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Anthony Burgess | A Clockwork Orange


In Anthony Burgess's influential nightmare vision of the future, criminals take over after dark. Teen gang leader Alex narrates in fantastically inventive slang that echoes the violent intensity of youth rebelling against society. Dazzling and transgressive, A Clockwork Orange is a frightening fable about good and evil and the meaning of human freedom. This edition includes the controversial last chapter not published in the first edition, and Burgess’s introduction, “A Clockwork Orange Resucked.”


"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you watch them on a screen."

There are these dystopian visionary books that slowly but steadily move from speculative fiction into the field of painfully realistic portrayals of life as we know and suffer it. Huxley, Orwell and Atwood all saw our ordeal coming, and they created the mood and terror for our era long before we could follow their tracks in the daily news spit out in vicious bits and pieces.

Recently a retired teacher said to me that nobody could have predicted the generation of students we have to deal with today, who float above and beyond the rules that we try to convey to them: be it orthography, vocabulary, democratic processes, newsworthiness of information, priorities for action and life planning or just fundamental rules of polite communication between human beings of equal dignity - they pick and choose what suits them and laugh in our faces if we suggest there is a common agreement on any kind of behaviour. For every example we offer, they find a counterargument within a click-second on the phone, and the question of ethical guidelines morphs into whether or not we have the right to make any choices at all for these adolescents that they don't feel like agreeing to themselves, based on their current predilections.

And I heard myself replying to the older colleague that Anthony Burgess saw it coming in the 60s, and that the question was as hard to answer back then as it is now. Can we actually FORCE students to embrace democracy if they are naturally drawn to charismatic populists? Can we TEACH them critical thinking skills without the imperative and normative value system that turns them into clockwork oranges rather than human beings with a free will and a free choice?

How do human beings compete with their own technological achievements, namely the universal attractiveness of instant internet gratification? How do human beings make choices in a society that offers everything at all hours? That is as difficult to handle as the complete choicelessness that is its opposite - but it is much more time-consuming!

How do we deal with a generation that sets its own rules based on their idea of negotiable values, communicated in a shorthand pigeon language suitable for quick typing on small screens? How do we deal with their participation in the global online reality show that offers 24/7 opening hours for entertainment of all kinds?

Just by the fact that we as teachers are representing a hierarchy we make ourselves impossible in the eyes of a youth whose only wish is to be free, to destroy in order to rise as Phoenix from the ashes. Who does not remember at some point thinking after a lecture of some kind, coming from a place of power:

"And I thought to myself, Hell and blast you all, if all you bastards are on the side of Good then I'm glad I belong to the other shop."

How do we deal with this on a global scale? The answer my friend, is vital to the survival of our species at this point... but blowing in the wind all the same, while the greying droogs are taking over the power in one country after the other, cheered on by a generation of new droogs who believe in the right to destroy what you see if that is what you like to do. "I like, therefore I do", the new credo for a youth that can't be bothered with philosophy.


How to review an infamous book about which so much has already been said? By avoiding reading others’ thoughts until I’ve written mine.

There are horrors in this book, but there is beauty too, and so much to think about. The ends of the book justify the means of its execution, even if the same is not true of what happens in the story.

Book vs Film, and Omission of Final Chapter

I saw the film first, and read the book shortly afterwards. Usually a bad idea, but in this case, being familiar with the plot and the Nadsat slang made it easier to relax (if that's an appropriate word, given some of the horrors to come) into the book. The film is less hypnotic and far more shocking than the book, because it is more visual and because, like the US version of the book, it omits the more optimistic final chapter.

The British censors originally passed the film - uncut. But a year later, it was cited as possibly inspiring a couple of murders, leading to threats against Kubrick's family. The year after that, Kubrick asked for it to be withdrawn, and it was, even though he said
"To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around."

See Withdrawl of film from UK screens
Omission of final chapter

Plot and Structure

It is a short novel, comprising three sections of seven chapters, told by “your humble narrator”, Alex. In the first section, Alex and his teenage gang indulge in “ultra-violence” (including sexual assault of young girls); in the middle section, Alex is in prison and then undergoes a horrific new treatment (a sort of aversion therapy); the final section follows him back in the real world, rejected by his parents, now the puppet of opposing political factions. The whole thing is set in a slightly dystopian, very near future and explores issues of original sin, punishment and revenge, free will, and the nature of evil.

One awful incident involves breaking in to a writer’s house and gang raping his wife, who later dies. A similar incident happened to Burgess’ first wife (though he wasn’t there at the time). Writing a fictionalised account from the point of view of the perpetrator is extraordinary: charitable, cathartic, or a more complex mixture?


Why is Alex as he is?

“What I do I do because I like to do”, and perhaps there is no more that can be said. As Alex ponders, “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 the cause of GOODNESS… badness is of the self… and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty”.

Can people like Alex be cured, and if so, how?

Imprisonment, police brutality, fire and brimstone don’t work. Enter the Ludovico Technique, whereby Alex is injected with emetics before being strapped, with his eyelids held open, to watch videos of extreme physical and sexual violence. He becomes conditioned to be unable to commit such acts, or even to watch or think about them. This raises more questions than it solves. The prison governor prefers the old “eye for an eye”, but has to give in to the new idea of making bad people good. “The question is whether such a technique can really make a man good. Goodness comes from within… Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” The chaplain has doubts, too, “Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?” On the other hand, by consenting to the treatment, Alex is, in an indirect way, choosing to be good.

The technique (or torture) is promoted as making Alex “sane” and “healthy” so that he can be “a free man”, but although he is released from prison, he remains imprisoned by the power of the technique, even to the extent that the music he loves now makes him sick (because it was playing in the background) and his inability to defend himself means he becomes a victim.

Do the ends justify the means?

Dr Brodsky thinks so: “We are not concerned with motive, with the higher ethics. We are only concerned with cutting down crime.” However, if it wears off, it will all have been for nothing.


The possibility of redemption is a common thread, reaching its peak in this final chapter. Burgess was raised as a Catholic, educated in Catholic schools, but lost his faith aged sixteen. He continued to have profound interest in religious ideas, though, as explained here.

The final chapter (omitted from US editions of the book until 1986, and also the film) feels incongruously optimistic in some ways, but by suggesting the true answer as to what will cure delinquency is… maturity, it might be thought the most pessimistic chapter. Is teen violence an inevitable cycle: something people grow into, and then out of when they start to see their place in the bigger picture? And if so, is that acceptable to society?

Language - Nadsat Slang

A distinctive feature of the book is the Nadsat slang that Alex and his droogs use (“nadsat” is the Russian suffix for “teen” – see here). Burgess invented it from Russian with a bit of Cockney rhyming slang and Malay, because real teen slang is so ephemeral, the book would quickly seem dated otherwise. He wanted the book published without a glossary, and it is written so carefully, that the meaning is usually clear, and becomes progressively so, as you become accustomed to it: “a bottle of beer frothing its gulliver off and a horrorshow rookerful of like plum cake” and “There’s only one veshch I require… having my malenky bit of fun with real droogs”. Where an English word is used literally and metaphorically, the Nadsat one is too; for example, “viddy” is used to see with one’s eyes and to understand someone’s point.

The skill of carefully used context makes Russian-based Nadsat much easier to follow than the dialect of Riddley Walker (see my review HERE), even though the latter is based on mishearings of English. (To be fair, the whole of Riddley Walker is written in dialect, whereas in Clockwork Orange, it's conventional English with a generous smattering of slang.)

Where the meaning isn't immediately obvious or is merely vague, you go with the flow until it seeps into your consciousness (much as would happen if you were dropped into an environment where you had no language in common with anyone else). It's another way of sucking the reader into Alex's world and his gang.

Nadsat lends a mesmerising and poetic aspect to the text that is in sharp contrast to the revulsion invoked by some of the things Alex does: tolchocking a starry veck doesn’t sound nearly as bad as beating an old man into a pulp - Nadsat acts as a protective veil. In the film, this effect is somewhat diluted because you SEE these acts.

The book was like published in 1962 and Alex frequently uses “like” as an interjection as I did earlier in this sentence – something that has become quite a common feature of youth speak in recent times. What happened in between, I wonder?

Other than that, much of what Alex says has echoes of Shakespeare and the King James Bible: “Come, gloopy bastard thou art. Think thou not on them” and “If fear thou hast in thy heart, o brother, pray banish it forthwith” and “Fear not. He canst taketh care of himself, verily”. There is always the painful contrast of beautiful language describing unpleasant and horrific things.

Similarly, the repetition of a few phrases is almost liturgical. Alex addresses his readers as “oh my brothers”, which is unsettling: if I’m one of his brothers, am I in some way complicit, or at least condoning, what he does? Another recurring phrase is, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” It is the opening phrase of each section and used several times in the first chapter of each section.


Burgess was a composer, as well as a writer, and Alex has a passion for classical music, especially “Ludwig van”. This may be partly a ploy to make the book more ageless than if he loved, for example, Buddy Holly, but more importantly, it’s another way of creating dissonance: a deep appreciation of great art is not “supposed” to coexist with mindless delinquency.

Alex has lots of small speakers around his room, so “I was like netted and meshed in the orchestra”, and the music is his deepest joy: “Oh bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling… sloshing the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh.” The treatment destroys this pleasure- with dramatic results.

Horror and Beauty, Sympathy for a Villain

Ultimately, I think Alex is sympathetic villain: he has a seductive exuberance and charm and although he does horrific things, when awful things are done to him, sympathy flows.

Yes, there are horrors in this book, but there is beauty too, and so much to think about. The ends of the book justify the means of its execution, even if the same is not true of what happens in the story. Brilliant.


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