Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange
December 20, 2011, 4:58 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

Because I have some strong feelings on the twenty-first chapter of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, I’ll be writing today’s review as if there are only twenty chapters to the book. I’ll get to that final chapter in my next post.

A Clockwork Orange is a remarkable book, often more for its language than for the skill with which Burgess plays with the novel’s major themes. What’s often noted about the novel is, correctly, the “nadsat,” the slang that Alex and his friends speak to one another as they wreak havoc on the lives of strangers. Burgess’s world, a vision of our own had it gone on a slightly different course, is formed in large part through the language his characters speak; it’s that language, that world, that makes the book a must-read, that lends a sense of reality to the story. It’s the nadsat that hides the fault to Burgess’s writing, the degree to which he manipulates his reader, along with Alex, to certain lines of thinking throughout the book. (There’s a post coming on the nadsat, later.)

In the first seven-chapter section of his novel, Burgess establishes Alex as a character whose cruelty towards others is relieved, for the reader, only by his love of music. Alex and his droogs, his friends, spend the first chapters moving from bar to bar, buying people off for their complicity in creating abilis, and robbing and raping on the street and in private homes – and this as teenagers, Alex being only fifteen years old. Burgess is quick to establish Alex as a character whose moral center is far from the average; he’s not only a character who does wrong, but a character who fails to recognize the wrong. Even his love of music turns sour for the reader when he seduces a couple of girls back to his parents’ apartment to listen to albums on his new stereo, then rapes them.

Burgess neatly splits Clockwork into three sections, with the first ending when Alex is arrested for murder. This is all a set-up for Burgess’s main thematic questions, of whether a bad person can be forced to be a good person, and of whether it is better for a naturally bad person to remain so, or to lose his or her free will in becoming what society recognizes as “good.”

While in jail, Alex is selected to be the first recipient of the Ludovico treatment, a revolutionary program designed to reform the worst of criminals in only two weeks. The treatment isn’t as interesting as are the ethical questions Burgess raises; and if there’s a fault to this segment of the novel, it’s that Burgess is too quick to hand speeches to his characters, pushing the reader to think in the direction he’s directed. The Prison Chaplain is most often victim to Burgess’s puppetry, as when he discusses the Ludovico treatment from a moral standpoint (and keep in mind that Alex’s interest in the treatment is nothing more than an interest in getting out of jail 18 years earlier than he otherwise would).

‘Very hard ethical questions are involved,’ he went on. ‘You are to be made into a good boy, 6655321. Never again will you have the desire to commit acts of violence or to offend in any way whatsoever against the State’s Peace. I hope you take all that in. I hope you are absolutely clear in your own mind about that.’ I said:

‘Oh, it will be nice to be good, sir.’ But I had a real horrorshow smeck at that inside, brothers. He said:

‘It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good…. 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 a man who has the good imposed upon him? Deep and hard questions, little 6655321.’ (95)

To be sure, Burgess poses interesting moral questions here. When Alex is released he is a shell of his former self, despised by many for the person he used to be, yet unable to defend himself against a world that retains the cruelties he himself is no longer capable of inflicting. It’s in this third section (in the first six chapters of it, anyway) that Burgess creates a work that I find in so many ways stunning. Although Alex as a character has been significantly changed by his treatment, there’s a suggestion that the world itself doesn’t change; there are patterns that must be maintained, ones of redemption and of retribution. And Alex, a character who once acted his life out upon others with impunity, suddenly finds himself the subject of their worlds, used as a political pawn and unable to trust, any longer, the words of others. When the Ludovico treatment strips Alex of his ability to act violently he is stripped, too, of his ability to act as his own agent in the world.

There’s an answer in here to Burgess’s question, if you’re looking for one, but it changes significantly based on how many of the chapters you opt to read. I prefer to read the book as Burgess’s American editors initially published it, and as Kubrick adapted the film: twenty chapters, ending with Alex again listening to his music (which he had been unable to bear after the Ludovico treatment ended), thinking:

I was cured all right.

What a way to end the novel, what a stunner of a closing line: it suggests so much for the reader, tells us, really, what person Alex truly is, but leaves to us his next move. It suggests, too, a constancy in human nature; not that a person can’t change slightly over time, but that there are certain elements to a person’s nature that cannot be broken, and that Alex’s most true and correct self is the one that tears apart old men’s library books on the street. Some of Alex’s old droogs have grown up and moved away from him in the two years he spent in jail, but Alex himself stands at novel’s end as a character who has been changed but also proven the degree to which he cannot be changed. Though this isn’t the ending Burgess wanting, it’s one bristling with tension as we feel Alex, the real Alex, returning to himself.


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I think A Clockwork Orange is a fantastic novel; I’ve a read it a couple of times.I’m not a big fan of the 21st chapter. It takes something away from all of the chapters that lead up to it.

Comment by Acid Free Pulp

[…] A Clockwork Orange – There’s some risk for revolt with this book as well, but like Room it’s a short read that raises some interesting issues. Burgess’s story is one that’s probably known to the reader through film, and despite the play with language here, it’s a pretty easy read that will nevertheless have the reader, at end, thinking, “holy shit. What just happened?” Read the review […]

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