A Clockwork Orange | Critical Essay by A. A. DeVitis

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
This section contains 3,444 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by A. A. DeVitis

SOURCE: "England, Education, and the Future," in Anthony Burgess, Twayne, 1972, pp. 96-118.

DeVitis is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, he interprets A Clockwork Orange as a black comedy which illustrates the "horror of life without choice."

In a chapter entitled "Utopias and Dystopias" in The Novel Now, Anthony Burgess appraises the influence of H. G. Wells on the modern utopian novel:

Many novelists set themselves the task—before and after the war—of exposing Wells's optimistic scientific liberalism as a sham. Science and education, said Wells, would outlaw war, poverty, squalor. All of us carry an image of the Wellsian future—rational buildings of steel and glass, rational tunics, clean air, a diet of scientifically balanced vitamin-capsules, clean trips to the moon, perpetual world peace. It was a fine dream, and what nation could better realise it than the Germans? After all, their scientific and educational achievements seemed to put them in the vanguard of Utopia-builders. What, though, did they give to the world? A new dark age, a decade of misery.

After dreaming of a new race, Wells, as Burgess points out, died a disappointed liberal.

In 1962 Burgess himself published two "dystopian" novels, A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed, both conceived and executed from the same philosophical orientation but quite different in content and development. Both are in many ways reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's and George Orwell's utopian novels, but both are, more importantly, advancements of the utopian genre and highly representative of the ideas and patterns that inform the majority of Burgess's works. A Clockwork Orange, written in the first half of 1961, is set in the near-future and, in many ways, borrows from Orwell's 1984; The Wanting Seed, written between August and October, 1960, more elaborate and less polemical, is set in a further-distanced future and reminds the reader of 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Golding's Lord of the Flies, and Rex Warner's The Wild Goose Chase and The Aerodrome.

In terms of the loosely applied criteria of "black comedy,"… Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange concerns itself with a religious problem: the nature of human will and the importance of individual choice in a socialized and dehumanized world. A drunken prison chaplain says to Alex, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, before he is subjected to the Ludovico process which will force him to choose good at all times:

It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you I realise how self-contradictory that sounds. I know that I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than the man who has the good imposed upon him. Deep and hard questions….

Alex, the leader of a hoodlum gang and precocious in the ways of evil, can nevertheless appreciate the nature of the choice he makes for evil over good. Together with Georgie, Dim, and Pete, his "droogs," Alex's activities incorporate beatings, robberies, gang wars, rape, and finally murder. Betrayed by his gang after he has forced his way into the home of an old woman who cares for scores of cats and has killed her, Alex is placed in a progressive prison where his education in evil is advanced. His "brainwashing" and his subsequent return to society form the basic plot of the novel and afford Burgess the opportunity to comment hilariously and bitterly about the condition of man in a mechanized world.

Peculiar to the gangs that invade the London nights in the socialized state that Burgess fashions is the use of Nadsat (perhaps an anagram of "satan'd," for Burgess, like Joyce, is fond of puns and whimsies), which is described as "the language of the tribe": "odd bits of rhyming slang…. A bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration." A combination of Russian words and descriptive phrases, odd Cockney expressions, biblical locutions, and schoolboy humor talk, all of which suggest ironic overtones, Nadsat at first appears to the reader as a barrier to communication; but it actually becomes a device that enhances the narrative. The activities of Alex and his "droogs" become more terrifying, while, ironically, the language becomes more poetical. Phrases like "Being sore athirst, my brothers," "They know not what they do or say," and "mom gave me a tired little smech, to thee fruit of my womb my only son sort of," by their very incongruity with the activities being described, lend a note of poetic intensity to the narrative that contrasts with the nightmare horror of the action.

When Alex and his "droogs" speak Nadsat, the reader finds himself carried to the meaning by the very cadences of the words; and shortly he is conversant not only with the denotative meaning of the words but also with the witty, ironic connotations they convey. Conversely, when Alex speaks the conventional idiom, which he must do from time to time, his cadences are flat and unconvincing. By the end of the first chapter of the novel, the reader is intrigued by the language; and he is as conversant before long with Nadsat as Alex's "droogs" are. Burgess does not hesitate to play wittily with words as often as possible to suit his purpose. One needs to look only at such words as "lewdies" for people, "dama" for woman, "malchick" for boy, "horrorshow" for good, "slovo" for word, "Bog" for God, "bezoomy" for mad to appreciate the variety as well as the possibilities of Nadsat. What at first seems a device that calls more attention to itself than to the development of the novel's theme appears, upon reflection, more correctly a means to render the action more meaningful as it emphasizes the characterization and maintains the illusion of a dehumanized world at the same time.

Alex's world is not one of Roman Catholic good and evil, as is Graham Greene's Brighton. Yet there are both good and evil in Alex's cosmos, and freedom to choose evil over good becomes the chief consideration of the book. In Alex's words:

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. 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 malenky selves fighting these big machines? I am serious with you, brothers, over this. But what I do I do because I like to do.

Alex's England is a socialized nightmare. People are forced by the government to live regimented lives in blocks of regimented apartments, all the same, all without individuality:

In the hallway was the good old municipal painting on the walls—vecks and ptitsas very well developed, stern in the dignity of labour, at workbench and machine with not one stitch of platties on their well-developed plotts. But of course some of the malchicks living in 18 A had, as was to be expected, embellished and decorated the said big painting with handy pencil and ballpoint, adding hair and stiff rods and dirty ballooning slovos out of the dignified rots of these nagoy (bare, that is) cheenas and vecks.

Alex's only salvation is music, to which he responds emotionally, ecstatically. To Alex music is "gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh;" and his reaction to it at first appears mystical in its intensity as well as in its implications, eliciting as it does imagery of a religious nature. But, ironically, the music fails to raise the spirit; for Alex can react only in a physical way to the sounds of the orchestra. For Alex, a creation of the society in which he lives, there are no such things as love, affection, or duty; for only mechanical sex, compliance with the strong, and a display of power mean anything. In other words, Alex is the "clockwork orange" of the title: he is produced by a system, and he exemplifies in his actions the implications of it. He is punished by that same system when his individuality, his love of music, can no longer be ignored by it. Alex is separated from the community not for his evil but because his individuality threatens the status quo. The references to music are introduced to lend a comic as well as ironic perspective to the theme and to afford a unifying factor to the book.

Although Alex's taste in music seems eclectic—he admires modern composers (whose names are invented by Burgess for comic effect) and classical composers as well—it is Beethoven whom he most cherishes, and the Ninth Symphony is his favorite composition:

Then I pulled the lovely Ninth out of its sleeve, so that Ludwig Van was not nagoy too, and I set the needle hissing on to the last movement, which was all bliss. There it was then, the bass strings like govoreeting away from under my bed at the rest of the orchestra, and then the male human goloss coming in and telling them all to be joyful, and the lovely blissful tune all about Joy being a glorious spark like of heaven, and then I felt the old tigers leap in me….

Music arouses Alex sexually. At one point he goes into the street, into a record shop, picks up two little girls, gets them drunk on "moloko" (doped milk), and then rapes them, the old "in-out in-out." "Beast and hateful animal. Filthy horror," screams one of the children as she runs from Alex's room. His tigers no longer leaping in him, Alex falls asleep, "with the old Joy Joy Joy crashing and howling away."

In the funniest scene in the novel, Alex and his "droogs" attempt to terrorize the old woman who lives with scores of cats. As he lowers himself from a window into the room, Alex finds himself amidst the cats, their milk saucers, and the terrified old woman. To save himself, Alex, as he listens to the screeching symphony of cats and the solo of the old woman, grasps a statue of Beethoven.

Soon after this scene, deserted by his "droogs," Alex finds himself in prison for having caused the death of the "ptitsa." In order to remain near to music, the only relief that Alex has in his prison routine, Alex becomes assistant to the drunken chaplain; and his chief duty is to select and play the recordings used during religious services. When Alex finds himself confronted by evil in the form of a homosexual attack, Alex and his cellmates unite to destroy the pervert; Alex is blamed for the murder.

As a defensive measure designed to check the evil that is threatening the government and causing unrest in the state, Dr. Brodsky and the minister of the interior, or "Inferior" as Alex refers to him, have devised and sanctioned a process of conditioning human responses closely modeled on Pavlov's experiments with dogs. Alex volunteers for the brainwashing process, feeling that nothing worse can happen to him; but he is mistaken. The process of conditioning, referred to as the "Ludovico process," reminds the reader, of course, of Alex's passion for old Ludwig Van himself. The rehabilitation involves the showing of atrocity films and films of violence, horror, and terror of all kinds. A drug, injected into Alex's system immediately before he witnesses the films, induces nausea; and Alex soon begs to be released from the torment of witnessing the films. His pain becomes so intense that Alex soon discovers that he will do anything to avoid it—indeed, the evil that once had given him such passionate pleasure makes him ill. To do good, even to think good, is the only remedy for the discomfort that has been built into him by the Ludovico process.

Along with the conditioning films that Alex is forced to watch and "appreciate" there are, unfortunately, musical accompaniments; and frequently the music is Beethoven's. Thus the one factor that had set Alex apart from his "droogs," Dim and Georgie and Pete, becomes for him a new measure of pain. If before Alex was a "clockwork orange," subliminally conditioned by his society, now the irony is twofold. Before his brainwashing Alex had chosen, consciously as he thought, the evil action. As a result of his reintegration into a conventionalized society by means of Ludovico processing, Alex is denied choice itself. But, not fully comprehending the extent to which his psyche has been programmed, Alex seeks after his release the ecstasy of a musical binge. Pain and nausea result. To forestall the anguish that results from any confrontation with violence or terror, Alex, who had once reveled in evil, finds himself begging and pleading for everyone's pardon; he has become one of the meek. But the earth is not his to inherit.

At this point the devices of melodrama serve Burgess well, for coincidence and chance unify the activities of the plot. Those very "lewdies" that Alex and his "droogs" had terrorized return to haunt and torment Alex in his newly discovered world of good action. A man who had been attacked while returning home with library books on crystallography sees Alex in the library where he has gone to escape the excruciating torment of piped-in music and exacts his measure of vengeance. When Alex begs for love and forgiveness, he receives instead a terrible beating. Rescued by the police, among whom is Dim, a former "droog," Alex is beaten and is left, covered with blood and half alive, in the country.

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of the melodramatic plotting concerns F. Alexander, the author of a novel entitled A Clockwork Orange. During an evening's escapade, Alex and his "droogs," wearing plastic masks, had forced their way into F. Alexander's house, a place significantly called "Home," where Alex had remarked the similarity of names. The gang had raped F. Alexander's wife, who had later died as a result of the outrage. It is to the house called "Home" that Alex once again finds his way. Left by the police, he finds himself befriended by F. Alexander himself. Aware of the irony, Alex for a time forestalls the author's awareness that he, Alex, now a famous personage because of his Ludovico processing, is the same Alex who had invaded the Alexander home earlier on.

Through F. Alexander, Alex is put in communication with the political party attempting to unseat the party that had determined that goodness could be forced upon people. Alex—who becomes a cause, then an issue, in the new political campaign—discovers that once again he is being used; for neither party is at all concerned with his moral emasculation. To serve party interests, Alex is programmed to commit suicide. Rather than endure the constant playing of music mysteriously coming into the locked apartment where he has been placed for his own "safety," Alex jumps from a window. "Friend," says one of the politicians who had coerced Alex, "friend, little friend, the people are on fire with indignation. You have killed those horrible villains' chances of reelection. They will go and will go for ever and ever. You have served Liberty well." But Alex is aware that he has been used; he also realizes that, had he died as a result of the jump, he would have served even better the cause of political expediency.

Either as a result of Alex's fall or as a result of reverse Ludovico processing—the point is never clarified—Alex returns to his old terror-loving, "bolshy" music ways. His final action in the American edition is to return to his "pee" and "em's" house, from which he had been dispossessed by an ersatz son, and to the music of Ludwig Van's Ninth Symphony: "Oh, it was gorgeosity and yumyumyum," writes Alex at the novel's end. "When it came to the Scherzo I could viddy myself very clear running and running on like very light and mysterious nogas, carving the whole litso of the creeching world with my cutthroat britva. And there was the slow movement and the last lovely singing movement still to come. I was cured all right."

The William Heinemann 1962 edition of A Clockwork Orange includes a chapter wisely omitted from the American editions. The last section of the English edition emphasizes a time perspective on the activities that Alex narrates to his "brothers" in the body of the novel, by pointing out quite simply that Alex had reached the ripe old age of nineteen. His luscious glory has been sacrificed to the current fashion of shaved heads, and Alex now wears wide trousers, a black leather belt, and shiny black leather jerkins. Only the heavy boots, fine for kicking, remain. Employed by the National Grasmodic Archives "on the music side," Alex earns good money; and he cherishes a desire "to keep all my pretty polly to myself." He also finds himself reluctant to participate in the horror-show activities he plans for his new gang of "droogs," preferring to listen to lieder and to study the picture of a baby "gurgling goo goo goo" which he has cut out of a newspaper. Alex is, indeed, bored; the only thoughts that interest him are of wife, son, and God. And these thoughts suggest a possible salvation for the antiheroic monster of the greater part of the novel; and the idea of possible salvation contradicts the rationale that animates the novel.

The final paragraphs of the 1962 edition attempt to reestablish the rationale but fail, for the idea of Alex as a father concerned with the future of the earth does not fulfill the characterization so brilliantly developed in the greater part of the novel:

And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round, like some bolshy gigantic like chelloveck, like old Bog himself … turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his gigantic rookers…. And to all others in this story profound shooms of lip music brrrrrr. And they can kiss my sharries. But you, O my brothers, remember sometimes thy little Alex that was. Amen. And all that cal.

In the course of A Clockwork Orange's activities Burgess comments in "black comic" fashion on the horror of life without choice, whether for evil or for good. It is better, he says, to choose evil rather than to be denied the right of choice. Although the direct expression of an orthodox religious code does not figure dominantly within the narrative, the point that moral action and ethical rightness are essential to life in an ordered community is cogently made. Indeed, the final impression that the novel makes is that it is a parable. The point that is left undeveloped concerns the nature of government and the nature of individual responsibility. Burgess forces his reader to come to some logical conclusion, through his "creeching horror-show" scenes, about the choice for right and good action in a civilized community. Frighteningly enough, to choose evil is a privilege that cannot be denied the individual; for, when his choice for evil has been curtailed, his choice of or for good becomes meaningless.

That Alex is as much a "clockwork orange" before as after the Ludovico treatment is ironically and comically portrayed. The sociological implications of the theme are constantly emphasized; and the reader, mystified by the manner and seduced by the virtuosity of the language, at first fails to appreciate the simple homily that man is responsible to himself and to his fellow man.

Burgess, then, in A Clockwork Orange, succeeds in garbing a simple thesis in a startlingly telling and darkly humorous disguise. The violence and brutality—the slashing and rapings of the hoodlum gangs, the pack-hunting, the wanton killings—all that Alex represents, all can be found described in today's newspapers. The ultimate terror that Burgess suggests, and what best represents his concern for human beings is that what Alex and his "droogs" symbolize, governments too are involved in, and that depersonalization of family and community life produces "clockwork oranges," that regimentation of human animals into mechanized and orderly units of productive enterprise produces a world without meaning, a world without hope. Symbolically, the world that Alex lives in is one devoid of light and sun; and the majority of scenes take place at night. The people that he lives among are clearly "clock-work oranges," despite the fact that they have not been submitted directly to Ludovico processing.

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This section contains 3,444 words
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