A Clockwork Orange | Critical Essay by Deanna Madden

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
This section contains 2,417 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Deanna Madden

SOURCE: "Women In Dystopia: Misogyny in Brave New World, 1984, and A Clockwork Orange," in Misogyny in Literature: An Essay Collection, edited by Katherine Anne Ackley, Garland Publishing, 1992, pp. 289-313.

In the following excerpt, Madden discusses elements of misogyny in A Clockwork Orange.

The future society of A Clockwork Orange is a violent world in which the weak are at the mercy of the strong. Like Brave New World and 1984, A Clockwork Orange portrays a patriarchal culture in which women are subordinated and peripheral. Women are perceived through the male gaze, in this case that of a fifteen-year-old delinquent, Alex. While Alex's views may reflect his immaturity, they are also a reflection of the culture in which he lives. In the Russianized teenage slang, or "nadsat," there are many words for females: "devotchka" (girl), "sharp," "cheena," "ptitsa" (a vulgar-sounding word which seems to stress their bodies, or "tits"), "baboochka," "lighter," and "forella" (the last three used only for old women). To Alex females are sexual objects perceived mainly in terms of their "groodies" (breasts). The three girls at the Milkbar in the first chapter are typical teenaged females of their society: the silver badges they wear announcing the names of boys they have slept with before age fourteen suggest their promiscuity. It is a society in which females are initiated into sexuality at a tender age and often violently: the two girls whom Alex picks up at the "disc bootick" and then rapes are only ten years old, as is the girl menaced by Billyboy and his droogs.

Alex regards females primarily as objects to rape. His attitude toward women is one aspect of his violent rebellion against society. Destructive and anti-social, he is a criminal who robs, assaults, and rapes, a sociopath who takes pleasure in venting his aggression and inflicting pain. Women are vulnerable to the violence Alex represents because he is stronger and they weaker. He demonstrates these violent sexual politics when he and his droogs rob a convenience store by assaulting the owner's wife and ripping her clothes. Later the same evening, still seeking thrills, they break into a house and brutally gang rape another woman as the culmination of their night of violence.

Old women, doubly vulnerable because of age and gender, are also victims in the novel. Alex's mother is a passive woman who tries not to aggravate her dangerous son. He perceives her as one of the "pitiable" old. She is powerless to influence him: to make him attend school, to keep him from his street violence, or even to persuade him to turn down the volume of his loud music. The old women at the Duke of New York pub are also intimidated by Alex. They are easily bullied and bribed by Alex's gang to provide the young delinquents with alibis during their crime sprees. An old woman who lives alone with a houseful of cats is Alex's last female victim. Although he is apprehended by the police during this break-in, he manages first to kill the old woman with a fatal blow.

Alex's violence toward women (and the elderly) in the early chapters of the novel make of him a sort of monster from whom the reader tends to recoil. [In an endnote Madden adds: "The technique of first person narrative plus the distancing effect of the inventive language tend to mitigate this impression, as many critics have observed. A female reader may recoil more than a male since she will find it difficult to identify with Alex's male violence directed against females and probably identify to a certain extent with the female victims."] However, when Alex becomes in turn the victim of the police, who brutally beat him, and of Dr. Brodsky and Dr. Branom, who make him the guinea pig in their diabolic experiment with the Ludovico technique (behavior modification designed to turn him into a model citizen), Alex becomes a more sympathetic character. Forced to watch horrifying films of rape, assaults, and war crimes, he is made nauseous with injections until he comes to associate violence with nausea. Alex begins to seem like a naif compared to the corrupt State which has him at its mercy. Burgess suggests that, compared to the State's crimes, Alex's crimes are small. Burgess is more alarmed by the power of the State to eradicate the individual's free choice and turn him into a machine. By using the Ludovico technique, the State plays God and interferes with the most important aspect of man—his free will. Worse yet, if the State can control Alex with this behavior modification technique, it can control others and by this means become all-powerful.

Thus, Burgess wishes the reader to view the violence which Alex and his droogs have committed as a form of choice. The reader is expected to perform the mental gymnastics of seeing that, viewed from a certain angle, violence is good, that Alex the rapist is preferable to Alex the clockwork orange. When the conditioning is reversed and Alex is returned to his old violent self, it is a victory for free will.

While this message is difficult for many readers to accept since it appears to condone violence and in particular violence against women, another disturbing aspect of the novel is its tendency to equate rape and eroticism. Throughout most of the novel Alex's first and only impulse toward women is to rape them. He appears unable to relate to them in any other way or to feel sexually attracted without the urge to be violent. The result is to offer only two extremes of male sexual behavior. This becomes clear in Alex's appearance before a live audience after he has successfully undergone the Ludovico technique. When a nubile young woman is presented to him, he must suppress his urge to rape her to avoid the nausea it triggers. Instead he responds to her platonically, as if he is the knight and she the damsel on the pedestal. The ridiculousness of this response is made clear by the titters of laughter it elicits from the audience. Dr. Brodsky also suggests there is an obvious connection between violence and eroticism: "The sweetest and most heavenly of activities partake in some measure of violence—the act of love, for instance; music, for instance." Curing Alex's aggression amounts to emasculation. After his cure, he cannot defend himself, enjoy Beethoven (the violent classical music he prefers), or experience erotic desire. Released from prison, he is a mere shell, anxious to lose himself in drugs, depressed, and suicidal.

When A Clockwork Orange was first published in the United States in 1963, it omitted a final chapter that had appeared in the British edition. The difference in endings makes a considerable difference in the impression left with the reader by the novel, as Burgess notes in his Introduction to the revised American edition (1988), which includes the missing chapter. The first ending leaves the impression that Burgess endorses the violence of the clockwork orange society, for Alex's return to his old violent self is a victory for the individual. He has won out against the State which would control him. Burgess explains that he wanted instead to show that his "young thuggish protagonist grows up. He grows bored with violence and recognizes that human energy is better expended on creation than destruction. Senseless violence is a prerogative of youth…."

In the restored final chapter Alex, now age eighteen, feels vaguely dissatisfied with his life. The teenaged girls at the Milkbar no longer attract him. In his wallet he carries a picture of a baby clipped from a newspaper. When he encounters his old droog Pete, now married to a pretty young woman, he is envious and begins to fantasize, in Burgess's words, "a different kind of future." In his fantasy he imagines "coming home from work to a good hot plate of dinner" prepared by a "ptitsa all welcoming and greeting like loving." But in his vision this "ptitsa" is vague, a faceless female whose main attributes are her ability to cook a hot meal, to have a fire burning on the hearth, and to welcome him home with open arms. She is less important than the child she will bear him—the baby in the next room. In true patriarchal fashion, Alex envisions the baby as a boy. The idea that he might father a daughter apparently never occurs to him. At this point in his reverie he forgets the woman, as if once she has borne his son, she is no longer important, and contemplates at length his relationship with his imaginary future son. But obviously there will be no son until first there is a mate, so he tells himself that what he must do next is find "some devotchka or other who would be a mother to this son." She is, it seems, just a necessary next step in achieving his ultimate goal—an heir. Thus, while the final chapter shows Alex turning away from rape and violence, his image of women merely changes from targets of rape to useful breeders. He never sees them as human beings equal to himself.

It might be argued that Alex's attitude toward women reflects his own warped mentality and the violence of his clockwork orange culture, not Burgess's views, but the salient feature of violence remains, especially violence against women. Then there is the disturbing linking of eroticism and rape. Alex's final attitude toward women as breeders of sons also calls into consideration Burgess's own attitudes toward women, since this is where he ultimately wishes to lead the reader. The focus is not only on a male protagonist who has failed to figure out any way of relating to females except to rape them, beat them, impregnate them, or, as in the case of his mother and his future wife, to be served by them, but on a male who ultimately only relates to another male, his mirror image, his son.

Critics have suggested that the misogyny to be found in Burgess's work may have its roots in his personal life. His mother died when he was two years old, his stepmother did not love him, and his first wife, to whom he was married for twenty-six years, was repeatedly unfaithful to him. In his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God, Burgess describes this marriage as marked by many infidelities on both sides. The curiously neutral manner in which he relates his wife's infidelities conceals how he felt about them, but the reader infers he must have been hurt by her refusal from the beginning of their relationship to be exclusive. Burgess implies that since she chose to be unfaithful, he saw no reason why he too should not be. In spite of the adulteries, he claims to have loved her. The issue of female promiscuity arises in A Clockwork Orange in the form of the devotchkas in the Milkbar with their silver medals and the ten-year-old girls who wear padded bras and lipstick.

Another influence on Burgess's attitude toward women was no doubt his Roman Catholicism. While Burgess now considers himself a lapsed Catholic, his work is permeated by ideas drawn from the Catholic Church, such as the doctrine of original sin. Burgess is a highly moral writer, interested in man's spiritual dimension and his relation to God (or "Bog" in A Clockwork Orange). According to his autobiography, the early influence of Catholicism caused him to regard sex as sinful and instilled in him feelings of guilt.

One of the most brutal scenes involving a female in A Clockwork Orange is the gang rape of F. Alexander's wife. Burgess has confessed that this incident had its origins in an assault on his wife in 1944 by four men. While the assault was brutal (Burgess's wife Lynne was kicked unconscious and subsequently suffered a miscarriage), it was not a rape. Burgess, who was stationed in Gibraltar at the time, felt anger at the American GI deserters who had attacked her and at his commanding officers for refusing him leave to rush to her. Both in his wife's promiscuity and in her assault, Burgess must have felt a lack of control over her body. By rewriting the incident as a rape which the husband is forced to watch helplessly, he includes his own feelings of anger, frustration, and guilt.

Elsewhere Burgess's comments on the subject of rape, however, must strike a female reader as remarkably callous. He admits in his Introduction to A Clockwork Orange that in writing the novel he "enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy." These are not emotions that the typical female reader would share. When he dismisses Alex's acts of violence, including rape, as a sort of phase that Alex will outgrow, the female reader may balk. Does Burgess really expect us to agree that "senseless violence is a prerogative of youth"? Is it simply a part of growing up that young males should rape? And when Alex observes that his son will probably do all the things he has done, should we feel no shiver of horror?

Kate Millett in Sexual Politics points out that the threat of rape in a patriarchal society can be an "instrument of intimidation." It is a way of keeping women subordinate. She also notes that "patriarchal societies typically link feelings of cruelty with sexuality, the latter often equated with evil and power." Perhaps this helps to explain why rape is linked to eroticism in Burgess's novel. But clearly rape is an act of aggression in which the chief motive is to inflict hurt and thereby assert the rapist's power. As Millett explains, "In rape, the emotions of aggression, hatred, contempt, and the desire to break or violate personality take a form consummately appropriate to sexual politics."

The world of A Clockwork Orange is a distorted mirror world of London in the early 1960's and also of Russia. [In an endnote, the critic comments that "Burgess travelled to Russia shortly before writing A Clockwork Orange and noted the phenomenon of youth gangs there."] Many of its images are identifiable reflections of a contemporary society which regards young women as sex objects and exploits them. In the convenience store which Alex and his droogs rob stands "a big cut-out showing a sharp [female] with all her zoobies [teeth] going flash at the customers and her groodies [breasts] near hanging out to advertise some new brand of cancers [cigarettes]." The novel also reflects contemporary society's devaluation of the older woman, who having lost her youth and attractiveness, finds herself powerless and despised.

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This section contains 2,417 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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