Analysis and Interpretation of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, is one of the most experimental, original, and controversial novels of the twentieth century. It is both a compelling work of literature and an in-depth study in linguistics. The novel is a satirical, frightening science fiction piece, not unlike others of this century such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. However, the conflicts and resolutions in A Clockwork Orange are more philosophical than social, and its message is far more urgent.
A Clockwork Orange is made up of three parts containing 21 chapters, 21 being the official age of human maturity. It is a stream-of-consciousness novel about, most fundamentally, the freedom of people to choose. It asks readers if personal freedom is a justifiable sacrifice for comfort and social stability. This theme umbrellas many others, including the struggle between the governors and the governed and the age-old struggle between good and evil. A Clockwork Orange also incorporates the themes of youth versus old age and illusion versus reality.
Burgess, both a writer and an established linguist, uses A Clockwork Orange as a vessel for some very mature exploration of languages and literary play-things. Burgess fuses together many different languages in A Clockwork Orange to create Nadsat, the language of the youth. Nadsat is made up mainly of Russian, child speak, and invented and British slang, but it also utilizes Malay, German, French, Arabic, and Gypsy. The word Nadsat comes from the Russian word nadsat, a suffix for the numbers 11 through 19--the teenage numbers (Lund). The title A Clockwork Orange is derived from several sources. Used in old London slang, one might say someone is "as queer as a clockwork orange" (Burgess, "Resucked" x). In Nadsat, "orange" means "man" (which is derived from the Malay word "orang," meaning "man"), so a clockwork orange would be a man moving without pause or thought, as a clockwork (Lund). Burgess says of the title, "I mean it to stand for the application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism oozing with juice and sweetness" ("Resucked" x). After the state reforms him, the novel's hero and narrator Alex becomes a clockwork orange, a man working as a machine.
Nadsat is the primary language, although not the exclusive one, of A Clockwork Orange. Burgess claims he uses it "to muffle the raw response we expect from pornography." But he also uses it to create a "literary adventure" ("Resucked" x). The use of Nadsat emphasizes many of the struggles involved with A Clockwork Orange's purpose. The struggle between the old and the young--the conservative and the progressive--is made more sensational by the separation of language. Alex is misunderstood by his parents, the police, and the government philosophically, but also literally, widening the gap between him and the "sane" world.
Burgess also manipulates language in A Clockwork Orange in more traditional ways, in the form of literary and linguistic devices. The novel is saturated with irony and dark humor, dotted with repetition, and laced with word play.
Irony is used extensively A Clockwork Orange. One of the most repeated and significant examples of irony is in Alex's description of violence. Prior to his treatment, he refers any form of violence as "beautiful." After he hits Dim in the face, Alex says Dim is "singing blood to make up for his vulgarity" (Burgess, Clockwork 28). However, Alex refers to things most people regard as beneficial--education, religion, and rational thought--as undesirable and grotesque. Everything, then, that should be good, becomes bad, and vice versa. After the state reforms Alex, he begins contemplating his new accidental Judeo-Christian ethics: "And what, brothers, I had to escape into sleep from then was the horrible and wrong feeling that it was better to get the hit than give it. If that veck had stayed I might even have like presented the other cheek" (Burgess, Clockwork 121).
Another very significant bit of irony is in the name of the house that follows Alex throughout the story--the house that gives A Clockwork Orange its title and most of its major themes, and that ultimately causes Alex's downfall. The name of this house is HOME. When Alex's gang first encounters HOME, Alex calls it "a gloopy sort of name" (Burgess, Clockwork 19). Home is a word which carries with it the implication of comfort, safety, stability, and family. When Alex chooses to break into HOME, destroy its contents, beat its master, and rape its mistress, he seals his fate. He does this also when he destroys the manuscript of F. Alexander's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE while at HOME. The irony is that Alex destroys F. Alexander's argument against the very treatment that will later destroy his life. In this, he dooms himself.
Other examples of irony can be found scattered throughout the book. When Alex's gang hears a bum sing to himself, "O dear dear land, I fought for thee/And brought thee peace and victory," they beat him to near death (Burgess, Clockwork 14). When Alex is undergoing his treatment, the nurses and doctors call the drugs that will destroy Alex's life "vitamins." The treatment itself is ironic, for in trying to condition Alex to not terrorize men, the state terrorizes Alex. Burgess said, "Juvenile delinquents destroy the State's peace; mature delinquents threaten to destroy the human race" (Burgess, 1985).
Burgess uses repetition in A Clockwork Orange to give order and consistency to a very chaotic structure and plot. The novel begins with the line "What's it going to be then, eh?" Alex is asking his droogs what the night's activities will be. This same line is repeated twelve times throughout the book, but its meaning constantly mutates. Throughout part one of the book, it retains its original, simple meaning. In the first chapter of part two, the phrase changes its meaning and its speaker. It becomes preachy and impatient:
`What's it going to be then, eh?' said the prison charlie for the third raz. `Is it going to be in and out and in and out of institutions like this, though more in than out for most of you, or are you going to attend to the Divine Word and realize the punishments that await the unrepentant sinner in the next world, as well as in this? A lot of blasted idiots you are' (Burgess, Clockwork 77).
In the first chapter of part three, Alex asks himself "What's it going to be then, eh?" as he is trying to find meaning and purpose to his life after treatment. In the seventh chapter of part three, Alex asks his new droogs "What's it going to be then, eh?" in reference to what they will do that evening, taking the book full circle back to where it began.
Burgess plays with puns throughout A Clockwork Orange in order to add humor to serious situations and dialogues, thus making the book a satire. One of Alex's droogs is named Dim, which is possibly short for Dimitri. Dim lacks common sense and is used by his friends for his physical strength. When Alex refers to Dim, he calls him "Dim the dim." When Alex reads an article about the uncivilized behavior of "Modern Youth," he mocks it by using the words civilized and syphilised interchangeably (Burgess, Clockwork 42). Throughout the book, whenever Alex talks about the Minister of the Interior, he calls him "the Minister of the Interior or Inferior."
A Clockwork Orange also contains many metaphors and similes, all of which are quite unorthodox and often used for shock value, and most of which are found in the first (and most violent) part of the book. In chapter one, Burgess uses an extended metaphor to play out the rape of a girl "not more than ten" like a theatrical performance (Burgess, Clockwork 15). In the movie version of A Clockwork Orange, this scene shows the rape being committed on an actual stage. An example of a rather bizarre simile can also be found in chapter one with Alex's, "...there I was dancing about with my britva like I might be a barber on board a ship on a very rough sea, trying to get in at him with a few fair slashes on his unclean oily litso" (Burgess, Clockwork 16).
The mechanics of A Clockwork Orange exist to emphasize its tone, which is one of informality, outrageousness, and pure bloody violence. This tone, combined with the beliefs of Anthony Burgess, creates an outlet for the philosophical discussion of many fundamental human questions.
"What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?" (Burgess, Clockwork 95). The most principle theme of A Clockwork Orange involves the freedom of a man to choose between good and evil, or Pelagianism vs. Augustinianism. Pelagius denied that God predestined our lives; he believed humans had absolute power over their own salvation. In response to Pelagius, Augustine upheld the doctrine of original sin and defended the orthodox belief in predestination with the paradox of free choice for salvation. The Catholic Church eventually took a position somewhere between these two extremes (Utting). Burgess was raised in a Catholic household, and although his faith in Catholicism lapsed as an adult, his questions surrounding predestination surfaced in A Clockwork Orange. In it, he "expresses his view that no matter how 'good' one's actions are, unless one has free moral choice, he is spiritually damned" (Bash). It would be better, then, for Alex to have remained bad than to have had goodness forced upon him. Choosing evil is better than not choosing at all. Burgess used Alex's accidental conditioning against classical music to further show that people must have power over their choices, for if the choice of bad is taken away from them, then some good, found in their humanness, must also be taken away:
It was not the intention of his State manipulators to induce this bonus or malus: it is purely an accident that, from now on, [Alex] will automatically react to Mozart or Beethoven as he will to rape or murder. The State has succeeded in its primary aim: to deny Alex free moral choice, which, to the State, means choice of evil. But it has added an unforeseen punishment: the gates of heaven are closed to the boy, since music is a figure of celestial bliss. The State has committed a double sin: it has destroyed a human being, since humanity is defined by freedom of moral choice; it has also destroyed an angel (Burgess, 1985).
Another very important theme in A Clockwork Orange is that of youth vs. old age. The novel shows lawless youngsters taking over society. In the first part of the book, Alex and his gang beat a drunken old man. As they are kicking him and cussing at him, they feel almost proud to be putting the poor old man out of his misery, as there is no place for the elderly in their new world. Meanwhile, the old man staggers out, "It's a stinking world because it lets the young get on to the old like you done, and there's no law or order no more" (Burgess, Clockwork 14). However, after Alex receives his treatment things begin to change, and in the end, age does--at least temporarily--overcome youth. A large group of old men in a library attack Alex with their canes and wheelchairs and Alex is unable to defend himself (Burgess, Clockwork 144). Alex does not have freedom, and in taking it away, the older generation has seized back their nation.
The illusion versus reality theme in A Clockwork Orange is not often spoken of, but is, nevertheless, one of the novel's more prevalent themes. One might say Alex's whole life is an illusion, or that the society exists only as an illusion, but A Clockwork Orange also reminds us that sometimes illusion is reality. Alex has vivid dreams throughout the book, and each one of them proves to be prophetic. In the beginning of A Clockwork Orange, Alex dreams of J.S. Bach, and somehow connects it with HOME. His dream then wanders to the book he had seen at HOME--the book which describes his own future hell--the book entitled A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (Burgess, Clockwork 33). Once in jail, Alex dreams of Beethoven's blessed Ninth, but just as he starts to enjoy it, the music begins to say nasty things to him, a vision of his later reaction to the music as a result of his treatment (Burgess, Clockwork 73). Alex has a similar dream after he finds out about the treatment and decides he wants to take part in it. He is playing in Beethoven's orchestra, but his instrument is his own flesh. Whenever he hears the music, he feels mad and sick (Burgess, Clockwork 89). After Alex's treatment, he lives out his first day as a machine, goes to sleep, then wakes up the next morning and says, "I had a real horrorshow night's sleep, brothers, with no dreams at all" (Burgess, Clockwork 158). Because Alex's reality as a human has ended, the illusions which have guided him through humanity have also ended. Alex has lost his visionary abilities to symbolize his loss of the part of him that was him. After Alex is hypnotized out of treatment, he dreams again, this time of feeling clean, whole, hopeful (Burgess, Clockwork 172).
A Clockwork Orange is one of the most complex books of our era. It is also one of the most studied, and one of the most misunderstood. Burgess used his abilities as a linguist to spin a futuristic tale of violence and reformation. Our subconscious mind wants to give Alex the freedom to kill and rape, while our conscious mind understands society's need for well-behaved citizens. A Clockwork Orange speaks to the philosopher, the theologist, and the psychologist in all of us, and its message becomes more relevant with each new year.
Bash, Kris. "Critical Discussions." Accessed last on May 8, 1997.
Burgess, Anthony. 1985. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1994. Accessed last on May 5, 1997.
---. A Clockwork Orange. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962.
---. Foreword: "A Clockwork Orange Resucked." A Clockwork Orange. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962. v-xi.
Lund, Christian. "Nadsat wordlist." Accessed last on May 7, 1997.
Utting, Bruce. "Common themes of A Clockwork Orange." Accessed last on May 4, 1997.