One of the most original and endlessly thought-provoking dystopian novels of the whole twentieth century, A Clockwork Orange (1962) is Anthony Burgess’ best-known novel. But what is the message behind this curious novel? Stanley Kubrick’s famous 1971 film adaptation of the novel departed from the novel in some respects, so it’s worth offering a brief summary of the plot of A Clockwork Orange before we ponder the meaning of this novel and offer some words of analysis. (We have compiled some curious Anthony Burgess facts here.)
A Clockwork Orange: plot summary
A Clockwork Orange is set at some indeterminate point in the future, and is narrated by Alex, a fifteen-year-old boy who is the head of a gang of criminals. Alex and his friends all speak a kind of slang, called Nadsat, which Alex uses to narrate the events of the novel. One evening, Alex and his ‘droogs’ as he calls them go on a crime spree, engaging in robbery and rape – they break into the cottage of a couple and rape the man’s wife, making him watch. They then fight each other; then, another night, they break into the home of an old lady (who owns lots of cats); she calls the police. Alex’s fellow gang members leave him to be apprehended by the police, who take him to the station. Alex finds out the old lady with the cats has died from shock. Alex is sentenced to fourteen years behind bars.
Prison life is tough, but when Alex kills a cellmate during a scuffle, the authorities intervene and subject him to a new treatment called the Ludovico technique. Alex is forced to sit down and watch violent films until he finds the mere thought of violence sickening; literally, any thought of committing a violent act himself induces nausea. Alex likens his treatment to a ‘vaccination’: he is given enough ‘ultra-violence’ to make him physically ill so it will make him immune to any thoughts of committing acts of violence in future.
Alex is released two years later, to find everything has changed. His parents’ lodger, Joe, has replaced him at home, and is being treated like a son by Alex’s parents. Joe lives in Alex’s bedroom, and all of Alex’s things have been sold to raise money for the old lady’s cats, who are without someone to look after them after their owner died. He goes and listens to some Mozart, but finds that, as a result of his treatment, he associates classical music with violence, and so hearing it makes him feel sick. He runs into his former droog, Dim, and an old rival named Billyboy, who have both become police officers, and they beat Alex up, leaving him outside on the outskirts of town. A man in a cottage takes Alex in and cares for him, recognising him as the boy from the papers who has undergone the controversial new Ludovico technique. Alex realises he is in the home of the man whose wife he and his droogs raped; the man tells Alex that his wife died shortly after her ordeal. But the man doesn’t recognise Alex, who tells us that he and his droogs wore masks when they carried out their crimes.
The man tells Alex that his name is F. Alexander, and that he and his friends are pushing back against the authoritarian government. Alexander plans to use Alex (the fact the two of them share a name is loaded with significance, as Alex himself notes) as an example of how the State goes too far, and to parade Alex in front of the world as an anti-government spokesperson. When the men refuse to tell Alex what he will get out of all this, he lapses into Nadsat, and F. Alexander recognises the slang as the same language used by the masked youths who attacked his wife. When Alex mentions his old droog Dim and Alexander recalls hearing that name on the night of the attack, the final piece of the puzzle falls into place. Alex falls asleep in a room where the men have left him, and when he wakes up he discovers he has been locked in by the men, who are blasting classical music through the walls in an attempt to drive him to suicide. In his desperation, Alex throws himself out of the window, but he survives the fall, and ends up in hospital.
Doctors reverse the Ludovico technique; when Alex is released, he’s back to his old, gang-running days. However, when he sees his old friend Pete (who is married now), he has a change of heart and decides to pack in the gangs and violent behaviour and settle down.
A Clockwork Orange: analysis
One of the themes of A Clockwork Orange is mentioned in the novel’s title, and is alluded to by F. Alexander, the dissident who takes Alex in following his beating at the hands of the police: ‘To turn a decent young man into a piece of clockwork’, he tells Alex, should not be seen as a triumph by a government. The question of how free we are as individuals, and how much our behaviour is socially, legally, and politically conditioned or controlled, is a central one in A Clockwork Orange. This question was of particular interest to Burgess, a Catholic, who was interested in the idea of free will versus determinism.
In this connection, and sticking with the novel’s title, consider the moment when Alex finds the fictional book called A Clockwork Orange, while he is staying with F. Alexander. This is clearly Burgess tipping a wink to us as readers (readers who are themselves reading a not-so-fictional book called A Clockwork Orange): it’s as if Burgess is offering up his own novel as more than just a piece of fiction and speculation, but a tract of sorts, highlighting mankind’s worrying propensity for mindless violence and the moral questions a responsible government has to face when dealing with violent criminals who rape and kill others for money – or, perhaps even worse, because it gives them a ‘kick’.
When he flicks through the book – the fictional non-fiction book called A Clockwork Orange, written by F. Alexander – Alex deduces that it is about how ‘all lewdies nowadays were being turned into machines’. Such a ‘message’ of the book is borne out by some of the Nadsat slang used, e.g. ‘viddy’ for ‘see’ or ‘look’, where the word ‘viddy’ has suggestions of video technology (although video tapes would only be developed later on, the word ‘video’ was in use by 1935), as if all looking is a form of videoing. (There’s a handy glossary of the Nadsat slang used in the novel here.)
The question of conscience – another question which can be made to resonate with Catholic significance – is also central to A Clockwork Orange. When F. Alexander tells Alex about what happened to his wife (still unaware that Alex was one of the youths responsible), Alex feels the urge to be sick; but this is not the same as feeling a natural twinge of conscience and remorse for what he did. Instead, it’s the result of his treatment, the Ludovico technique, which has conditioned him to associate violence with nausea.
In the last analysis, then, perhaps the most pressing moral question Burgess highlights in A Clockwork Orange is this: how can a responsible society inculcate a strong sense of conscience and personal responsibility in those who appear incapable of feeling either? If the only way is through the Ludovico treatment, which is as barbaric as the crimes it seeks to prevent, then the government and authorities are, perhaps, no better than the criminals they wish to ‘cure’.