Those who would wish to direct readers with a moral reading compass just hate snarky narrators who would rather commit violent drug-fueled crimes or masturbate to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony than go to school. Often criticized and deemed unsuitable for readers because of its unflinching scenes of criminal violence, blasphemy, and an unrepentant sociopathic protagonist, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange holds a special place as one of the 20th century’s most misaligned and misread works of fiction. Set in a dystopian, not-too-distant future, the England of A Clockwork Orange is a society ravaged by Soviet influence, poverty, and rampant violent crime committed by roving gangs of teenagers who speak a pidgin language that adults find incomprehensible.
One can’t help but feel a certain affinity for Alex, the highly-intelligent, witty, violent, criminal, classical music-loving, anti-hero of Burgess’s 1962 novel. By the age of 15, Alex, a gang leader, has already committed numerous assaults, thefts, rapes, vandalisms, and even murders. Why? Because it’s fun. As a first-person narrator, Alex relays his life of truancy and crime honestly and with relish – violence, or ultraviolence, as Burgess calls it, turns Alex on. Alex is a disturbingly reliable narrator.
Burgess’s ability to create a youth language comprised of equal parts of Slavic, English, Russian, Cockney rhyming slang, and baby-talk sets this work apart from pulpish texts published purely for violence junkies. Alex and his droogs display a command of this language and adults are unable to understand them. Burgess implies that language carries valuable political cache and the group that controls the language has the greatest power.
Alex is finally incarcerated for his crimes and while in prison becomes a model prisoner, eligible for an experimental rehabilitation technique. Given drugs to induce a crippling nausea while watching scenes of violence renders Alex physically incapable of committing any act of violence without becoming wretchedly ill. After just two weeks of this “treatment,” Alex is released from prison. The prison chaplain warns that any human incapable of choosing between good and evil is no longer human, but a “clockwork orange” – organic in matter, but really just a machine.
Brilliantly structured into three sections of seven chapters each (21 being the age of adulthood), section three begins with Alex’s release from prison. Alex comes full circle as part three mirrors part one – Alex encounters all of his former victims and associates, but he’s no longer the victimizer as revenge is exacted upon him. He ultimately becomes a political pawn and the Ludovico technique is reversed. The narrative concludes with our humble narrator saying that he’s simply outgrown violence and that it’s just the way of the world. He imagines finding a wife and having some children who will probably behave just as he did, yet another type of clockwork orange.
Most of the criticism leveled against Clockwork focuses on what some readers interpret as the author’s ambivalence towards his subject matter, especially the unrepentantly violent “hero.” Burgess doesn’t glorify gangs and violence; he suggests, without pontificating, that this thuggish behavior might be the logical outcome of a society that warehouses its poor in dilapidated public high rises and bad schools while the wealthy flock to the suburbs where, as intellectuals and politicians, they write books and conjure up rehabilitation theories about a population they’ve long abandoned. And at Clockwork’s most basic and central core, Burgess asks the reader to think about the essence of being human, in all its beauty and ugliness.