Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, a critically acclaimed masterstroke on the horrors of conditioning, is unfairly attacked for apparently gratuitous violence while it merely uses brutality, as well as linguistics and a contentious dénouement, as a vehicle for deeper themes.
Although attacks on A Clockwork Orange are often unwarranted, it is fatuous to defend the novel as nonviolent; in lurid content, its opening chapters are trumped only by wanton killfests like Natural Born Killers. Burgess’ Ted Bundy, a teenage Lucifer named Alex, is a far cry from the typical, spray paint-wielding juvenile delinquent. With his band of “droogs,” or friends, Alex goes on a rampage of sadistic rape and “ultraviolence.” As the tale unfolds, the foursome rob a small shop, beat the proprietor and his wife unconscious and then undress the old woman for kicks (Burgess, A Clockwork Orange 13-14). When the moon climbs to its zenith, they get an ache for “the old surprise visit”(Burgess, Orange 24). Donning masks of Elvis, Disraeli and the like, they storm a writer’s home and beat him to a pulp, tear up his cherished manuscript, urinate in the fire place and rape his wife while the author is forced to look on in horror (Burgess, Orange 27-29). The following day, Alex, taking a much needed break from school, lures two ten-year-old girls to his room, gets them drunk and rapes them to a backdrop of Beethoven’s Ninth (Burgess, Orange 50-54).
Although laden with violence, the novel is not intensely graphic; abrasive episodes are softened by the use of Nadsat, a teen argot of the author’s own design. As a Stanley Kubrick film, however, Orange is an immediate shocker. The lack of a linguistic cushion, as well as the necessity to show on-stage violence, propelled the flick into an intense storm of controversy (Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange: A play with music”). The movie was pulled from British theaters in the early seventies and is still illegal, in any form, in the United Kingdom (Contemporary Authors 491). In addition, ripples from the film tarnished the novel’s popular image. On account of the movie, some readers regard the book as “a flip testimonial on behalf of mindless, juvenile violence” (Edelheit 126), and Burgess is dubbed “an antisocial writer” and the “stepfather” of a “punk cult” (Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange: A play with music”) which sprung up around the Kubrick film.
Compiled upon the movie-galvanized image of the novel, the handiwork of ignorant critics cements Orange’s reputation as a phantasmagoria of sex and violence. An anonymous reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement once labeled the tome “a nasty little shocker” (qtd. in Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange: A play with music”), and the pithy epithet now graces the cover of the novel’s most recent American printing. Yet, through it all, the author maintains that he took no pleasure in documenting Alex’s brutality and even invented Nadsat in an effort to make the violence symbolic (Burgess, Contemporary Literary Criticism 38). He never seeks to justify Alex’s actions and believes that his crimes “must be checked and punished” in a “properly run society” (Burgess, Contemporary Literary Criticism 38). In addition, Burgess bases the most horrific scene in the novel — the rape of the writer’s wife — on personal experience. During a London blackout, his own wife was robbed and beaten by American GIs and suffered a miscarriage as a result. Consequently, Burgess labels the parallel rape in Orange as “an act of catharsis and an act of charity” (Burgess, Contemporary Literary Criticism 38).
Ironically, the hearty dose of violence in A Clockwork Orange did not catalyze its ban from high school libraries and reading lists; it was the novel’s linguistic aspects which raised a few eyebrows. Orange was removed from classrooms in Aurora, Colorado and Westport, Rhode Island and from an Anniston, Alabama high school library because of “objectionable” language (“Banned Book Week ’96”). Oddly enough, not a single one of George Carlin’s famous seven dirty words appear the book. Since much of the vulgar slang essential in a work of its thematic nature appears in the cryptic form of Nadsat, Orange is toned down to a mildly PG level of obscenity. On the other hand, the teen-speak, itself, may be responsible for Orange’s removal from high schools because it makes a relatively easy novel difficult to comprehend.
In spite of the novel’s risqué reputation, critiques of A Clockwork Orange have been overwhelmingly positive; the phrase “tour de force” recurs ad infinitum in critical reviews. The novel is hailed as “Burgess’ most brilliant and blackest achievement” and “a superb piece of mimetic writing”(85) by reviewer Bernard Berganzi and “as a satire and linguistic tour de force”(70) by critic Geoffrey Aggler. Of course, Orange still has its detractors. One critic disparages the novel as “a failure, on artistic grounds probably and surely on moral”(Evans 33). The most censorious attacks on A Clockwork Orange, though, come from its reluctant author. Burgess admits being eager to disown the novel (Introduction v) and bashes it as “a work too didactic to be artistic” (Introduction x).
Outside the sphere of violence, critics have honed in on Nadsat more than any other element of Orange. A few malign the argot. It is pegged “a silly little joke that didn’t come off”( Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange: A play with music”) by one aspiring H. L. Menken. Nonetheless, a sweeping majority of reviewers tout Nadsat’s richness and versatility. Burgess describes the lingo in terms of a sum of its parts: “Odd bits of old rhyming slang…a bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal Penetration.” (Orange 132). Readers attach varying symbolism to the individual components of the language. According to some analysts, the use of Russian has a totalitarian ring (Evans 33), while others claim that a vein of Elizabethan English endows Alex with an air of authority (Carson 53). Furthermore, Nadsat is applauded for its “poetic intensity”(De Vitis 105); standard English is pale in comparison to the linguistic cornucopia of Alex’s speech (Morris 29). The lingo is also inundated with onomatopoeia. The Nadsat “groodies,” for instance, conveys far more fullness than the English “breasts,” “plot,” meaning torso, suggests a body being hit (Tilton 105) and “the old in-out-in-out” indicates mechanical copulation (Hyman 24). Other Burgess neologisms are puns — such as “charlie” for chaplain — and clever analogies — cigarettes are known as “cancers”(Evans 32). Yet, artistic value is not the only catalyst behind the creation of Nadsat. In addition to muffling the raw clout of violent descriptions, the argot adds a quality of timelessness to the novel — the fictional tongue does not become outdated as genuine slang does (Tilton 105). Moreover, by allowing the reader to develop a subliminal knowledge of Russian, it offers a first-hand insight into the technique of brainwashing (Burgess Contemporary Literary Criticism 38).
When not mulling over Nadsat, critics focus a considerable amount of attention on the novel’s dénouement. When Burgess originally published A Clockwork Orange, it contained a twenty-first chapter which showed Alex jaded with “ultraviolence” and ready to settle down (Burgess, A Clockwork Orange 207-219). In the tradition of “rites of passage” novels such as Huck Finn and Catcher in the Rye, he emerges from various trials with the cold, cruel adult world with a new-found threshold for love (Connelly 42). Alex develops a penchant for maudlin pop songs, a sharp contrast to the dynamic symphonies he once adored (Burgess, Orange 212). He is ready to trade in “the old in-out-in-out” for romantic love (Connelly 43) and expresses the desire to marry and father a son (Burgess, Orange 212). He has matured and now likens his youth to a clockwork toy (Rabinovitz 55).
W. W. Norton, the American publisher of Orange, insisted on “censoring” the manuscript before sending it to the presses. According to him, he final chapter seems inanely optimistic and Disneyesque and an inappropriate cap for the sensational novel. Norton desired “evil prancing on the pages and, up to the very last line, sneering in the face of all inherited beliefs”(Burgess, Introduction ix). He wanted shock waves and Burgess’ dénouement only offered “a Pelagian unwillingness to accept that a human being could be a model of unregenerable evil”(Burgess, Introduction ix). Some critics concur with this delineation. According to Shirley Chew, the last chapter falls “into the sentimental”(qtd. in Rabinovitz 55), and A. A. De Vitis agrees that it is “wisely omitted from the American edition”(110). It is “unconvincing and inconsistent with the style and intent of the book,” notes Kubrick, commenting on its omission from the film version.
Others claim that the last chapter is an asset rather than an albatross to the novel (Tilton 104). The lack of its original conclusion launches Orange in a direction completely foreign to anything Burgess intends. “Even trashy bestsellers show people changing”(Introduction, viii), the author tersely explains. In order to explicate the theme of free choice, Alex undergoes aversion therapy, an effort on the part of the State to curb his penchant for sadism (Burgess, Orange 115-121), which is reversed after various complications ensue. Stripped of its terminal chapter, the novel ends with his sardonic exclamation of “I was cured all right”(Burgess Orange 205) and Alex reverts to his old preconditioned regimen of “tolchocking” and “razzrezzing.” By ending the tale on this low note, society seems better off with Alex conditioned and rendered harmless (Rabinovitz 55). Thus the novel becomes a promotional in favor of aversion therapy, rather than an acerbic diatribe against it, or “an unsatisfying shriek of violence remaining horrifyingly neutral”(Connelly 42). In addition, Burgess chips away at Alex’s monster facade in the last chapter and makes it possible for readers to sympathize with their “humble narrator”(Rabinovitz 55). Moreover, without the disclosure of Alex’s view point as he relates his misadventures, the first person narrative looses its significance (Tilton 104). From close examination of critical essays, the necessity of the final chapter is blatantly obvious. An interpretation of A Clockwork Orange, by reviewers such as Robert Evans, as a cynical tract with “no sign of hope for the future”(32) is likely caused by sole exposure to the American edition. Others, such as Wayne Connelly, view the tome as “a story…of growing up an renewal”(42) in its untruncated form.
For all the attention given to violence, linguistics and the conclusion of Orange, they are merely ciphers in conveying the novel’s over-riding themes. For example, Burgess exemplifies an existential apotheosis of free choice, by hammering in Alex’s choice of violence over benevolence. Alex has a good “smeck” (laugh), in one instance, over a newspaper article which blames juvenile crime on a dearth of parental authority, knowing that his own is a product of free will (Burgess, Orange 48). Likewise, the metamorphosis in chapter twenty-one adds fuel to the credo of free choice. Although aversion therapy did little to stifle his innate taste for “ultraviolence,” Alex reforms when left to his own devices. Even Nadsat, when viewed in terms of a brainwashing primer, relates back to this point, since it illustrates a process which can annul free will.
As Burgess ardently adheres, Alex’s violence not only aids the clarification of free choice but is absolutely essential for the thesis to hold water. If the Pavlovian treatment is to have any substance, Burgess asserts, the reader must see what Alex is “being reclaimed from”(Contemporary Literary Criticism 38). Echoing the author’s sentiments on the necessity of violence, Kubrick contends; “It must be clear that it is wrong to turn even unforgivably vicious criminals into vegetables, otherwise the story would fall into the same logical trap as did the old, anti-lynching Hollywood westerns which always nullified their theme by lunching an innocent person.”
Given its astronomical degree of reinforcement, freedom of choice stands out as the dominating theme of A Clockwork Orange. The biggest paladin of these principles is the prison “charlie,” through whom Burgess expands the metaphysics of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard into a social context (Morris 27). F. Alexander, the hapless victim of Alex’s surprise visit, echoes similar sentiments about free will (Burgess, Orange 26-27). Even the laconic blurb “what’s it going to be then, eh?” which is repeated throughout the narrative, has existential overtones (Rabinovitz 56). Intermingled in this web of existentialism, Dostoevsky’s ideal that free choice is a prerequisite for salvation (Bowie 64), brings the novel into the realm of Christian theology as well as philosophy.
As the foremost enemy of choice, Burgess attacks behavioral conditioning. He “stacks the deck against the behaviorists,” as advocates of aversion therapy, and “casts himself as the béte noir of B. F. Skinner”(Stinson 77). A leader of the behaviorist school in psychology, Skinner proposes a utopia where Pavlov’s techniques are expanded to anthropoids. Man feels free in this idealized society, held in check by invisible shackles which he cannot sense. In Walden II, Skinner expands on his case with a grave sense of urgency. “We not only can control human behavior,” he argues, “we must”(89). Through his mouthpiece the prison “charlie,” Burgess impugns Skinner’s views. “Goodness comes from within…,” the chaplain explains, “When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man”(Burgess, A Orange, 95-96).
The whole dilemma of conditioning arises as Alex, who is incarcerated for the death of an old woman, becomes a guinea pig for criminal aversion therapy. The State gives him the option of launching the experimental “Ludovico’s Technique,” which is equivalent to time served, or festering in the State jail, the “Staja,” for fifteen years (Burgess, Orange 108). He naturally opts for the former. As part of the procedure, A team of psychologists straps Alex to chair resembling an iron maiden, pry open his eyelids, and force him to “viddy,” or watch, violent scenes played out on a movie reel (Burgess, Orange 116-118). A drug injected shortly before the production induces vomiting and dry retching which he learns to associate with thoughts of violence (Burgess, Orange 120). His only recourse is to preform acts of kindness and submission, and Alex morphs into a do-gooder automaton (Burgess, Orange 143-144). As the title suggest, he is transformed into “a clockwork orange,” an “organism which, like a fruit, was capable of colour and sweetness”(Burgess qtd. in Lund) on whom mechanical laws are imposed. In addition to stripping Alex of his humanity, the experiment has other adverse side effects. The former victimizer is transformed into a lame duck; the procedure leaves him defenseless against former victims and puts him at the mercy of the loose cannons of law enforcement. Even more sinister, the Beethoven-loving thug is now conditioned against powerful symphonies since classical music is used as accompaniment to the State’s brutal films (Burgess, Orange 131).
Burgess, while not condoning Alex’s actions, stresses that the denial of choice is a greater evil than violence (Burgess, Contemporary Liteary Criticism, 38). In the noble cause of making him “good,” the State destroys the good already in Alex; it kills his love for music (Tilton 107) and obliterates his humanity (Morris 30). Furthermore, the gates of heaven were barred to Alex because he is denied the freedom to choose good over evil (qtd. in Lund). Once again, music factors into the equation; it is “a figure of celestial bliss”(Burgess qtd. in Lund) and, therefore, a symbol of salvation. Moreover, “Ludovico’s Techniquet,” which indirectly drives Alex to suicide — the “nadir of moral sin”(Morris 30) — actually augments his evil tendencies when it leads to his self-destruction.
As an ancillary theme, Burgess explicates original sin. Since Alex’s evil is a congenitally human trait, he argues, a green-light on his conditioning justifies similar treatment for all mankind (Burgess, Contemporary Literary Criticism 37). However, for this thesis to pass a litmus test in believability, Burgess must first establish the narrator as “evil, not merely misguided”(Burgess, Contemporary Literary Criticism 37), and once again, the necessity of violence rears its ugly head. Alex requires an unmitigated mean streak to pass for a convincing exemplar of pure evil (Burgess, Contemporary Literary Criticism 38). By resigning Alex to the watered-down violence of the harmless-sounding “teddy-boys”, a London gang whose burgeoning brutality inspired the novel (Burgess, Contemporary Literary Criticism 38), A Clockwork Orange would more resemble a bad after-school special than the caustic moral commentary as which it is hailed.
In addition to using “ultraviolence” to depict Alex’s evil nature, Burgess employs a perversion of innocence motif to reach the same end. Milk, for example, is traditionally considered the beverage of choice for small children. It carries a harmless reputation; the satirical image of a big, brawny outlaw taking his in a dirty glass is based on this standard. Alex, however, twists it into something more potent. He drinks milk with “knives in it,” undoubtedly a form of speed, which sharpens him up for a night on the town (Burgess, Orange 3). When incarcerated, Alex receives his daily fix of rape and “ultraviolence” from an unlikly source — holy scriptures printed on thin Bible leaf. He is enthralled by the less kosher exploits of the patriarchs (Burgess, Orange 91) and daydreams about the crucifixion of Jesus, juxtaposing himself in the place of a legionnaire brandishing a cat-o’-nine-tails (Burgess, Orange 92).
Alex is obviously evil, but in order to place this evil in the context of original sin, Burgess must prove that it extends to all mankind. He begins by casting Alex as a genuine everyman rather than a heartless monster. Burgess endows his protagonist with human characteristics: a love for music, a sharp wit (Stinson 79) and even a trace of generosity (Burgess, Orange 12). In addition, the author uses first person narration as a “trick” to build reader sympathy for Alex and augment his humanity in the process (Stinson 79). In the second phase of his two pronged approach, Burgess depicts evil as endemic in mankind. According to the author, the cycle of youth violence followed by adult maturity is as natural as the progression of generations itself (Rabinovitz 55). Violence is also portrayed as “typical adult behavior”(Tilton 106), although it is usually realized when safety controls exist as a shield to negative consequences. After Alex lost the ability to defend himself, an orderly, feeling self-assured, gives the protagonist a sock across the jaw (Burgess, Orange 139). Even the humanist F. Alexander sinks to an animalistic level of vengeance. He is last heard “howling for [Alex’s] blood” (Burgess, Orange 203) when circumstances reveal the identity of his wife’s rapist. According to Aaron Stern, the former head of the MPAA rating board and a practicing psychiatrist, Alex represents the base tendencies of the id, an innate facet of all mankind (Kubrick). Although only Alex’s evil is made manifest through violence, the potential for brutality is nonetheless there, locked deep within the dark recesses of the psyche, for the remaining six billion who claim membership in his species.
On a higher plane, the novel highlights the battle between Pelagianism and Augustinianism, two conflicting religious doctrines. Pelagianism, a philosophy of the British heretic Morgan, denies the Catholic concepts of original sin and predestination, while the rival view point, with St. Augustine as its champion, upholds these views but contends that God often cuts man loose to carve his own fate. Burgess takes an Anti-Pelagian stance in Orange, associating the views of Morgan with those of Skinner (“Free Will Versus Predestination”).
Apart from being a religious and philosophical tract, A Clockwork Orange is a scathing social commentary. The novel, which is applauded as a biting satire, seems humorous at times because it reflects conditions which existentialists describe as “the Absurd”(Connelly 43). A lot of tongue in cheek is used, for instance, in describing the Minister of the Interior, or “Inferior” as Alex mockingly tags him (Burgess, Orange 202). Also, as the discerning reader will notice, the biggest bastion of Christian values, the prison “charlie” is perceptually plastered (Burgess, Orange 110). Outside the realm of comic satire, Burgess further critiques the hypocrisy of the adult world. F. Alexander, the most vocal defender of freedom in Orange, is willing to sell-out the common man in the name of liberty (Bowie 67) and forsakes every shred of his principles in pursuit of vengeance against Alex (Tilton 106). P. R. Deltoid, a case worker with a vested interest in Alex, spits in the delinquent’s face during an interrogation (Burgess, Orange 80). Both a dissident political party and the establishment use the protagonist as a tool to advance their own interests (Burgess, Orange 203), and, by pinning him with a gang murder, even Alex’s cell mates play Judas on him (Burgess, Orange 104).
In addition to social commentary, Orange is a futuristic “horrorshow” which hints at a dismal totalitarian future. A typical fictionalized dystopia, the novel is tagged an “Orwellian proleptic nightmare”(Aggeler 70) and closely parallels Huxley’s Brave New World — Burgess even uses “hypnopaedia” to label the treatment used to reverse Alex’s conditioning (Burgess, Orange 201). The author envisions futuristic England as “a limp and listless socialism”(Hyman 24) which deadens the mind by stifling individuality and free expression (Tilton 107). The government of his somnambulist nation subjects the masses to “dehumanizing flatblock living”(Tilton 107), and a law on the books requires everyone to hold a job (Burgess, Orange 42). In addition, the State rules with an iron fist. The pressure to condition Alex, for instance, comes from a need to free up prison space for political offenders (Burgess, Orange 106). Police brutality is a growing problem since common street thugs are recruited into law enforcement (Burgess, Orange 184), and the ruling party actually fuels high crime rates in order to tighten its hold on the people (Morris 30). To further elaborate on these social conditions, Burgess returns to his favorite vectors for conveying themes. He uses violence to paint a hopeless picture of the future (Evans 32) and, according to some critics, utilizes Nadsat to connote communist dictatorship (Evans 33).
Burgess also employs violence to elucidate Alex’s rebellion against the unsavory aspects of his society (Bergonzi 85). Like a watch that is wound too far, Alex is pushed to the limits by government repression (Tilton 107). A spring in his natural clockwork snaps, something goes tragically wrong, and the result is an “ultraviolent” anomaly. Denied other outlets for expression, brutal attacks become a means of communication (Morris 27) for this “poet of violence”(Tilton 105). His acts of sadism are graceful and even resemble a ballet; they are “works of art, planned with exquisite care and attention to detail, executed with conscious style”(Tilton 105). In addition, Alex rebels against the two-faced world of Deltoid which condemns the violence of the younger generation but sinks to the same level to combat it. “If you bastards are on the side of the Good,” Alex retorts when bullied by a few bobbies after his arrest, “then I’m glad I belong to the other shop”(Burgess, A Clockwork Orange 81). Nadsat, in addition to violence, helps connote Alex’s nonconformity. It removes him from the main-line of humanity, placing him “half in and half out of the human race”(Time 103).
Granted the incredible array of subjects mentioned in A Clockwork Orange, it is an excellent addition to any reading list. Once a reader gets past the initial shock of “ultraviolence,” the lofty themes of original sin and free choice make interesting subjects for analysis. Furthermore, Nadsat is a good linguistic exercise and offers some compelling insights into the origins of slang. In addition, Burgess also broaches many hot-button issues of the 90s, such as teen crime and violence in music — Alex reads an article which claims classical music and an appreciation for the arts would quiet down boisterous teens; he knows from personal experience that this is not the case (Burgess, Orange 48-49) . Furthermore, the politics in Orange are relevant to industrial “democracies” such as Britain and the United States. Unlike Orwell’s Oceania and other totalitarian dystopias, Burgess’ England mirrors the parliamentary republics which dominate the Western world. As in any multi-party system, there are clashes between progressive and reactionary groups; Burgess headlines one such pre-election strife between the Minister of the “Inferior” and F. Alexander’s political camp (Kubrick). Moreover, Orange is especially appropriate for a high school age level. As a “rite of passage” novel, it is concerned with the trials and tribulations of adolescence. In addition, Burgess seems to identify well with teenagers and accurately describes their viewpoint. Rather than patronize or disparage his protagonist, the author ascribes more intelligence and wit to Alex than to the petty adults who run his violent play land. Most of all, the dire reality of Burgess’ predictions makes A Clockwork Orange an essential read. Even before the novel was published, talk was bandied around about the use of conditioning as a panacea for youth violence (“Anthony Burgess About A Clockwork Orange”). More recently, aversion therapy was used on homosexuals (“Anthony Burgess About A Clockwork Orange”), and, in the 1970s, American criminals were subjected to therapy reminiscent of “Ludovico’s Technique”(Stinson 77).
While the prophesies of Orwell and Huxley seem infinitely distant, those of Anthony Burgess are more tangible. With crime seemingly on the rise, or at least getting more press than it did in the past, and paranoia reaching the gravity of a maelstrom, the push for aversion therapy has made considerable leeway. Burgess’ warning is more urgent today than it ever was in 1962 when a certain “nasty little shocker” first hit bookstores. Yet, few ears have perked to his message. Burgess is condemned to Cassandra’s grim fate; he is granted the gift of prophesy, but his words are doomed to fall only on deaf ears. Years ago, a similar plight was shared by Pablo Picasso. When he painted Guernica, a stark testimonial to the horrors of war, critics raved and dealers applauded, but only a handful grasped its message. The bombing depicted by the mural was only a test run of the Nazi war machine, and it was a horrifying portent of things to come. World War II, the sequel to Guernica, is the largest, most consuming conflict ever recorded in the annals of history. Perhaps Burgess’ warning is only the tired ranting of a single man, but perhaps it, too, is a sign of things to come.
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