Fat Books & Thin Women

The False Moral Center of Clockwork‘s Final Chapter
December 22, 2011, 9:19 am
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

In his introduction to A Clockwork Orange Burgess details his disagreement with his original American publishers about the form the published novel should take, whether it should be published with twenty chapters (as it originally was in the United States; this is what Stanley Kubrick based his film on) or with twenty-one (as Burgess wished). In this twenty-first chapter Burgess attempts to give his novel some moral shape or center, a clear and positive message about the ability of humans to change and grow. After having his morality defined and controlled via the Ludovico treatment, Alex in this final chapter is meant to appear to have come, of his own free will, to adulthood complete with an acceptable moral code.

Whatever Burgess’s intentions, though, this chapter feels rushed, tacked on, an attempt to “redeem” Alex and fundamentally change the character he has established for himself over the previous twenty chapters. This chapter falls back on tropes of the coming-of age novel, with Alex realizing that he is eighteen, that it is time for him to marry, that it is time for him to grow up. In falling into such traditional concepts of the move into adulthood, Burgess fails not only in a purely artistic sense, but also undermines his own belief that Alex at this point is no longer a clockwork orange. Because Alex is unable to imagine a life in which he is capable of making moral decisions or capable of making decisions birthed of his own agency rather than a sense of what is expected of him based on his age, he does not truly have agency even in III, 7; and Burgess’s decision to represent Alex’s growth through a baby photograph Alex carries in his pocket is far too similar to representations of enforced change earlier in the novel to effectively showcase Alex’s “growth” as a character. While Burgess does succeed in III, 7 in raising additional questions about Alex’s agency, he does so at the cost of the realism of the character and the novel. Alex becomes, in III, 7, nothing more than a cardboard figure, no longer a puppet for F. Alexander but for Burgess himself. Burgess ultimately fails as an author, in destroying the sovereignty of his main character and making apparent that he, Burgess, considers any and all aspects of his characters to be changeable without concern for the realism of the novel’s world.

To attempt to show, in one chapter, change and growth as they may actually occur—that is, gradually, over a long period of time, certainly not over a few days at the most as is the case here—is artistically irresponsible, and removes from Alex the possibility of any agency as a character. Burgess is correct in stating, as he does in the work’s introduction, that the work is too didactic to be artistic, but much of this didactism emerges in the final chapter, when Burgess attempts to imagine the sort of moral growth he feels is necessary to a successful novel, but without allowing Alex the time to grow and change in what seems a genuine manner.

In terms of this idea of moral growth, III, 6 is no better than III, 7; it is however a stronger close to the novel because it holds to the tone of the rest of the book, and seems to be more concerned with Alex than with explicitly imparting a moral message. Burgess succeeds in creating a horrifying vision of Alex’s powerlessness. Though he is cured of the Ludovico cure and is able to once again act according to his original sense of morality, he has no choice in this cure. It becomes unclear whether there is a way for Alex not to live as a “clockwork orange,” and Burgess is able to create this sense of uncertainty while holding with the artistic sensibility of the novel as a whole. When Alex asks the nurse, “has anyone been doing anything with my gulliver? What I mean is, have they been playing around with inside like my brain?” (174), Burgess succeeds in presenting Alex as a character with some depth, as a character who doesn’t feel like a character—a point on which he fails in III, 7. There is something genuinely shocking in the way Alex is “cured” of the Ludovico treatment, and in Alex’s question above. In making clear that it is only after days of receiving the “cure” that Alex begins to realize what is being done to him, Burgess crafts a more horrifying image of governmental control over the will than he is able to with the Ludovico treatment. It is unclear how Alex feels upon realizing that he may have received a sort of cure to the Ludovico cure (in his question above it’s not made explicit whether he’s pleased or unhappy at the thought of being cured again), but the ambiguity of Alex’s feelings, coupled with the ambiguity of the government returning Alex to his original morality without his consent, allows Burgess to raise more questions of morality and free will in this chapter than in III, 7. The moral growth Burgess desires to write of may not be apparent, but his artistic performance is high in that he is able to create sympathy for a character who will soon be carrying out the same acts of violence as he did in Part One of the novel. He raises questions of the differing levels of morality, of whether Alex is essentially more moral than those in the government who have “cured” him because he lacks power or agency against that government. It is precisely Alex’s lack of power in this passage, Alex’s inability to enact his will, that makes the scene such a striking one.

Burgess succeeds in III, 6 in making a character lacking any morality seem moral in comparison to those around him, makes Alex a character worthy of the reader’s sympathy (though this could not be termed an “easy” sympathy; questions of what Alex will do after release from the hospital complicate it). It is more the shame, then, that Burgess should in III, 7 make clear that Alex, that all his characters, have been nothing but machines through the whole novel, that Burgess should strip Alex of the humanity he seemingly gains when in the hospital so that he may strive to recraft the novel in the form of what he considers an artistically ideal morality tale. Alex may not be a moral character at the close of III, 6 (the chapter’s close, with Alex thinking, “I was cured all right” [179] is strong precisely because Alex is not moral, because this one sentence forces the reader to question how Alex will enact his will after leaving the hospital) but questions of his agency and will continue to exist within the novel, with Burgess’s hand far less visible than it is in III, 7.

While Alex in III, 7 does not seem to be explicItly influenced by any other characters as he is via the “cure” in III, 6, it becomes clear that he is only the creation of Burgess, and that he lacks any degree of selfhood. Burgess ceases to treat Alex as though he is a person, and Alex seems subject not only to the whims of those around him, but to the whims and artistic aims of Burgess as well—Alex’s world is no longer self-contained, but reveals itself to be the product of Burgess’s hand. While Burgess is able to take shortcuts in his writing elsewhere in the novel (for instance, in failing to explain in any detail how the Ludovico treatment works; the important thing to Burgess seems to be that he be able to examine questions of free will and morality, and to create a detailed cure would delay the answers to those questions), this is one instance in which such shortcuts fail Burgess’s artistic vision. Burgess attempts to show Alex’s growth and change by placing a baby photograph in Alex’s pocket. He writes, “I couldn’t explain how it had got there, brothers, but it was a photograph I had scissored out of the old gazetta and it was a baby. It was of a baby gurgling goo goo goo…” (184). The Alex of this passage, of this final chapter, does not seem to be the same Alex of the past twenty chapters; and this difference is not due to any growth on Alex’s part, but to forced change on Burgess’s part. Because Burgess is unwilling to devote more than a chapter to Alex’s growth, he is unable to achieve his artistic goal of a novel that ultimately addresses the growth of its characters. Burgess fails to understand that while enforced change can be represented as coming via a pill, a tv screen, or an IV, genuine change cannot be seen through a baby photograph suddenly and inexplicably placed in a character’s pocket. Such an image of change is not an image of genuine growth, and if Burgess truly believes (as he writes) that the point of a novel is to “…show the possibility of moral transformation…” (viii), then surely he could devote more than a single chapter to that transformation.

Burgess’s laziness is at other points in the novel excusable, as that laziness acts as an expedient to the telling of Alex’s story. There is something refreshing, too, in Burgess’s lack of concern with precisely why Alex confesses, or how the Ludovico technique works, as it suggests in the first instance that there is some level of Alex’s character that the reader is not able to access, and in the second instance that Burgess is more concerned with examining Alex and what happens to Alex than with the precise, scientific details of what happens to him. Burgess is able to get away with representing change as coming from a pill because that is the nature of the treatment he has created, because the very nature of enforced change does not allow any sort of gradual change or growth. By representing Alex’s “genuine” change in III, 7 through a sort of new pill, a photograph of a baby, Burgess treats Alex and his growth as though it is again enforceable, and in doing so destroys the illusion of Alex and the world of the novel. When Alex accidentally pulls from his pocket the photo of the “very fat baby” (184) it is clear that Burgess has simply attempted to plant another pill, that whatever redemption Alex finds in the last pages of the book will be as false as his previous pill-induced morality.


 Subscribe to the Fat Books & Thin Women feed

Comments Off on The False Moral Center of Clockwork‘s Final Chapter

Comments are closed.