A Clockwork Orange | Critical Essay by Rubin Rabinovitz

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
This section contains 2,136 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Rubin Rabinovitz

SOURCE: "Mechanism vs. Organism: Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4, Winter, 1978–1979, pp. 538-41.

Rabinovitz is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he argues that the twenty-first chapter of A Clockwork Orange reveals a thematic synthesis of free will and determinism.

In his most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess explores a number of interesting issues such as free will, the meaning of violence, and a cyclical theory of history. Resolving these issues, however, is complicated by an extraneous factor; the American editions of the novel lack Burgess' original conclusion and end with what is the penultimate chapter of the first English edition.

A good summary of the deleted section is provided by Burgess himself:

In the final chapter of the British edition, Alex is already growing up. He has a new gang, but he's tired of leading it; what he really wants is to have a son of his own—the libido is being tamed and turned social—and the first thing he now has to do is to find a mate, which means sexual love, not the old in-and-out. [Rolling Stone, June 8, 1972]

The hero's abrupt decision to turn away from his old pattern of violence has caused some unrest among Burgess' critics. Shirley Chew, writing in Encounter, feels that with Alex's fantasy of domestic life "the novel loses its integrity and falls into the sentimental." The ending, Chew says, makes it appear that Burgess condones and even shares the hero's taste for violence [Encounter, June, 1972]. And A. A. DeVitis, author of a recent study of Burgess' fiction, says that the last chapter was "wisely omitted from the American edition" [Anthony Burgess, 1972].

The American publisher, like Shirley Chew, felt that the last chapter was too sentimental; but Burgess has defended the original conclusion:

When they were going to publish it in America, they said "we're tougher over here" and thought the ending too soft for their readers. If it was me now, faced with the decision I'd say no. I still believe in my ending [Anthony Burgess with Carol Dix, Transatlantic Review, Spring-Summer, 1972]

On the face of it, publisher and critics seem right: the novel did enjoy better sales in America than in England, and Stanley Kubrick chose to use the shortened American edition for his film version of the book. But the original ending is not as sentimental as it first appears; there is truth, even poetic justice, in the idea of yesterday's reprobate changing diapers for his own neophyte reprobate.

If Alex remains violent, as he does in the American version, the reader's attitude towards him is mainly one of condemnation; but Burgess' inquiry into the origins of violence requires a hero who cannot be so easily condemned and dismissed. The original version in a sense provides the less sentimental ending if Alex is transformed from a monster into an ordinary human being with whom the reader can identify. Obdurate Alex is a threat to safety; Alex reformed threatens moral complacency, by suggesting that a love of violence is universal.

Regardless of which ending one prefers, Burgess wrote his novel assuming that it would appear intact, and it deserves to be considered in the complete version. As it turns out, many of his ideas are clarified when the last chapter is restored. An example is Burgess' treatment of the theme of freedom and determinism. Burgess appears in A Clockwork Orange to disapprove of the Ludovico technique (a scientific process for forcing criminals to reform); the loss of free will seems to be too great a price to pay. But if this is true, and if Burgess shares the point of view of the Chaplain and F. Alexander who oppose the Ludovico technique for similar reasons, it is unclear why Burgess portrays these characters in a sardonic fashion.

The novel's final statement about free will comes in the deleted chapter, when Alex says that in his youth he had not been free but determined. In his violent phase, he says, he had been

like one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties, like walking. O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of these malenky machines.

The young are like clockwork men; their proclivity towards violence is built into them. His son, Alex says, will also go through a violent phase, and Alex "would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers."

Alex concludes that there is a cycle of recurring phases in which each young man undergoes a period of existence as a violent, mechanical man; then he matures, gets greater freedom of choice, and his violence subsides. The cycle, says Alex, will go on forever: "and so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round…." The circularity of the repeating pattern leads Alex to compare the progress of generations to an image of God turning a dirty, smelly orange in his hands, "old Bog Himself (by courtesy of Korova Milkbar) turning and turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his gigantic rookers." The determined progress of the clockwork man, who must move in a straight line, is thus contrasted with the circular shape and movement of God's orange, symbol of life and organic growth. The "vonny grahzny" orange is also like the world, which on the same page is called "grahzny vonny." For Alex, life has aspects both of determinism and free will, line and circle, clockwork and orange.

Burgess used similar line-circle imagery in The Wanting Seed, which was published in the same year as A Clockwork Orange. In both novels, determinism and mechanical progress are associated with lines, while freedom and organic growth are associated with circles. Reality for Burgess often emerges from the interaction of contrary principles like these; in A Clockwork Orange Alex's linear, determined youth is contrasted with his freedom in maturity when he decides to marry, have a child, and give up his violence. But the cycle continues, and paradoxically Alex's freedom will lead him to have a child who once more will be subjected to the deterministic phase of the process.

By the end of the novel, Alex is mature enough to deal with this paradox. Troubled as he is by the idea that his son will be violent, he remains resolute in his desire to have children. The growth of Burgess' heroes is often indicated by their willingness to accept life and the mixed bag of contradictory values it offers.

The sense that Alex has accepted life is enforced when he finally answers the question which introduces each part of the novel and which is repeated eleven times: "What's it going to be then, eh?" Initially the question seems only to be about what sort of drink to order, but as it recurs it acquires existential overtones. The answer finally comes towards the end of the deleted chapter:

But first of all, brothers, there was this vesch of finding some devotchka or other who would be a mother to this son. I would have to start on that tomorrow, I kept thinking. That was something like new to do. That was something I would have to get started on, a new like chapter beginning.

That's what it's going to be then, brothers….

The question is answered just after Alex sees himself as a participant in the historical cycle and his life as a microcosmic version of the cycle. He has understood that history grows out of the struggle of opposing forces and has accepted a similar clash of contradictory urges in his own personality.

Alex's ideas suggest that Burgess has been influenced by Hegel's theory of history; and some of the characters in his other novels (like the history teacher who is the protagonist of The Long Day Wanes) actually discuss Hegel's theory. Burgess' system, however, differs in a number of respects from Hegel's. In the Hegelian dialectic, the opposition of thesis and antithesis produces a synthesis which resembles the stages that preceded it, but which is also different in some ways from these stages. The new element in the synthesis leads to the idea—very important in Hegelian thought—that progress comes with the dialectical historical cycle.

Burgess' theory denies this idea of progress. His system posits two antithetical, alternating stages; the third stage is actually only a repetition of the first. In this system, innovations are never permanent; the changes in one era are undone by a regressive process in the next, so there can be no true historical progress.

The idea that history repeats itself and the pessimistic outlook which it engenders may come from Toynbee or Spengler, whose cyclical theories of history were in vogue when Burgess was a student. Vico, whom Burgess mentions in his Joyce criticism, may also be a source. Burgess calls himself a Manichean, and he often takes a dualistic Manichean view of contending moral forces.

Another important source of Burgess' theory is the opposition of yin and yang principles in Chinese philosophy. Burgess refers to the yin-yang in his autobiographical first novel, A Vision of Battlements, and in a number of essays. According to Robert Morris, the yin-yang principles help to explain the historical dilemma of Crabbe, the hero of The Long Day Wanes:

The East, as Burgess sees it, is both active and passive, containing the principles of yin-yang, humming at both poles of the dialectic at once. It is a phenomenon alien to the West, which, nurtured on Hegelian propositions, submits to the certainty of either cyclical or lineal progression. [The Consolations of Ambiguity: An Essay on the Novels of Anthony Burgess, 1971]

Morris' comment is useful for understanding how yin and yang are related to dichotomies in A Clockwork Orange such as line and circle, organism and mechanism, and determinism and free will.

Anthony Burgess on Free Will Vs. Determinism:

We are all both Pelagian and Augustinian, either in cyclical phases, or, through a kind of doublethink, at one and the same time. Orwell was Pelagian in that he was a Socialist, Augustinian in that he created Ingsoc. It sometimes seems that the political life of a free community moves in the following cycle: a Pelagian belief in progress produces a kind of liberal regime that wavers when men are seen not to be perfectible and fail to live up to the liberal image; the regime collapses and is succeeded by an authoritarianism in which men are made to be good; men are seen not to be so bad as the Augustinian philosophy teaches; the way is open for liberalism to return. We tend to Augustinianism when we are disgusted with our own selfishness, to Pelagianism when we seem to have behaved well. Free will is of the essence of Pelagianism; determinism (original sin makes us not altogether responsible for our actions) of Augustinianism. None of us are sure how free we really are.

Anthony Burgess in 1985, Little, Brown, 1978.

Burgess feels that it is his work as an artist to portray conflicting elements which eventually blend into a single confluent entity. In Urgent Copy, a collection of reviews and essays, he gives an example: impressed by the juxtaposition of Spanish and British cultures in Gibralter, he composed a symphony in which disparate themes relating to these cultures clash initially but ultimately harmonize. The symphony was written before any of his novels, and this process of juxtaposing conflicting values provided him with a method he later used in his writing. A good discussion of how this principle works elsewhere in Burgess' oeuvre may be found in Thomas LeClair's study of his fiction [in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 12, 1971, pp. 77-94].

Burgess, then, follows the yin-yang principles in understanding change as a clash and interaction of opposed values which can lead either to chaos or to harmony. In the concluding essay of Urgent Copy, he explains that, though one would like to live by a single set of values, reality is most often apprehended in sets of opposing values like good and evil, white and black, rich and poor. Politicians and theologians, who claim they can find unity in merging these values, actually offer either promises (a classless society, for example) or intangibles (God, metaphysical ideas). Only a work of art, says Burgess, can achieve a synthesis of opposites which presents an immediate vision of unity. Obviously, A Clockwork Orange is meant to serve as an example of the sort of work that can truly reconcile opposing values.

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