A Clockwork Orange | Critical Essay by John J. Stinson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
This section contains 4,094 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by John J. Stinson

SOURCE: "Dystopias and Cacotopias," in Anthony Burgess Revisited, Twayne, 1991, pp. 47-63.

Stinson is an educator and critic specializing in modern British literature who has spent many years studying the work of Burgess. In the following excerpt, he discusses themes and stylistic aspects of A Clockwork Orange, and comments on the history of the major critical issues involved with the novel.

Any reasonably informed discussion of utopian and antiutopian fiction in our own century must soon involve the names of H. G. Wells and George Orwell. Wells, the cheerful apostle of rationalism, scientism, and technology, believed that the world's people, all basically benevolent by innate disposition, could, at some sufficient point of general enlightenment, produce a New Jerusalem on this earth. Wells believed, as Burgess writes in The Novel Now, that "there was no such thing as Original Sin; man was born free to build good—not to earn it or inherit it by divine grace. Wells believed that a Utopia was possible; he called himself a Utopiographer" [The Novel Now, 1967]. Burgess, of course, would call him a Pelagian. Burgess notes, correctly it would seem, that Wells "died a disappointed liberal." When we think of Orwell, we are apt to think of him as the exact antithesis of Wells: we remember the starkly brutal admonitory parable that is Nineteen Eighty-four. But Burgess is right again when, in an essay titled "After Ford," he notes that "Orwell exhibits the sickness of a disillusioned liberal." [But Do Blondes Prefer Gentleman?, 1986]. In The Novel Now, Burgess gravely delivers his own oft-repeated warning: "Liberalism breeds disappointment … Accept that man is imperfect, that good and evil exist, and you will not, like Wells, expect too much from him."…

Anthony Burgess on "goodness" in Art:

The goodness of a piece of music and the goodness of a beneficent action have one thing in common—disinterestedness. The so-called good citizen merely obeys the laws, accepting what the State tells him is right or wrong. Goodness has little to do with citizenship. It is not enacted out of obedience to law, to gain praise or avoid punishment. The good act is the altruistic act. It is not blazoned and it seeks no reward. One can see how it is possible to glimpse a fancied connection between the goodness of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony—composed in deafness, disease, squalor and poverty—and that of the saint who gives his cloak to the naked, embraces the leper, dies to save others. But Beethoven's goodness is outside the field of action, to which the saint is so committed. Art is a vision of heaven gratuitously given. Being quasi-divine, it is beyond human concerns. Unlike the heaven of Christian doctrine, it is as freely available to the morally evil as to the morally good: the equivalent of Saint Augustine's God's grace, impartially bestowed. This, to the narrower moralist, renders it suspect.

Anthony Burgess in 1985, Little, Brown, 1978.

The sheer memorability of A Clockwork Orange points to its successful achievement of the mythic dimension. Burgess, however, has frequently expressed slight chagrin that this is his best-known book, indicating his feeling that it is a didactic little book, and, elsewhere, that it "was very much a jeu de spleen when I wrote it" [Anthony Burgess with Thomas Churchill, Malahat Review, January, 1971]. He has grown wearied, and become annoyed, by questioners who, having in mind mostly the near notorious film version of Stanley Kubrick, seek to elicit his thoughts on the pornography of violence and his own presumed abdication of the artist's social responsibility. Discussions of the comparative merits of the British and American versions (the latter appearing, until 1987, without the last chapter) have also long ceased to hold any real interest for him. Burgess's ostensible disinterest (which is perhaps, genuine embarrassment) occurs despite, or maybe because of, the fact that this is the book that altered his career and profoundly affected his life.

The British (or, possibly, North American) society to which the reader is introduced at the beginning of the novel is dull, grey, and oppressive. Although the terms Pelagianism/Augustinianism are not used, it is apparent, employing Foxe's lesson in The Wanting Seed, that the society depicted is in a late Pelagian phase, like the one in the opening of that novel. All citizens not children, nor with child, nor ill, are compelled by state law to work. People live in "municipal flatblocks"; this night they have been instructed to tune into a "worldcast" on their tellies. The sought-after homogeneity of this engineered, perhaps one-world society, is thwarted only by the presence of teenage rebels who rule the night streets. The protagonist and our "humble narrator," fifteen-year-old Alex, is the foremost rebel of those we meet. The nadsat (teenage) language of Alex and his droogs (gang members) is one sharp indicator of their effort (a product, it would seem, of both instinct and will) to resist mindless standardization. In nadsat, in fact, "to rabbit" is to work, to do as Alex's pee and em (father and mother) do every day because they are like timid animals who run in circles and live in hutches, or, noting the probable Slavic (here Czech) etymology, they are robots. Animals or automatons, they are in either case dehumanized. Alex, seemingly depraved, is very human. On the axis of paradoxes like this, the novel turns.

Alex, killer, rapist, sadist, and maker of general mayhem at age fifteen, is, in fact, one of the mouthpieces for Burgess's own ideas. Addressing the reader about people's shocked dismay when confronted with manifestations of evil, he expresses a rather amazingly sophisticated anti-Pelagian view:

this biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don't go into what is the cause of goodness, so why of the other shop? If lewdies are good that's because they like it, and I wouldn't ever interfere with their pleasures, and so of the other shop. And I was patronizing the other shop. More, badness is of the self, the one, the you or me on our oddy knockies and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty. But the not-self cannot have the bad, meaning they of the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self. And is not our modern history my brothers, the story of brave malensky selves fighting these big machines? I am serious with you, brothers, over this. But what I do I do because I like to do.

Burgess insists that Alex's actions, atrocious assaults and all, proceed from deliberate choices of his own free will. The question, "What's it going to be then, eh?," which opens all three parts of the novel and the last chapter as well, reinforces the idea that people are free to choose their own actions. Some readers have felt that Burgess has to shout this point at them because it goes against the evidence. Alex is, in their view, something very much like a robot programmed for violence, or if not quite that, a young man who acts out in disturbed fashion a universal need to assert life and independence in a tyrannously dull society. Their point is that whether he likes it or not, Alex's life has been heavily molded by his environment. If the environment were not so oppressively constrictive, Alex would not have the need to act out his rebellion so outrageously. Thus, environment has made Alex what he is, and it is the job of the behavioral psychologist to prescribe the means whereby emotional imbalances may be redressed. In insisting that Alex acts out of free choice, these readers maintain, Burgess has disregarded his own evidence. These are the readers, then, more inclined to accept the claims of Drs. Brodski, Branom, and cohorts to the effect that they are not doing something that goes against nature by conditioning Alex toward the good; rather, they are removing the "error" of some past conditioning that inclined Alex so heavily toward "the old ultra-violence." Actually, the freewill/determinism conflict in the work of Burgess, as in that of most writers, takes the reader down a dark, tricky, winding road.

Thematically, the behaviorists in the novel are portrayed as not particularly intelligent villains. Burgess's antibehaviorist stance in the novel is so pronounced that the print media have felt that Burgess cast himself as the béte noir of B. F. Skinner, thus virtually announcing himself as available on call to refute any proclamations of the renowned behaviorist about necessary abridgments of freedom and dignity. Burgess very unfairly stacks the deck against the behaviorists, say many who regard A Clockwork Orange as a thesis or philosophical novel. In the novel the behaviorists are pliant tools of a totalitarian state. They employ Ludovico's technique on Alex because the authorities need to get his type out of the prisons to accommodate hordes of political prisoners (the Interphase obviously having begun, liberal belief in basic goodness has apparently given way to sore disappointment because of the likes of Alex). The behavioral psychologists are seen as two-dimensional, uncultured shrinkers of the soul, clumsy in the application of procedures they themselves have devised. Dr. Brodsky says of music, "I know nothing about it myself. It's a useful emotional heightener, that's all I know." He is unconcerned that the radical aversive conditioning process—Ludovico's technique—has destroyed Alex's enjoyment of Beethoven along with his ability to carry out violence.

Burgess's short novel inclines toward the fable, and it is unreasonable to expect that its sociophilosophical ideas are argued with the concentrated weight and scrupulous fairness with which they would be argued in an academic treatise. Burgess's novel did, though, so memorably strike some decidedly contemporary chords that it provided a ready reference point for certain social issues that were seriously, and heatedly, debated in the real world. By the mid-1970s aversive conditioning was making headway in the U.S. penal system: some inmates were given shots of apomorphine, inducing violent vomiting and dry retching; others were given Anectine, which produces agonizing sensations of suffocation and drowning; sex offenders were given electric shocks to the groin. Such practices were generally successfully opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups as "cruel and unusual punishment"; A Clockwork Orange was almost always at least mentioned in media reports about litigation connected with this troubling but ethically complex issue.

A Clockwork Orange stayed in the news because of the currency and vigor of its ideas, but it is a significant work of literature for other reasons. Burgess employs black humor and the grotesque—two highly favored forms of the late sixties—more integrally, and therefore more successfully, than any other writer of the period with the possible exceptions of Joseph Heller and Günter Grass. What might be referred to as the "violent grotesque" is employed at the very outset as the demonically engaging Alex recounts for us, his "brothers," with relish and a delicious savoring of detail, how he and his "droogies" (gangmates) perpetrated various nightly horrors: an old man returning from the library is insulted and assaulted; his false teeth are ripped from his mouth and crunched by the stomps of the teens' heavy boots; heavy-ringed knuckles slam into the old man's bared gums until his mouth is a riot of red; he is stripped and kicked for good measure. This is only the very beginning of violence that exceeds that of de Sade in intensity if not imaginativeness. Storekeepers, husband and wife, are brutally beaten and robbed; a writer's wife (Mrs. F. Alexander) is savagely gang raped in her home and her husband is forced to watch helplessly; two barely pubescent girls of ten are raped; an old woman (the Cat Lady), a well-to-do recluse, meets her death trying to defend herself and her valuables during a robbery. All this—and more—is accomplished by Alex, Dim, Pete, and George on the two consecutive days that comprise part 1, eighty-four pages of the novel.

The high level of Burgess's black comic craft is testified to by his ability to make us approach the vicious assault of an old lady with something very much like mirth and excitement. Burgess writes in his introduction to the New American Edition that his "intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers." He might be thought almost to prove his theological (Augustinian) point by the success with which he carries out his intention. Readers come to have ambivalent feelings only when their moral reactions, linguistically stupefied into unwatchfulness, suddenly rouse themselves and come panting up indignantly. By the near-miracle of his craft, particularly by his linguistic inventiveness, Burgess has succeeded in temporarily making his readers one with the wantonly brutal young assaulters:

He [the old man returning from the library] looked a malenky bit poogly when he viddied the four of us … coming up so quiet and polite and smiling, but he said: "Yes? What is it?" in a very loud teacher-type goloss, as if he was trying to show us he wasn't poogly…. "You naughty old veck, you," I said, and then we began to filly about with him. Pete held his rookers and George sort of hooked his rot open for him and Dim yanked out his false zoobies, upper and lower. He threw these down on the pavement and then I treated them to the old boot-crush, though they were hard bastards like, being made of some new horrorshow plastic stuff. The old veck began to make sort of shumbling shooms—"wuf waf wof"—so Georgie let go of holding his goobers apart and just let him have one in the toothless rot with his ringy fist, and that made the old veck start moaning a lot then, then out comes the blood, my brothers, real beautiful. So all we did then was to pull his outer platties off, stripping him down to his vest and long underpants (very starry; Dim smecked his lead off near), and then Pete kicks him lovely in his pot, and we let him go.

What forestalls reader revulsion at this basically realistic scene of violence is distancing through the use of invented language. "It is as if we were trying to read about violence in a foreign language and finding its near-incomprehensibility getting in the way of a clear image," Burgess says in a New York Times piece [April 20, 1975]. The distinct teenage language serves also to reawaken the reader's awareness of the anarchic impulse of the teenager and the instinct to be one with the herd, to regard other groups just as "other," utterly alien, in no way like the self. The original (British; now "New American") ending emphasizes that Alex and his droogs should be seen first as teenagers before they are seen as all men. These teenagers have their own language, nadsat (the Russian word for teen), a language that the reader, seeing the words repeatedly in context, will soon assimilate. In the novel Dr. Branom explains to Dr. Brodsky its provenance: "Odd bits of rhyming slang …, a bit of gipsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration." Actually, gypsy elements are virtually indiscernible; Cockney influences are quite noticeable, but not too important; words of Russian origin are heavily present and Burgess adapts them, with marvelous felicity, to various purposes. A few of the Burgess words convey a sharp sensory vividness through onomatopoeic effect. For example, in gang warfare, Dim's most skillfully employed weapon is his "oozy," his "real horrorshow length of chain," twice round about his waist. As Geoffrey Aggeler remarks, a "bicycle chain …, its shiny coils shaken out along a sidewalk or whizzing through the night air, is so much more like an 'oozy' than a 'chain'" [Anthony Burgess: The Artist as Novelist, 1979]. Or, we might take the word "horrorshow" from the same sentence. A believable anglicization of the Russian word khorosho (good, well, excellent), it conforms to Alex's propensities exactly, for to him nothing is more excellent than "a bit of the old ultra-violence," his personally choreographed "horror shows" that he puts on nearly every night. The most important function of the language is the softening of the otherwise unbearably repulsive violence, but the violence itself is thematically integral. Not at all pornographic, the grotesque violence is the means by which Burgess attacks the failures of rationalism. While it has proved difficult to define the grotesque precisely, many commentators seem to agree that it frequently involves the sudden subversion of the apparent world of order and form by the shocking appearance of the absurd, purely irrational, or primally chaotic. Naïve liberals and rationalists willfully shut their eyes to primal discords, but they are forced open by the "horror shows" staged by a Hitler or an Alex. Frequently used as a means of exposing the naïveté of excessive rationalism, the grotesque is associated with Conrad's Kurtz, the liberal humanist who, in quick descent, comes to preside over "unspeakable rites"; and Golding's Piggy, the bespectacled emissary of rationalism whose precious brain is spilled grotesquely out on a rock. Alex is a producer of the grotesque, but Alex is in all of us, which is the point that Burgess most cleverly gets across as he disorients his readers just enough by the language to cause them vicariously to share the thrill of cruelty.

Alex (his name seemingly suggesting "without law") is more an extraordinary teenage rebel than he is Satan or even Dionysus (as Burgess's own ending makes clear), but he has a winsome effect on the reader because, in a world of pale neutrals, he has energy and commitment. (By contrast, Alex's parents "rabbit" every day at mindless jobs, stare vacuously each evening at insipid programs on the telly, and retire to bed, sleeping pills in their bloodstreams, lest they be awakened by the blast of Alex's stereo.) From the beginning we sympathize with Alex because he is, in his own words, "our faithful narrator" and "brother." This is an old novelistic trick, readers tending to sympathize with anyone, save a total monster, who continually tells them about his life and makes them vicariously share it. Then, too, Alex has wit, some intelligence, a love of classical music, his gift of pungent language, and a kind of artistry in his violence. We react with sympathy and pathos when Alex falls into the clutches of the state, particularly when it attempts "rehabilitation" by reducing him to a "clockwork orange." This term is explained by F. Alexander, Burgess's mock double and another ironic mouthpiece, a pompous sort who has just completed a flatulently styled tome titled A Clockwork Orange: "The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen."

Alex does become a clockwork orange temporarily when, in order to gain a much speedier release from prison, he assents to Ludovico's technique. The "therapy" consists of showing Alex atrocity films after he has been given a drug to induce pain and nausea. The association of violence and nausea incapacitates Alex from further violent action, any attempt instantaneously provoking literal wretchedness. Released, Alex finds himself quickly at the mercy of all those whom he had previously victimized. In a schematic plot framework almost parodically designed to show retributive justice in action, each of these victims pays back the now defenseless Alex. One of those who gets the satisfaction of a payback is F. Alexander, reputedly—and, in his own mind—an idealist and bastion of liberal values. His view of man had gone untested, however. An unsuspected part of himself powerfully leaps out when he discovers that Alex was one of the rapists responsible for his wife's death. Very much human, he is not above the philosophy of an eye for an eye. This is one of Burgess's "proofs" that evil is endemic in man, that it has always been there and always will be. Another proof is found in Alex's prison reading: the "big book," the Bible, in which he "read of these starry yahoodies tolchocking each other and then peeting their Hebrew vino and getting on to the bed with their wives' like handmaidens, real horrorshow."

Alex suffers greatly—emotionally, mentally, and even physically—as a result of the Ludovico "therapy." Burgess's point is clear, since, in fact, it is presented somewhat didactically through a third spokesman in the novel, the prison Charlie; but Burgess's expression of it outside the novel is even clearer: "What my and Kubrick's parable tries to state is that it is preferable to have a world of violence undertaken in full awareness—violence chosen as an act of will—than a world conditioned to be good or harmless" [New York Review of Books, April 16, 1972]. Not to be able to choose is not to be human. If evil were somehow to be eradicated, its opposite—goodness—would, having no meaning, cease to exist. "Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities," Burgess writes in the introduction to the New American Edition. In most discussions that the book has generated this prime thematic point has generally been agreed with. The expostulations of B. F. Skinner have, though, given some listeners serious pause. Basically (most notably in Beyond Freedom and Dignity), Skinner argues that the very survival of the race depends upon the surrender of some freedom, as that term has been historically understood. No Augustinian, Skinner also pleads that we examine carefully the operant conditioning that underlies people's choices to behave poorly. He has made clear that his strong preference is always for positive reinforcement rather than aversive techniques to correct maladaptive behavior. Burgess likes to make the point that evil exists, and must exist, as a part of the human self; he is fond of pointing out that "live" is "evil" spelled backwards.

The novel's ending has always been problematic. Burgess's last chapter, the twenty-first, was deleted from the first American edition (Norton, 1963) and all subsequent American editions until 1987, although this chapter appeared in the British (Heinemann) edition and most foreign translations from the very first (1962). Burgess maintains that Norton insisted on the excision; Norton maintains it was only suggested as an artistic improvement. Kubrick's boldly imaginative film version (1971), which spiralled the novel to far greater fame, ended as the American version did. Persuasive arguments can be made for the superiority of either version. The twentieth chapter (chapter 6 of part 3) ends as the government authorities, under strong pressure from politically aroused public opinion, reverse the effects of the aversive therapy by deep "hypnopaedia," restoring Alex to his old self—he "viddies" himself "carving the whole litso of the creeching world with my cut-throat britva." Chapter 21—the famous deleted chapter—presents a mellowing, increasingly reflective, eighteen-year-old Alex who is coming to see that this previous violent behavior was childishly perverse. He thinks of marriage, stability, and the son he one day hopes to have. He contemplates explaining to his son all his own past crimes as an admonition, but then thinks that he "would not really be able to stop him [prevent his son from enacting similar crimes]. And nor would he be able to stop his own son."

The truncated ending, which leaves the reader with a stark presentation of unregenerate evil, surely carries more impact. Burgess's own ending, besides having just a whiff of sentimentality about it, is easily exposed to ridicule. Detractors might say that it reduces the novel to a spectacular but largely meaningless comment on those oh-so-difficult teenagers and their problems of adjustment. Burgess prefers his own ending, with his own worldview, his own "theology." The truncated version, closing with a view of unregenerate human evil, would be a more fitting conclusion for a William Golding novel. With his own ending, Burgess implies a more nearly equal tug from the Pelagian and Augustinian poles, proving once again that he is not quite an Augustinian, and that he is a believer in eternally recurrent cycles. He writes that the Norton editors believed in 1962 that the last chapter "was bland" and "showed a Pelagian unwillingness to accept that a human being could be a model of unregenerable evil." The truncated ("Augustinian") version, he says was "sensational," but not a "fair picture of human life." No matter what the reader's perspective, A Clockwork Orange provides a picture that remains painted on the walls of the mind near the place where the conscious and subconscious meet.

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