A Clockwork Orange | Critical Review by Stanley Edgar Hyman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
This section contains 1,737 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Stanley Edgar Hyman

SOURCE: "Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Oranges," in The New Leader, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, January 7, 1963, pp. 22-3.

Hyman was an American critic and educator, long associated with the New Yorker magazine. In the following positive review, he praises Burgess as a satirist and calls A Clockwork Orange "an eloquent and shocking novel that is quite unique."

Anthony Burgess is one of the newest and most talented of the younger British writers. Although he is 45, he has devoted himself to writing only in the last few years. Before that he was a composer, and a civil servant in Malaya and Brunei. His first novel, The Right to an Answer, was published in England in 1960 and here in 1961. It was followed the next year by Devil of a State, and now by A Clockwork Orange. Burgess seems to me the ablest satirist to appear since Evelyn Waugh, and the word "satire" grows increasingly inadequate to his range.

The Right to an Answer is a terribly funny, terribly bitter smack at English life in a provincial city (apparently the author's birthplace, Manchester). The principal activity of the townspeople seems to be the weekend exchange of wives, and their dispirited slogan is "Bit of fun" (prophetically heard by Mr. Raj, a visiting Ceylonese, as "bitter fun"). The book's ironic message is Love. It ends quoting Raj's unfinished manuscript on race relations: "Love seems inevitable, necessary, as normal and as easy a process as respiration, but unfortunately"—the manuscript breaks off. Raj's love has just led him to kill two people and blow his brains out. One thinks of A Passage to India, several decades more sour.

Devil of a State is less bitter, more like early Waugh. Its comic target is the uranium-rich East African state of Dunia (obviously based on the oil-rich Borneo state of Brunei). In what there is of a plot, the miserable protagonist, Frank Lydgate, a civil servant, struggles with the rival claims of his wife and his native mistress, only to be snatched from both of them by his first wife, a formidable female spider. The humor derives mostly from incongruity: the staple food in Dunia is Chinese spaghetti; the headhunters upriver shrink a Belgian head with eyeglasses and put Brylcreem on its hair.

Neither book at all prepares one for the savagery of Burgess' new novel. A Clockwork Orange is a nightmarish fantasy of a future England where the hoodlums take over after dark. Its subject is the dubious redemption of one such hoodlum, Alex, told by himself. The society is a limp and listless socialism at some future time when men are on the moon. Hardly anyone still reads, although streets are named Amis Avenue and Priestley Place; Jonny Zhivago, a "Russky" pop singer, is a juke-box hit, and the teenage language sounds very Russian; everybody "not a child nor with child nor ill" must work; criminals have to be rehabilitated because all the prison space will soon be needed for politicals; there is an opposition and elections, but they re-elect the Government.

The endless sadistic violence in the book, unimaginably nasty, mindless and mind-hating, is described by Alex with eloquence and joy, at least until it turns on him. In the opening pages, we see 15-year-old Alex and the three other boys in his gang out for an evening of fun: They catch an old man carrying library books on the street, beat and kick him bloody, smash his false teeth and tear up his books; then, wearing masks (of Disraeli, Elvis Presley, Henry VIII and Shelley), they rob a shop, beating the middle-aged proprietor and his wife unconscious and undressing the woman for laughs; then they catch another gang raping a child and fight them, chaining one boy in the eyeballs and kicking him unconscious, carving another's face with a razor; they cap off the evening by stealing a car for the "real kick," "the old surprise visit," which consists of invading the suburban house of a writer, tearing up his manuscript, beating him bloody, holding him while they strip his wife and rape her in turn, then smashing up the furniture and urinating in the fireplace; finally they push the car into a filthy canal and go happily home to bed.

The next day Alex pleads a headache and stays home from school. He goes out, picks up two 10-year-old girls, gets them drunk on whisky, injects himself with dope, puts the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth on the phonograph, and rapes both girls, brutally and perversely. That night he fights two members of his gang for leadership and defeats them by cutting their wrists with his razor. It is his high point. The gang then does a burglary job, at which Alex beats an old lady to death. As he flees, with the police coming, one of the boys whose wrist he had cut blinds Alex by chaining him in the eyeballs, and the police catch him.

A streak of grotesque surrealism runs all through Burgess' books. By A Clockwork Orange it has become truly infernal. As the hoodlums drive to their "surprise visit," they run over a big snarling toothy thing that screams and squelches, and as they drive back they run over "odd squealing things" all the way.

Alex has no interest in women except as objects of violence and rape (the term for the sex act in his vocabulary is characteristically mechanical, "the old in-out-in-out"). No part of the female body is ever mentioned except the size of the breasts (it would also interest a Freudian to know that the hoodlums' drink is doped milk). Alex's only "aesthetic" interest is his passion for symphonic music. He lies naked on his bed, surrounded by his stereo speakers, listening to Mozart or Bach while he daydreams of grinding his boot into the faces of men, or raping ripped screaming girls, and at the music's climax he has an orgasm.

After his capture, Alex is treated as brutally by the police as he treats his victims. In jail, he kicks a cellmate to death, and his reward is being chosen as the first experiment in conditioned reflex rehabilitation. For two weeks he is injected daily with a drug and shown films of sadistic violence even more horrible than his own, accompanied by symphonic music. At the end of that time he is so conditioned that the thought of doing any violence makes him desperately ill, as does the sound of music. In a public display of his cure, he tries to lick the boots of a man hurting him, and he reacts to a beautiful underdressed girl by offering to be her true knight.

It is a moral fable, if a nasty one, and it proceeds with all the patness of moral fable. Eventually Alex tries to kill himself by jumping out a window, and as a result of his new injuries he recovers from the conditioning, and again loves violence and music. He is, he says, "cured."

A running lecture on free will, first from the prison chaplain, then from the writer, strongly suggests that the book's intention is Christian. Deprived of his capacity for moral choice by science, Burgess appears to be saying, Alex is only a "clockwork orange," something mechanical that appears organic. Free to will, even if he wills to sin, Alex is capable of salvation. But perhaps this is to confine Burgess' ironies and ambiguities within simple orthodoxy. Alex always was a clockwork orange, a machine for mechanical violence far below the level of choice, and his dreary socialist England is a giant clockwork orange.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the book is its language. Alex thinks and talks in the "nadsat" (teenage) vocabulary of the future, a remarkable invention by Burgess of several hundred words. It is not quite so hard to decipher as Cretan Linear B, and Alex translates some of it. I found that I could not read the book without compiling a glossary, although some of my translations are approximate. At first the vocabulary seems incomprehensible: "you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches." Then the reader discovers that some of it is clear from the context: "to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood." Other words are intelligible after a second context: When Alex kicks an enemy on the "gulliver" it might be any part of the body, but when a glass of beer is served with a gulliver, "gulliver" is "head."

Some of the words are inevitable associations, like "cancer" for "cigarette" or "charlie" for "chapl[a]in," and may even be current English slang. Others are produced simply by schoolboy transformations: "appy polly loggy" (apology), "eggiweg" (egg), "interessovat" (to interest), "skolliwoll" (school). Still others are foreign words slightly distorted: Russian "baboochka" (old woman) and "bolshy" (enormous), Latin "biblio" (library), Chinese "chai" (tea), Italian "gazetta" (newspaper), German "forella" ("trout" as slang for a woman) and "knopka" (button), Yiddish "keeshkas" (guts) and "yahoodies" (Jews), French "sabog" (shoe) and "vaysay" (WC, watercloset).

Other words are onomatopoetic sound imitations: "collocoll" (bell), "razrez" (to tear), "toofles" (slippers). Still others are rhyming slang: "luscious glory" for "hair" (rhyming with "upper story"?) and "pretty polly" for "money" (rhyming with "lolly" of current slang). A few simply distort the word: "banda" (band), "gruppa" (group), "kot" (cat), "minoota" (minute). Others are amputations: "creech" (from "screech"; shout or scream), "domy" (domicile), "guff" (guffaw), "pee and em" (pater and mater), "sarky" (sarcastic), "sinny" (cinema). Some are portmanteau words: "chumble" (chatter-mumble), "mounch" (mouth-munch), "shive" (shiv-shave), "skriking" (scratching-striking).

The best of them are images and metaphors, some quite imaginative and poetic: "glazz" (eye), "horrorshow" (beautiful, beautifully), "lewdies" (squares), "pan-handle" (erection), "rabbit" (to work), "sammy" (generous, from "Uncle Sam"?), "soviet" (an order), "starry" (ancient), "viddy" (to see, from "video"), "yahzick" (tongue, from "say-ah-when-zick").

There are slight inconsistencies, when Burgess (or Alex) forgets his word and invents another or uses our word, but on the whole he handles his amazing vocabulary in a masterly fashion. It has a wonderful sound, particularly in abuse, when "grahzny bratchny" sounds infinitely better than "dirty bastard." Coming to literature by way of music, Burgess has a superb ear, and he shows an interest in the texture of language rare among current novelists. As a most promising writer of the '60s, Anthony Burgess has followed novels that remind us of Forster and Waugh with an eloquent and shocking novel that is quite unique.

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This section contains 1,737 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Stanley Edgar Hyman
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