A Clockwork Orange is Not Obscene
Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange describes a horrific world in an apathetic society has allowed its youth to run wild. The novel describes the senseless violence perpetrated by teens, who rape women and terrorize the elderly. The second part of the novel describes how the protagonist, Alex, is “cured” by being drugged and then forced to watch movies of atrocities. The novel warns against both senseless violence and senseless goodness – of the danger of not being allowed to choose between good and evil.
Though attacked as obscene in Orem, Utah in 1973, the book does not meet the legal definition of obscenity. While it contains possibly offensive language and violent imagery, these are not all that make up the novel. It is a powerful social commentary; a warning against growing lazy and desiring a quick fix to the problems of society. To be legally defined as obscene, a work must be completely lacking in redeeming social value. However, A Clockwork Orange has both social and literary value. It is a shocking warning of what the world could become.
The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects free speech. However, there are some forms of expression that are not protected by this amendment, including obscenity. Roth v. United States (1957) explains that obscenity is “not communication, and is, by definition, utterly without social value.” Miller v. California has a less lenient definition, and states that “the fact that the material may have some redeeming social value will not necessarily immunize it from a finding of obscenity.” At first glance, this statement may seem damning. A Clockwork Orange certainly has redeeming social value, as it is a work of social commentary. But how much is enough? How does one decide whether a book has enough social value to overcome contents that would otherwise be viewed as obscene?
One of the more likely aspects of the novel to be held as obscene would be the fact that the main character and his friends commit violent sexual acts. In one case, a woman dies after being raped and beaten by Alex and his gang. However, in the definition of obscenity, it is stated that “sex and obscenity are not synonymous… ‘Obscenity’ is a description or depiction of sexual conduct which, taken as a whole, by the average person… appeals to the prurient interest in sex…” It is also stated that “the dominant theme of the material-considered as a whole-must appeal to prurient interest in sex to the average (normal) person.” However, the average person would not find the sexual scenes in A Clockwork Orange appealing at all. Rather, they would be likely to view them as horrific acts of violence.
The novel is not in any manner intended to appeal to a “shameful or morbid” interest in sex. The sexual acts in the novel are meant to be shocking, emphasizing Alex’s lack of morals and the government’s lack of action. It is an aspect of the novel’s warning and social commentary rather than as pornography. To ban A Clockwork Orange as obscene would be to violate the first amendment and to abuse the legal definitions of obscenity.