A Clockwork Orange | Critical Essay by Philip E. Ray

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
This section contains 4,246 words
(approx. 15 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Philip E. Ray

SOURCE: "Alex Before and After: A New Approach to Burgess' A Clockwork Orange," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3, Autumn, 1981, pp. 479-87.

In the following essay, Ray argues that the structure of A Clockwork Orange reflects the theme of inevitable human growth.

Most interpreters of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange have tended to follow the lead of such early commentators as Bernard Bergonzi, A. A. DeVitis, Carol M. Dix, and Robert K. Morris in defining the theme of the novel as the conflict between the natural and untainted Individual and the artificial and corrupt State. Bergonzi's observation that "in its emphasis on the nature of human freedom in a totalitarian society the book has philosophical as well as literary importance" is typical of the thinking that shaped the framework in which subsequent critical discussion has taken place. And this tendency has recently achieved a fitting culmination in the account of the novel that Burgess himself has published, an account which concludes with this dictum: "we may not be able to trust man—meaning ourselves—very far, but we must trust the State far less" [1985, 1978].

This essay attempts to present a different approach to both the content and the form of A Clockwork Orange, an approach which complements rather than contradicts the other. This essay will, however, focus on the relations of Alex, Burgess' hero and narrator, with characters frequently neglected or overlooked by the critics: the owner of the cottage named "HOME"; his wife; and the unnamed and unborn male child whom Alex mentions only in the final chapter. In other words, characters who are the willing or unwilling agents of the State—for example, the prison chaplain, the prison governor, Dr. Brodsky, the Minister of the Interior—will receive less attention than they sometimes do. The specific thesis that this essay will argue for is twofold: that Burgess has the owner of HOME represent the person Alex will become, his future self, and the boy who does not yet exist represent the person he has already been, his past self, in order to express the view that human growth is inevitable; and that the tripartite structure of the novel directly mirrors this chronological sequence of Alex's identities.

The three parts of A Clockwork Orange are of equal length, each having seven chapters, but they otherwise fall into an ABA pattern. [In a footnote Ray explains: "To some readers, ABA may seem to be an abbreviation for 'Anthony Burgess Author.' Others, who are more familiar with Burgess' rapidly increasing canon, will recall the fact that the title of his 1977 novel ABBA ABBA refers to the rhyme scheme of the octave of the Petrarchan sonnet. But, as I will attempt to demonstrate below, the primary significance lies elsewhere."] Parts One and Three are set in the city streets and country lanes of a future England so paralyzed by violent crime that it has surrendered them to the very teenagers who commit the crimes. Part Two is set in a prison—"Staja (State Jail, that is) Number 84F"—where the government is attempting to regain the upper hand by checking within the mind of the particular criminal the impulse toward violence. Alex, who has his own gang despite his mere fifteen years, is sent to jail for murder at the close of Part One; in Part Two he successfully undergoes the State's experimental Reclamation Treatment only to reenter, in Part Three, a world that is unchanged. Thus Burgess has Alex's adventures in Part Three—especially his return to his parents' flat, his encounters with "the crystal veck" and with Dim and Billy-boy, and his visit to the cottage named HOME—duplicate or parallel those in Part One with this significant difference: whereas he earlier victimized others in committing robbery, burglary, assault, rape, and even murder, he himself is now the victim. With his natural instincts and drives artificially blocked. Alex is the "clockwork orange" of the title. [In a footnote Ray elaborates: "It is important to realize that Alex does come to think of himself as 'a clockwork orange.' Significantly enough, when the State puts him on display, Alex protests to the audience: '"Am I like just some animal or dog?… Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?"' Thus Alex perceives that he has become something lower than an 'animal or dog' because part of him, and a crucial part at that, is now mechanical. On the phrase itself, Burgess again comments helpfully in 1985: 'The book was called A Clockwork Orange for various reasons. I had always loved the Cockney phrase "queer as a clockwork orange," that being the queerest thing imaginable, and I had saved up the expression for years, hoping some day to use it as a title. When I began to write the book, I saw that this title would be appropriate for a story about the application of Pavlovian, or mechanical, laws to an organism which, like a fruit, was capable of colour and sweetness. But I had also served in Malaya, where the word for a human being is orang.'"] One part of the moral that Burgess wishes the reader to draw here is that, in attempting to transform the violent tough into the peaceful citizen, the State has succeeded in rendering Alex incapable of self-defense.

The other part of the moral is that the State has also rendered Alex incapable of enjoying the music of his adored "Ludwig van." To quote once again from Burgess' own account of the novel,

I imagined an experimental institution in which a generic young delinquent, guilty of every crime from rape to murder, was given aversion therapy and rendered incapable of contemplating, let alone perpetrating, an antisocial act without a sensation of profound nausea…. A lover of music, he has responded to the music, used as a heightener of emotion, which has accompanied the violent films he has been made to see. A chemical substance injected into his blood induces nausea while he is watching the films, but the nausea is also associated with the music. It was not the intention of his State manipulators to induce this bonus or malus: it is purely an accident that, from now on, he 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 or moral choice; it has also destroyed an angel.

Thus the State has meddled destructively not only in the mundane area of morals but also in the higher realm of art.

But consider for a moment the notion that in figurative terms music is "celestial bliss" and Alex an angel. If this is so, then it is certainly logical to regard all of his utterances, the entire narrative related by him to the reader, as musical: if Alex is, in some sense, an angel, his story is, in that same sense, a song. And the question of what sort of song redirects our discussion to the matter of the novel's structure, for the ABA pattern in music is universally recognized as the distinguishing characteristic of the da capo aria in eighteenth-century Italian opera, a kind of aria which "consists of two sections followed by a repetition of the first, resulting in a tripartite structure ABA" [The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 1969]. [In a footnote, Ray comments: "The fact that Burgess first wanted to be a musician and continues to compose music is, I believe, so frequently mentioned as not to require documentation here. But a word is in order about Burgess' most ambitious and explicit use to date of musical structure in his literary work, the symphonic or four-part organization of his 1974 novel, Napoleon Symphony. The genesis of the novel he describes in a doggerel 'Epistle to the Reader,' which he appends to it:

      I was brought up on music and compose
      Bad music still, but ever since I chose
      The novelist's metier one mad idea
      Has haunted me, and I fulfill it here
      Or try to—it is this: somehow to give
      Symphonic shape to verbal narrative,
      Impose on life, though nerves scream and resist,
      The abstract patterns of the symphonist.

It is possible to argue, then, that A Clockwork Orange anticipates Napoleon Symphony because, as he composed it, Burgess attempted to give the 'shape,' the 'abstract patterns' of the aria, to the narrative of Alex, whose single viewpoint stands in the same relation to the many viewpoints of Napoleon Symphony as the single voice of the aria singer to the many voices of the symphonic orchestra."] And it is perhaps no accident, then, that at one point in the story Alex listens with powerful emotion to what Burgess makes quite clear is an operatic aria:

One of these devotchkas … suddenly came with a burst of singing, only a bar and a half and as though she was like giving an example of something they'd all been govoreeting about, and it was like for a moment, O my brothers, some great bird had flown into the milkbar, and I felt all the little malenky hairs on my plott standing endwise and the shivers crawling up like slow malenky lizards and then down again. Because I knew what she sang. It was from an opera by Friedrich Gitterfenster called Das Bettzeug, and it was the bit where she's snuffing it with her throat cut, and the slovos are "Better like this maybe." Anyway, I shivered.

One wishes that Burgess had provided more information about his imaginary composer of operas: when he lived, what kinds of operas he wrote, and so on. But he does provide enough so that certain parallels can be drawn later between Alex and the wretched heroine whose aria he now hears.

To return to the actual workings of the ABA pattern in the novel. Burgess reinforces the reader's sense of the pattern by opening each of the three parts with the question "'What's it going to be then, eh?'" and by having Alex ask it in Parts One and Three and the prison chaplain ask it in Part Two. Thus, in the A Parts Alex is free to pose the question for himself, whereas in Part B someone else, significantly an employee of the State, must pose it for him. Similarly, the hero's name, which (as one would expect) remains constant in Parts One and Three, is replaced by a prison identification number in Part Two: "6655321." [In a footnote, the critic explains: "Burgess provides an illuminating gloss on the name in 1985: 'The name of the antihero is Alex, short for Alexander, which means "defender of men." Alex has other connotations—a lex: a law (unto himself); a lex(is): a vocabulary (of his own); a (Greek) lex: without a law. Novelists tend to give close attention to the names they attach to their characters. Alex is a rich and noble name, and I intended its possessor to be sympathetic, pitiable, and insidiously identifiable with us, as opposed to them.'"] In the A Parts Alex can call himself by whatever name he chooses (it is surely important that he never once uses his surname); in Part B he is called by a number, not even a name, chosen by the State. As Alex describes the change, "I was 6655321 and not your little droog Alex not no longer."

Alex's name is significant in another, even more essential way because it provides the chief clue to the thematic function of the owner of the cottage called HOME. When in Part One Alex and his "droogs" break into the cottage, they not only vandalize it but also beat the owner and rape his wife, who later dies as a result. When in Part Three Alex returns, he does so alone and, having just been beaten himself, stands utterly defenseless before the man he has wronged. The latter fails, however, to recognize Alex (primarily because he was wearing a mask on the night of the break-in) and provides him with aid and shelter instead of punishment or revenge. The owner of HOME even manages, in thinking aloud about his dead wife, to identify Alex with her when he says to Alex, "'Poor poor boy, you must have had a terrible time. A victim of the modern age, just as she was. Poor poor poor girl.'" Alex, of course, does recognize the owner and, wishing to learn his name, searches for a copy of the book that he was writing, and that Alex read from, on that fateful night:

It struck me that I ought to get to know the name of this kind protecting and like motherly veck, so I had a pad round in my nagoy nogas looking for A Clockwork Orange, which would be bound to have his eemya in, he being the author…. On the back of the book, like on the spine, was the author's eemya—F. Alexander. Good Bog, I thought, He is another Alex.

Having just been let out of prison, Alex has now ceased to be 6655321. He finds, however, that not only is he Alex again (with the addition of the "clockwork") but that someone else is Alex, too. He has somehow managed to encounter a second version of himself.

What, then, do Alex and F. Alexander have in common besides their names? Both, oddly enough, are authors of books entitled A Clockwork Orange. (Burgess keeps the reader aware of Alex's authorial role by having him frequently address his audience by means of the curious formula "O my brothers" and refer to himself as "Your Humble Narrator.") One important difference between the two authors is, of course, that, while F. Alexander is writing his book on the night of Alex's first visit to HOME and has a bound copy of it on his shelves during the second visit, Alex has not yet begun to write his. In the reader's eternal present, Alex is writing it now. But, precisely because he has already done what Alex will someday do, F. Alexander is being defined here as a future version of Alex's self.

At this point in the story, the second visit to HOME, Burgess hints at the theme of the inevitability of human growth, to which he returns in the final chapter. There he sounds it loudly by having Alex answer the oft-repeated question "'What's it going to be then, eh?'" with the idea of getting married and having a son. As Alex himself puts it, "there was this veshch of finding some devotchka or other who would be a mother to this son…. That's what it's going to be then, brothers, as I come to the like end of this tale." Once he has found and wed his "devotchka," Alex will, of course, have come to resemble F. Alexander in his role as a married man. But here it is not yet apparent whether growth, which will be inevitable for everyone else, will be so for him. Having "clockwork" in his heart and brain may mean that Alex will be the same forever.

There is, however, one other obstacle in the way of Alex's growing up to possess a future, and that obstacle is, ironically enough, F. Alexander himself. When he learns that Alex is one of those responsible for the death of his wife, he tries to force Alex to commit suicide. The attempt fails when Alex, having thrown himself out of an upper-story window, receives medical care that not only saves his life but also reverses the effects of the Reclamation Treatment. Thus Burgess underscores his irony by having F. Alexander insure that Alex will possess a future through the former's effort to deny the latter a present. Trying to murder Alex has the indirect result of bringing him back to human life, for F. Alexander manages to kill only the "clock-work" inside his head.

F. Alexander is clearly, in some sense, a father to Alex, albeit a murderous one. Before the attempt on his life, Alex sees F. Alexander as treating him in a parental manner, although he gets the gender wrong: he calls his host and comforter "this kind protecting and like motherly veck." And perhaps, when he discovered the name on the back of the book, he ought to have considered the first initial as carefully as the surname. If, as seems almost certain, it stands for "Father," then Burgess has arranged this reunion as one between Son Alex and Father Alexander.

There is further evidence for this view of F. Alexander in the facts that he is the owner of HOME (that significantly named dwelling) to which Alex as a latter-day Prodigal Son returns and is not punished but rather welcomed and feasted; that, unlike Alex's actual father (whom Alex would never think of striking and to whom he always refers contemptuously as "pee"), F. Alexander arouses powerful feelings in Alex; and that he is married to the most important woman in the story and in Alex's life so far. Burgess follows here the Freudian model of family relations by placing the father and the son in competition for the mother and by having the son's path to manhood lead directly through the father's defeat or death. Alex the son succeeds not only in possessing the mother but also in taking her away from the father, an event which intensifies the latter's natural desire to triumph over his rival into a rage for murder and revenge. But, of course, that act of violence brings about the more rapid displacement of the father by the son when Alex finds that his suicidal leap has resulted in the removal of the "clockwork" and in no permanent injury to himself.

The actual fate of F. Alexander, Burgess leaves obscure until Alex's conversation with the Minister of the Interior in the novel's penultimate chapter. Visiting Alex in the hospital to assure him that all is now well and to exploit the favorable political publicity, the Minister informs him that

"There is a man … called F. Alexander, a writer of subversive literature, who has been howling for your blood. He has been mad with desire to stick a knife in you. But you're safe from him now. We put him away."

The State now regards F. Alexander as it once regarded Alex. Certain phrases used by the Minister—"howling for your blood," "mad with desire"—would appear to be more appropriate if applied to a person both more animal-like and more physically violent than F. Alexander. But, in any case, he has been declared "a menace" just as though he were roaming the streets at night with a band of "droogs." Therefore F. Alexander gets, at the end of Part Three, precisely what Alex got at the end of Part One: imprisonment in a State Jail. This fate also makes sense, because he is Alex's double as well as his symbolic or mythic father: thus the career of F. Alexander not only anticipates but also repeats the career of Alex.

But this relationship also contributes to the working out of the ABA structure. In the first A section Alex is simply Alex; in the B section he becomes both 6655321 and the "clockwork" man; and in the second A section he resumes his public identity as Alex but is not truly or fully Alex because he still has the "clockwork" within him. When, however, he meets again the owner of HOME, he encounters a father figure, an older and wiser Alex, a future version of the self, who unwittingly assists him in the task of removing the "clockwork" and becoming himself once more. The ill effects of his prison stay cannot, in other words, be overcome until our hero wrestles with and defeats his own image invested with Age and Authority, until the son replaces the father. What could provide a more striking illustration of the process of human growth?

If the vision of his future granted him in the final chapter holds true, Alex will accomplish something in life that F. Alexander did not: the begetting and raising of a son. He describes his prophetic moment in the following passage:

I kept viddying like visions, like these cartoons in the gazettas. There was Your Humble Narrator Alex coming home from work to a good hot plate of dinner, and there was this ptitsa all welcoming and greeting like loving…. I had this sudden very strong idea that if I walked into the room next to this room where the fire was burning away and my hot dinner laid on the table, there I should find what I really wanted…. For in that other room in a cot was laying gurgling goo goo goo my son. Yes yes yes, brothers, my son.

The place Alex describes is obviously an idealized version of home, which means that he has just paid, although in "vision," his third and final visit to HOME. The fire and the dinner are the comforts that Alex destroyed on his first visit but will soon require for himself; the "ptitsa all welcoming and greeting like loving" is the mother transformed into a wife who will in no way resist his advances; and the father, who earlier attempted to block his path, is now absent. To complete the circle, however, there is the baby boy, who, like F. Alexander, will be "another Alex" and bear Alex's other name, whatever that may be. This son will be F. Alexander's opposite in that he will represent Alex's past, whereas F. Alexander represented Alex's future. Alex perceives this even now, as he concedes in advance that he will be unable to prevent his son from making the very same mistakes that he made:

My son, my son. When I had my son I would explain all that to him when he was starry enough to like understand. But then I knew he would not understand or would not want to understand at all and would do all the veshches I had done … and I would not be able to really stop him.

Knowing the "veshches" or things his son will do, Alex also knows that he will be unable to prevent him from doing them, both the good and the evil. As his son grows up, Alex will behold his past being repeated, just as F. Alexander beheld his. Everything human is inevitable, Burgess seems to say, both the good and the evil.

But Alex's tale is still a story of liberation: he has escaped from not only the literal prison of Staja 84F but also the figurative prisons of adolescent boyhood and "clockwork" humanity. And the reader who recalls that "music is a figure of celestial bliss" will want to translate "liberation" as "salvation." But it is the individual capable of growth—the "'creature of growth and capable of sweetness,'" as F. Alexander puts it in his typescript—that has been liberated or saved, not the group, the tribe, or the species. When he is born, Alex's son will not be free or blissful. He will be doomed, rather, to live through the error of his father's ways. Here, then, is that final flowering of the logic of the novel's structure: after A, B; after B, A again. After the freedom of the mature Alex, the imprisonment of his son. Could Alex somehow liberate his son, the structure of A Clockwork Orange would surely have to be ABC, which would signify progress without repetition.

The da capo aria itself, if the reader chooses to think of either Alex or the heroine of Das Bettzeug as performing this sort of aria, represents the same lack of freedom: having sung A and B, the performer must sing A again. And it is precisely here that the meaning of this imaginary opera comes into clear focus. The surname of the composer, "Gitterfenster," is a German word best translated as "barred window," that is, the window of a prison. The heroine has sought presumably to escape this prison, whether literal or figurative, but, realizing that she can succeed only through suicide, has now taken that step: hence Alex's description, "it was the bit where she's snuffing it with her throat cut, and the slovos are 'Better like this maybe.'" She is, therefore, in the very same situation as Alex when F. Alexander's friends leave him in their locked flat with the music turned on: "I viddied what I had to do … and that was to do myself in, to snuff it." The window in this prison is not barred, however, because F. Alexander and his friends want Alex to jump: "the window in the room where I laid down was open." And they have even left behind a helpful hint in the form of a "malenky booklet which had an open window on the cover," proclaiming: "'Open the window to fresh air, fresh ideas, a new way of living.'" So Alex, saying in effect what the heroine said, goes to the window and jumps. And he succeeds, just as she may have, in achieving personal liberation—not through death, but rather through the return to life, or, to put the matter somewhat more accurately, by the return to normal life after the nonhuman existence of a "clockwork" man, which is merely another formulation of the sequence "freedom"-"imprisonment"-"freedom"; that is, ABA.

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