A Clockwork Orange | Julie Carson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
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Julie Carson

SOURCE: "Pronominalization in A Clockwork Orange," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 200-05.

In the following essay, Carson argues that pronoun usage in A Clockwork Orange is indicative of the power relationships between Alex and the other characters.

What discussion there has been of the language of A Clockwork Orange has dealt mainly with the gypsy talk of Alec, "nadsat," a hybrid of Russian and onomatopoetic words. Virtually no critic, however, has investigated a linguistic technique certainly as obvious as the nadsat lexicon: Alec's system of pronominalization. It is with the thou/you pronoun distinction, and not the nadsat vocabulary, that Burgess indicates the significant changes in the central character in the novel.

In "The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity," Roger Brown and Albert Gilman propose a "connection between social structure, group ideology, and the semantics of the pronoun." They base their conclusions on data from sixteen countries, whose native languages make distinction between familiar and formal pronouns [see Style in Language, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok, 1960]. Their findings are especially applicable to A Clockwork Orange, for Alec is the only character who deviates from the standard pronoun system. Burgess sets him off in two ways: from general society by giving him the nadsat vocabulary, and from his own group, with the pronoun distinction. The use of an argot to set a group apart is common enough. But a deviation from, yet within, an argot carries greater implications, revealing Alec's position of power relative to both society and to his droogs. Concerning power and pronouns, Brown and Gilman observe that "power is a relationship between at least two persons, and it is nonreciprocal in the sense that both cannot have power in the same area of behavior. The power semantic is similarly nonreciprocal; the superior says T and receives V." [In a footnote, Carson explains: "Gilman and Brown use the symbols T and V (from the Latin tu and vos) to designate familiar and polite pronouns in any language."]

Alec uses the formal "thou" in situations in which he is clearly in control, as in his dialogue with Dim, the least competent of his droogs: "'Come, gloopy bastard as thou art. Think not on them.'" Later when his droogs are in rebellion, Alec draws a fine line in his respect among his droogs; Dim he continues to address "thou," but to the other two droogs he uses the conventional pronoun: "'Oh now, don't, both of you malchicks. Droogs, aren't we?'" His droogs are not mollified, despite Alec's addressing them as "you," his equals, and they press their revolt. Alec then gets "more razdaz inside," frightened by the impending violence, and capitulates his position of power. After he agrees to go "bedways," in his acquiescent stance, Alec addresses Dim, the former object of physical abuse, as an equal: "'You understand about that tolchock on the not, Dim. It was the music see.'"

There are three other important examples of the thou/you distinction early in the novel. One occurs when Alec and his droogs break into F. Alexander's HOME. As the bizarre scene begins to unfold, in the only line which calls for pronoun usage, Alec uses "thou"; "'Never fear. If fear thou hast in thy heart, O brother, pray banish it forth-with." In the entire episode of destruction and rape, Alec dominates the situation. By telling Alexander not to fear, he clearly mocks Alexander, who indeed has a great deal to fear. Later in the novel, Alec uses "thou" when he deceives his father and asserts his ability to control situations: "'Never worry about thine only son and heir, O my father,' I said. 'Fear not. He canst taketh care of himself, verily.'" The third significant use of "thou" occurs when Alec is verbally and then physically assaulting Billyboy: "'Well, if it isn't fat stinking billygoat Billyboy in poison. How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap stinking chipoil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly, thou.'" In the last example what appears to be ambivalence (the use of both pronoun forms) might be explained in either of two ways: first, the power relationship between Alec and Billyboy is not clear. They are rivals and peers. But in this scene, Alec is on the attack, not to Dim or to Alexander or to his father, whom he considers his subordinates-victims, but to a person he must hold in derision, yet whose power he respects. Billyboy is not so weak an adversary that he can be dismissed with the "thou" form; in fact, Alec does not win the encounter. It is broken up by police sirens. Interestingly, as the sirens wail, and the threat of a higher authority looms, Alec reverts to conventional usage: "'Get you soon, fear not,' I called, 'stinking billygoat. I'll have your yarbles off lovely.'" The dialogue with Billyboy seems to reflect, then, what Brown and Gilman suggest: "the superior says T and receives V" in nonreciprocal power relationships.

When Alec and his droogs break into Alexander's HOME, the power relationship is clear: Alec is plainly in control. But in the next major crime they commit, a curious thing happens: although Alec seems to be dominating the situation (he has, afterall, only an old woman as his adversary) he uses the conventional pronoun form: "'Hi hi hi. At last we meet. Our brief govoreet through the letter-hole was not, shall we say, satisfactory, yes? Let us admit not, oh verily not, you stinking starry old sharp.'" In no comparable situation had Alec lapsed into the conventional form "you"; Burgess offers here a linguistic clue to the imminent power change. Alec, of course, is caught in this crime and imprisoned. Perhaps most interesting of all is that from this episode until he is "cured" of the Ludovico technique, with one exception, Alec never says "thou" to anyone, no matter what his estimation of them. Clearly Burgess exploited the rare and subtle use of "thou" to indicate Alec's power position, thus affirming Brown and Gilman's observation that "a man's consistent pronoun style gives away his class status."

Alec perceives each of his relationships correctly: he knows, in other words, when he may use the "thou" form. As Brown and Gilman explain, "The general meaning of an unexpected pronoun choice is simply that the speaker, for the moment, views the relationship that calls for the pronoun used." Likewise, Alec knows when to use "you", as when the police brutally interrogate him and Deltoid spits in his face. Alec replies: "'Thank you, sir, thank you very much, sir, that was very kind of you sir, thank you.'" With one exception Alec never uses any other second person pronominal form during his arrest, imprisonment, or hospitalization. [In a footnote, Carson elaborates: "The one time Alec does use 'thou' is to the hospital staff aide wheeling him back to his room after the first Ludovico session. The aide is described by Alec as an 'under-veck'; he is interpreted, in other words, as an inferior person. Alec's sensibilities (and therefore, his wrath) may have been especially aroused because the 'under-veck' was singing a 'hound and horny popsong.' Alec, with his sophisticated taste in music would have found then even greater reason to hold the aide in disdain."]

The Ludovico technique evokes a number of reactions in Alec: he becomes nonaggressive, nonviolent, and respectful to established societal codes. Accordingly, he also ceases to use "thou" in his dialogues. Perhaps the most significant example of the change effected in him occurs shortly after his release from the hospital. When he meets Dim, his pronominal style has altered considerably, revealing his apprehension of his new role in the power structure: "'Read to you,' I said, a malenky bit nasty. 'You still too dim to read for yourself, O brother.'" After the beating that Dim and Billboy inflict on him, Alec ironically seeks help at Alexander's HOME, where he has earlier used the "thou" pronominal code. When he returns to seek help from Alexander (admittedly a subordinate position) he uses conventional pronouns, but later in the conversation after reading an attack on the government Alexander had written in his name, Alec comments: "'Very good…. Real horrorshow. Written well thou hast, O sir.' And then he looked at me very narrow and said: 'What?' It was like he had not slooshied me before. 'Oh that,' I said, 'is what we call nadsat talk. All the teens use that, sir.'" Alexander's sudden close attention to Alec's speech could not have been evoked only by the obvious lexical deviance, "horrorshow." Earlier in their conversation Alec had defined "ptitsa" and "the charlie" for Alexander, or had used nadsat words which Alexander let pass by without questioning: "polly," "slooshy" and "jeezny." But after Alec revealed himself with the use of "thou" Alexander's suspicions about his identity were aroused.

There is some ambivalence in Alec's pronominal code in this episode at HOME. But it reflects Alec's uncertainty of his role there. The use of "thou" is an obvious slip on Alec's part. But later, when he asserts himself "I did not like that crack about zombyish, brothers, and so I said: 'What goes on, bratties? What dost thou in mind for thy little droog have?'" Alec allows himself to slip into the total nadsat argot of lexicon, syntax, and morphology because of his great fear. He is suddenly aware that Alexander and his group are acting in their own interests and not in his. He assesses the situation quickly and adopts nearly the proper linguistic posture for his power position, but he cannot restrain himself entirely; his language, after all, has been his greatest means of self-identification and self-assertion. Alexander's final torture of Alec consists of playing Beethoven, inducing him to commit suicide. As Alec prepares to jump to his death, he cries: "'Goodbye, goodbye, my Bog forgive you for a ruined life.'" Again, in what appears to be his final role as victim, Alec uses the pronoun "you" appropriate to the situation, rather than the inappropriate power semantic "thou." Alec's suicide attempt is of course abortive, and his fall causes much of the Ludovico technique to be ineffective. Although Alec does not linguistically revert to his former self, as the story line might suggest, if one interprets only the action of the story during Alec's final hospitalization, it appears that he is indeed his former self. He relies heavily on the nadsat vocabulary; he exhibits his former usual extraordinary lust; he treats his parents with great disdain; he threatens physical violence to those who contradict him; and he insults the most overt symbol of the established order, the Minister of the Interior. But he does all these things with pronominal ambivalence. He addresses the nurse: "'What gives, O my little sister? Come thou and have a nice laydown with your malenky droog in this bed'"; his parents: "'Well well well well well, what gives? What makes you think you are like welcome?'"; the Minister of the Interior: "'Bolshy great yarblockos to thee and thine.'" To three of the four persons he speaks to in his final hospitalization, after he has been apparently cured of the Ludovico technique, he readopts his special pronominal code. He has reasserted himself to everyone but his parents, for their leaving him was on a tentative basis: "'You'll have to make up your mind,' I said, 'who's to be boss.'" In Alec's final confrontation with the Minister of the Interior, he uses "thou" exclusively—"'Bolshy great yarblockos to thee and thine'"—for he consistently interprets the Minister as inferior: "And in he came, and of course it was none other than the Minister of the Interior or Inferior…." Other epithets he uses to refer to the Minister explicitly call attention to the inferior role he attributes to him: "int Inf Min" and "intinfmin."

Anthony Burgess thus draws subtle distinctions by developing a pronominal code within the nadsat argot which, in turn, gives explicit linguistic clues to the power structures in A Clockwork Orange. He reflects current findings of linguistic research which suggests that there is a power semantic which is clearly revealed in nonreciprocal power relationships. He has developed a linguistic technique both subtle and sophisticated and one that enhances the brilliance of A Clockwork Orange.

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This section contains 2,040 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Julie Carson
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Julie Carson from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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