A Clockwork Orange / Anthony Burgess

I didn’t think I would end up finishing this book.

“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. . .Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. . .you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.”

A Clockwork Orange was written by Anthony Burgess in 1961, published in ‘62 and was famously adapted to the big screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1971, with Malcolm McDowell brilliantly portraying the sadistic Alex.

Iconic poster for the 1971 theatrical adaptation

Iconic poster for the 1971 theatrical adaptation

It’s important to know that the author, Anthony Burgess, specially created a language used by the youth in A Clockwork Orange, a dystopian crime and punishment novel. This future speak, nadsat, is like a type of cockney rhyming slang, but heavily influenced by Russian.

Burgess was allegedly a huge fan of language. My first impressions of nadsat and the use of a fictional language so established at the start of the novel was that it was a very brave, and bold move. I wonder how an initial meeting may have gone with Burgess and the prospective publishers. Because, quite frankly, I’m sure many would have laughed him out of the room. It is a difficult and at times incomprehensible start, with the first act a whirlwind of confusion and disgust.

It is jarring; every new word of this strange language drags you out of the narrative as you ask yourself, what does this mean? What are they talking about? You try to keep reading, to teach yourself to ignore the words and you can still get a grasp of where the narrative is heading and what is going on.

And then of course, there’s the violence to consider. The sadism and deprivation of Alex, his droogs, and seemingly most of the youth culture in this dystopian future is shocking. The casualness and nonchalance in Alex’s narration of street fights, theft, violence and rape is nauseating at times.

“We fillied round what was called the backtown for a bit, scaring old vecks and cheenas that were crossing the roads and zigzagging after cats and that. Then we took the road west. There wasn’t much traffic about, so I kept pushing the old noga through the floorboards near, and the Durango 95 ate up the road like spaghetti. Soon it was winter trees and dark, my brothers, with a country dark, and at one place I ran over something big with a snarling toothy rot in the head-lamps, then it screamed and squelched under and old Dim at the back near laughed his gulliver off–“Ho ho ho”–at that. Then we saw one young malchick with his sharp, lubbilubbing under a tree, so we stopped and cheered at them, then we bashed into them both with a couple of half-hearted tolchocks, making them cry, and on we went. What we were after now was the old surprise visit. That was a real kick and good for smecks and lashings of the ultra-violent.”

Despite not using explicit words like blood, murder and rape, it is still hard-hitting, and coupled with the bizarre made up wordy words, I think the way these youths have replaced words like blood and rape and now seem to use them so casually give them a disturbing undertone, as if they do not truly understand, or care, of the full ramifications, and so use this more innocent sounding dialect.

Alas, I learned to let it go and I began to pick up certain words. While difficult to comprehend initially Alex’s colloquialisms begin to form an elegance that you can’t help but admire. It’s extremely clever and well-written, and the flow of the book is aided by the readers increasing knowledge and understanding of nadsat.

A crash course for the intrigued; droogs means friends, typically a group; cal is feces, aka shit; horrorshow means good or well, chelloveck or veck means man or person, krovvy is blood; smech is to laugh; tolchock is to hit, or a beating.

The book is split into three acts.

Act I

Act I is sheer violence – an introduction to Alex and to his crimes. He and his droogs (George, Peter and Dim) stalk the streets, presenting us to a frightening future where young adults roam to do what they please seemingly unpunished. Gang fights, rape, ultra-violence. Their gang frequent Korova milk bar where they drink drug-laced milk and discuss their condemnable plans of mischief for the evening ahead. They rob a store. They mug an elderly scholar. We discover Alex has a keen interest in classical musical – listening one night on his bed he imagines a violent orgy. He is irrationally aggressive; he deems himself the leader of the group and any challenge or dissent towards him he punishes. Young girls who mock him in a record store – he takes back to his house and sexually assaults them. Dim, whom he has a particular disliking to, gets a punch in the face when he interrupts a singer’s performance which had enchanted Alex. This is where the cracks start to appear in the gang, and in this world where the youth are so distant from the rest of society in their violence and lack of empathy, Alex takes ultra-violence to another level entirely. After stealing a car and driving through the countryside, the gang break into a writer’s house, trash the house and rape his wife. Alex notices the writer, F. Alexander, is in the process of writing a book called A Clockwork Orange. Following a botched home invasion which leaves a woman dead, Alex is betrayed by his fellow droogs who leave him to be arrested by the police and carted off to prison.

Act II

The narrative jumps forward two years, and the narrative focuses on Alex’s punishment and rehabilitation. Alex has been an inmate (no 6655321) at Staja 84F for two years now. He has kept his head down, reading passages of the bible for the prison chaplain, whom sometimes allows classical music to be played during these readings. The prisons are overcrowded, and Alex shares a cell with five other inmates. When another is crammed in amongst these reprobates, tensions run high and the group beat the new inmate to death, with Alex getting the blame. The government approve a radical behavioural treatment, an aversion therapy called the Ludovico Technique to be used for the first time in order to reintroduce a reformed Alex into society. They promise within two weeks, he will be free, and no longer capable of carrying out ultra-violence and rape. Initially he can’t believe his luck, but soon it dawns on him that the Ludovico Technique is a sinister form of association. Alex is drugged and strapped down to a chair, unable to move or even look away, while ultra-violence is played on a large screen. This makes Alex feel awful, sick, weak, and soon he associates all violent thoughts with this sickness. He can no longer cause harm, use violence or even fight back to protect himself. This goes on for two weeks, Alex screaming for the imagery of beatings, murder and rape to stop. Coincidentally, towards the end of his treatment a Beethoven symphony is played over the gruesome scenes, and through association and the crippling nausea that Alex experiences he is now unable to enjoy classical music as before.

“This must be a real horrorshow film if you're so keen on my viddying it.”

“This must be a real horrorshow film if you’re so keen on my viddying it.”

As promised, after his fortnight of this aversion therapy Alex is to be introduced back into society, but not before a demonstration in front of many important members of the community. They view Alex beaten and humiliated in staged examples and applaud at the apparent curing of this formerly troublesome delinquent. However the prison chaplain warns of the morality of stripping this young man, no matter how troubled, of his free will.

Act III

Alex struggles to reapply himself to the outside world. His parents have been forced to take a lodger Joe, who berates him for the way he has lived his life and treated his poor mum and dad. With nowhere to go, and unable to take part in any of his former pastimes without insufferable pain, he seeks a way to end his life painlessly at the library. Here he encounters an elderly scholar who remembers Alex from a violent mugging years ago. He berates and beats Alex, who is rescued by the police, among them his old friend Dim. The police have begun recruiting the violent youths that Alex once shared the same bloody streets with. They take him out to the countryside, violently beat him and leave him there. Injured and dazed he is taken in by a man in a country cottage. He realises this is F. Alexander, the man whose wife Alex raped in Act I, and it turns out the wife died as a result from her injuries. F. Alexander does not recognise Alex however, as the gang wore masks during their brutal attack. Alexander aims to use Alex has a political weapon against the government, as he strongly opposes their inhumane methods on which they have imposed on Alex. But Alex mistakenly reveals his past crimes to Alexander, who has arranged to take him to his flat in town. Alex is locked in, and loud classical musical is pumped into the flat. Excruciating, Alex sees the only way to end the pain to jump out the window and kill himself.

Alex awakes in hospital, his suicide attempt failed. Government officials are keen to get him on side, and offer him a well paid job. It appears that through sleep conditioning taken place while he was in a coma from the fall, the Ludovico Technique has been reversed. He agrees to support their campaign, and while paparazzi snap his picture as the officials leave, they kindly play his favourite Mozart track and Alex daydreams about sex and violence once more, before reflecting “I was cured, all right.”

A strong statement within A Clockwork Orange is that Alex isn’t truly reformed – he has no choice in behaving. He is literally unable to be violent because of the Ludovico Technique and the horror and pain he experiences when violence is used or seen.

And the final chapter – the idea that perhaps this rebellious streak (hugely overstated in the novel but obviously not quite as extreme in reality) is in us all, and it is something we will grow out of. Alex, towards the end, is growing bored. He has a new set of droogs to go out and cause trouble with but he doesn’t have the same passion or vigour for it. He even begins to contemplate later life; a stunning devotchka to settle down with, and starting to raise a family.

“Where do I come into all of this? Am I just some animal or dog?’ And that started them off govoreeting real loud and throwing slovos at me. So I creeched louder still, creeching: ‘Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?”

The title is peculiar but begins to make a lot more sense after reading the novel. Alex is like a clockwork orange. He is a living, organic organism, like an orange, but through the Ludovico Technique he loses the ability to make choices, and his decisions and actions become automated. Living on the outside, clockwork within.

“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.”

So this would point to the central theme of the novel (or one of them) is that free will, or the choice to be good or bad/evil is vital in any community, and fundamental to mankind. This can lead to a more troubled state, with crime and suffering, but is this of more value than a safer, peaceful state engineered by the government and with the choices and free will of the people removed? We see how easy the Government in the novel is willing to manipulate Alex for their own gain; at first carrying out the brutal Ludovico Technique to turn him into a choice-less robot, then quick to reverse the process at the end of the novel in order to use his support and keep him onside.

I found the most interesting aspect of the novel is Alex’s demand to be given a choice, to be human, even when he knows full well that his choices lead him to lead a life that causes suffering and pain to others. Alex is being almost hypocritical, demanding a choice, and to be human, when he knows his choice will lead to him carry out inhuman, despicably evil acts that will rob others of their humanity.

Burgess seems to suggest that the evil Alex is more human than a clockwork orange, a ‘clockwork Christian’, a robot, one who does good but has no choice in it. But in a society, what is really more desirable? One who can make a choice, but opts to do bad; or one who can do only good? Rather than good vs evil, the novel discuss forced good versus involuntary evil. It’s a fascinating question, and while I can’t agree with Burgess – I also can’t see a straight answer.

1 comment
  1. Jeff said:

    > Despite not using explicit words like blood, murder and rape, it is still hard-hitting

    Perhaps it’s the replacement that makes the language hard-hitting. I must admit that I see this book pass through the secondhand market all the time and I quite fancy a look. I didn’t know how central the language is before. On the other hand, I found the impenetrability to Will Self’s Book of Dave very offputting.

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