For most people the name A Clockwork Orange will conjure images of the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film, and thanks the the striking imagery of the film being so ingrained in popular culture, a lot of people may have only ever experienced the story in that medium, unaware that it was originally published as a novel in 1962 by author Anthony Burgess.
The novel, which has appeared on dozens of top 100 lists and has been called a ‘must read for teens’ follows Alex, a fifteen-year-old boy in a future dystopian city. Alex is the leader of a gang of criminals called droogs, a group who commit petty crimes and violent assaults seemingly for the sheer pleasure of doing so, thriving on the pain and terror it brings to their victims. In the early stages of the book readers follow the gang as they drink drug-laced milk, break into homes and assault residents, and as Alex drugs and rapes pre-teen children.
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When the gang enter the home of a wealthy old woman they brutally attack her, and when they hear approaching sirens Alex is betrayed by one of his gang and knocked out, left for the police to find. Learning that the old woman died from her injuries, Alex is sentenced to fourteen years in prison. During his sentence, Alex is blamed for a brutal beating and is offered a new form of aversion therapy in exchange for having his sentence commuted. Alex is drugged, and forced to watch violent films until he comes to hate his own violent impulses.
Once Alex is released from prison he begins to try to put his life together, but eventually comes to the decision to end his own life. When he fails to take his own life he discovers that he has actually managed to break his conditioning, allowing his violent urges to return. In the final chapter of the book an older Alex finds that his violent actions are bringing him less pleasure, and begins to contemplate giving up his criminal life to become a productive member of society.
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A Clockwork Orange is not a book that will be for everyone, due in large parts to the violent nature of the material it contains. Anthony Burgess doesn’t shy away from portraying Alex and his gang as thoroughly violent and brutal young men, capable of disturbing acts. It’s because of this content that the book gained a reputation for ‘glorifying’ violence and sexual assault, and was subsequently banned and restricted in multiple states in the US.
Part of the reason why the book may have been seen in this light is the fact that the final chapter, the one that shows Alex reconsidering his life and his violent actions, is actually omitted from the US printing, thus leading to an end where Alex becomes cured from his conditioning and is free to engage in brutal acts once again. As you can imagine, this would indeed lead to a very different conclusion to the ending that Burgess actually intended. This is the same ending that appeared in the movie, as Kubrick didn’t even learn about the final chapter until working on the film.
Whilst it would be easy to dismiss the book as being purely about glorifying violence, that would be a rather simplistic and ill thought out conclusion. For one thing, the thing that inspired Burgess to actually write the story was how his first wife, Lynne, was brutally beaten by American servicemen stationed in Britain during World War Two; an attack that would cause her to miscarry. As such, it’s hard to believe that Burgess would every glorify such actions considering the fact that he saw the devastating effect violence can have on someone close to him. But A Clockwork Orange isn’t about violence, but rather an exploration of free will, by asking the question ‘is it better to choose to be bad than to be programmed to do good?’
Outside of these difficult moral questions and lurid descriptions of violence the book should also be praised for its artistic and linguistic achievement. Burgess incorporated a whole new form of language in the book, with the youth of the novel speaking in a slang dialect called Nadsat, which was influenced by the Russian language. Whilst the inclusion of Nadsat has been reported to have made some people feel unable to access the book, along with the violence, its inclusion makes the novel a lot more interesting for sure.
If you’ve seen the film and feel inspired to check out the original material, or have seen the book feature on lists of ‘must reads’ but have never actually picked it up yourself, perhaps the 60th anniversary might be the right time to give this classic a read.
A Clockwork Orange was originally published in 1962.