A Clockwork Orange | Critical Essay by John Cullinan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
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Critical Essay by John Cullinan

SOURCE: "Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange: Two Versions," in English Language Notes, Vol. IX, No. 4, June, 1972, pp. 287-92.

In the following essay, Cullinan discusses the effect of the final, twenty-first, chapter of A Clockwork Orange, which was left out of the original American editions.

American readers of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess' best-known novel, are reading a truncated version of which the author does not approve. The Norton and Ballantine editions published in this country both omit the concluding twenty-first chapter which the English Heinemann edition contains. According to Mr. Burgess the discrepancy arose as a result of his negotiations with Norton for an American edition. Although he had published nine books in England by 1962, only Devil of a State and The Right to an Answer were available in American editions; and he was not well-known here. Evidently Norton insisted that the final chapter, in which the narrator-protagonist Alex shows signs of growing out of his adolescent viciousness, be excised, and that this lively rapist-murderer be left unregenerate at the end. Such insistence on a more bitterly ironic conclusion is the modern converse of Victorian periodical practice, whereby Thomas Hardy, for example, was forced to marry Angel Clare off to Tess Durbeyfield's sister to placate his readers for the heroine's death.

For Anthony Burgess the alteration has helped give an air of notoriety to A Clockwork Orange, a violent book he wishes readers would emphasize less than such later novels as Tremor of Intent, Enderby, and MF. The problem is intensified by the existence of a film version, directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the shortened text. Burgess fears that the English edition may be shortened to conform to the American versions, though the fact that Heinemann reprinted the original edition as recently as 1970 seems to lessen the chances of that. He is also unhappy about the "Glossary of Nadsat Language"—the strange teenage slang in which the tale is told—appended to the Ballantine paperback edition by the late Stanley Edgar Hyman; this undercuts his purpose of teaching the reader a dialect by having him adjust to the context of each unfamiliar word or phrase. Such a glossary, as one critic has remarked, also allows the reader to avoid coming to grips actively with the novel's language [Christine Brooke-Rose, "Le Roman Experimentale en Angleterre," in Les Langues Moderns, March-April, 1969, pp. 158-68]. But Burgess seems to feel that nothing can be done about either distortion.

A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian novel of the near future in which an England of strongly socialist tendency is terrorized by teenage gangs dressed in the fashion of London's "Teddy boys" of the early 1960's. Alex, a gang leader of fifteen, delights in purely gratuitous acts of violence; when peer pressure drives him from the normalcy of assault, rape, and robbery to the rashness of murder, he is caught and sent to prison. Involved in the death of another convict, he is transferred to the new "State Institute for Reclamation of Criminal Types," where he is deprived of free-will—and thus, suggests Burgess, his humanity—through the application of drugs and electrical shocks while he watches atrocity films. Not only is Alex's taste for violence purged, but also his ability to defend himself from former victims and rivals seeking revenge after his release. Worse, his deep love for classical music has also been destroyed; for he has always associated Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven with the violence which now sickens him. Despair and the pressure of events drive Alex to attempt suicide; as a result, the therapeutic process is reversed by the authorities. The twentieth and concluding chapter of the American editions leaves Alex enjoying the scherzo movement of the Beethoven Ninth while dreaming of cutting the world's collective throat. "And there was the slow movement and the lovely last singing movement to come," he adds. "I was cured all right."

This ending reinforces one's sense of A Clockwork Orange as a dark, witty parable in which Alex's extreme license is opposed to the state's extreme tyranny, with no choice in between. As Bernard Bergonzi has noted, Burgess makes the problematical assumption with T. S. Eliot and Graham Greene that "it is better actively to do evil than to be spiritually dead" [New York Review of Books, May 20, 1965, p. 16]. One can assert freedom by willing the bad; but, as Alex says, the government and the schools "cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self." He adds unsentimentally, "But what I do I do because I like to do." Dreaming of violence at the end of this chapter, Alex is where he was at the start; yet he has not come full circle. A typical rogue-hero, Alex has survived a series of adventures; but he has not developed. What was done at the Institute destroyed him by eliminating his free will; his return to normalcy is a grotesque form of rebirth, and the reader is left shuddering at or delighting in his Augustinian incorrigibility.

The last chapter in the English edition presents Alex in a somewhat different light. Now eighteen and attired as a "Skinhead" with a new gang, he seems as ready for a night of violence as before; yet he is curiously bored by the prospect, and a baby's photograph he carries in his wallet indicates the onset of paternal feeling. With a flimsy excuse he goes off on his own, and a chance meeting with a former crony and his wife now safely ensconsced in minor office jobs makes him think of marriage. Alex reflects that youth resembles a mechanical wind-up toy, such as a clockwork orange, that moves "in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing." This he will tell his unborn son, though aware he can't prevent the next generation's undergoing a similar adolescent phase. He concludes, "all it was was that I was young. But now as I end this story, brothers, I am not young, not no longer, oh no. Alex like groweth up, oh yes."

Burgess has said that he wrote the twenty-first chapter partly to symbolize the age of reason toward which Alex is moving; he is only eighteen at the end, so his insight is clearly only a first halting step toward maturity. [In a footnote, the critic adds: "This additional chapter, the seventh of Part Three in the Heinemann edition, also adds symmetry, since the first two parts are of seven chapters each. The American editions have section of seven, seven, and six chapters respectively."] Alex's development at this point also changes the emphasis of Burgess' fable, which emerges more clearly as a parodic Bildungsroman when one considers as well the many ironic references to the power of education which A Clockwork Orange contains. The author has no love for youth and its culture, as the devastating portrait of the rock singer Yod Crewsy in Enderby shows; and he was appalled to discover the slang in A Clockwork Orange picked up by London teenagers. What Burgess has said about small children applies as well to his general view of youth: "I don't see why I should be charmed by their slow lumbering along the road to rationality. It's the finished state I want; there's no substitute for adulthood" [Spectator, September 6, 1968, p. 322]. He has an avowed horror of violence as well, and he resents the implication of the American editions that the mixture of the violent and the musical which characterizes Alex is to be approved. Such reservations are understandable in view of Burgess' early career as composer and performer. As Dr. Brodsky, the Reclamation Institute's Director, remarks, "The sweetest and most heavenly of activities partake in some measure of violence." Anthony Burgess has a strong interest in the general conjunction of the daemonic and the aesthetic which stems in large measure from his reading of Mann's Doctor Faustus, as does the syphilitic Shakespeare he conjures up in Nothing Like the Sun.

One early reviewer was disturbed by the twenty-first chapter, which allegedly destroyed whatever credibility the rest of the novel contained by suggesting that Alex sheds his delinquency; since Alex is not Penrod it is nonsensical to treat his crimes as "adolescent awkwardnesses to be grown out of" [Diana Josselson, Kenyon Review, Summer, 1963, pp. 559-60]. This critique misses two fundamental points about the novel made in the final chapter. Burgess is indicating not simply that Alex has been a child, whose childish things must now be put aside, but also that the human propensity for violence is perversely childish—a form of the original sin that haunts most of Burgess' protagonists in a traditional Catholic way. Alex's extraordinary criminal history makes the swift onset of his paternal urges in the final chapter rather a jolt for the reader, however; the author is open to the charge of sentimentality at this point. In his defense one can say that Alex is not presented as morally "cured" at the end; the light has simply begun to dawn.

More important still is the cyclical view of history which this last chapter reveals; a classically pessimistic sense of recurrence is much stronger in A Clockwork Orange than the tentatively progressive moral sense Alex is beginning to acquire at novel's end. The last chapter begins in exactly the same way as the first; Alex is at the Korova Milkbar with his current gang, and there are many recurrent phrases, e. g., the evening is "a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry." Apparently unchanged, Alex is seen to be bored with his role; and after reflecting briefly on youth and paternity, he realizes that he will be unable to persuade his own son to avoid the violence which has swallowed up his own life: "And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers. And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round … like old Bog Himself … turning and turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his gigantic rookers." This picture of a malevolent or indifferent God playing with mankind as with mechanical toys or clockwork oranges is hardly sentimental, nor is Alex's perception that he is powerless to expunge violence from the future. In naming the Reclamation Treatment "Ludovico's Technique," Burgess, a noted Joyce scholar, seems to indicate that he is playing with the Viconian notion of cyclical recurrence, so central to Finnegans Wake, which figures prominently in The Wanting Seed as well.

Anthony Burgess on the Twenty-first Chapter of a Clockwork Orange:

Yes—well, I was very dubious about the book itself. When I wrote the book my agent was not willing to present it to a publisher, which is rather unusual; and the sort of publishers in England were very dubious about the book. So when the American publisher made this objection to the final chapter, I didn't feel myself to be in a very strong position. I was a little hesitant to judge the book; I was a little too close to it. I thought: "Well, they may be right." Because authors do tend to be (especially after the completion of a book) very uncertain about the value of the book; and perhaps I gave in a little too weakly, but my concern was partly a financial one. I wanted it to be published in America, and I wanted some money out of it. So I said, "Yes." Whether I'd say "Yes" now I don't know; but I've been persuaded by so many critics that the book is better in its American form that I say, "All right, they know best."

Anthony Burgess with John Cullinan, in The Paris Review, Vol. 14, No. 56, Spring, 1973, p. 137.

The longer version of A Clockwork Orange thus makes clear Anthony Burgess' reservations about his protagonist, brings to the fore the idea of the cyclical nature of history, and outlines Alex's possibilities for growth. In the twenty-first chapter the theme of education emerges more fully as well, but one cannot draw utopian conclusions about the society for which Alex is to be educated. The young married couple Pete and Georgina whom he meets at the last are the type of petit bourgeois whose lives Burgess depicts as futile in The Right to an Answer and One Hand Clapping; besides, they live in a world moving rapidly toward brutal state tyranny. A Clockwork Orange thus contains its own critique of the author's essentially conservative assumption that it is society which makes the young savage civilized. A new complete edition would make these implications clear to Mr. Burgess' American readers.

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