can tolerate the passages of ultra-violence in the first part of the novel in order to understand the other parts which ask important questions, then certainly read A Clockwork Orange.
A note about Kubrick’s film version:
Stanley Kubrick’s film version of A Clockwork Orange is certainly adapted, as many films are, and so differs somewhat from the novel. It is hailed as a Kubrick masterpiece and is excellent in its own right. The film violence is certainly more graphic than the novel simply because the visual medium necessitates more detail that a printed book can gloss over. Know that there are graphic beating and rape scenes and the film was originally rated X in 1971, but after editing was rated R on the re-release in 1973.
For the most part the central themes and questions of the novel remain in the film. Kubrick did, however, use the US version of the novel so the content of the final chapter is missing from the film, leaving it more open to misinterpretation of Burgess’ message. The film does still question the importance of free will, critiques Skinner’s behaviorism, and struggles with the idea of reforming a person successfully.
Again, be warned that this film is rated R for graphic violence and rape.
If you are not squeamish and enjoy books that deal with issues of free will, rehabilitation, and behaviorism, this book is for you. Read it—like many other dystopian-like novels—in order to question present society and imagine ways to avoid a future of ultra-violence.
“When a man cannot chose, he ceases to be a man.”