Part One, Chapter 1 Summary:
In futuristic London, fifteen-year-old Alex narrates in "nadsat" slang from the Korova Milkbar, where he drinks drug-laced milk with his three friends, Pete, Georgie, and Dim. Three girls down the bar catch Alex's attention, as does a drugged-out man near him. An old popular song on the stereo gains Alex's disfavor, and he hits the drugged-man before they leave the bar.
The boys see an elderly professorial man outside, a rarity since the police shortage and preponderance of gangs has made the streets unsafe. They feign disgust at the supposedly lewd material contained in the man's inoffensive science books, rip up the books, strip him and beat him up before letting him go. The booty from his plundered pants - love letters and a little bit of money - is inconsequential, and they move on.
They decide to do something generous with their money so they have an incentive for more shop-lifting and so they have an alibi for future need. At a bar they spend all their money on drinks and food for some poor old women. They go to a candy and cigarettes store and, with masks of popular figures on, rob and beat up the owner and his wife. They check back in with the old women and make them confirm their alibi. Two cops come in later and the women vouch for the boys.
The opening line of the novel - "'What's it going to be then, eh?'" - is repeated four times in this chapter and starts each part of the novel. Though in different contexts, each use stresses free will, the ability to choose for oneself how "it" will turn out "to be."
The importance of free will for the individual is the major theme of A Clockwork Orange, but Burgess immediately treats the reader to an array of events that suggest why free will is dangerous. Unhampered by law-enforcement, Alex and his friends are free to do what they will - which notably involves harming others.
Just as Burgess will explore this theme in much greater depth throughout the novel, Alex is a much more complicated character than his bare actions suggest. While he is lawless (indeed, his name can be read as A-lex, or a Latin-derived "without law"), he is almost respectful of the professor's privacy when Dim reads out loud the love letters, not to mention his feelings of goodwill when he buys drinks for the old women. Moreover, he expresses disdain for the pop music he hears at the Korova Milkbar, indicating he has more sophisticated interests than his teenage friends. (His name is also an allusion to Alexander the Great, indicating his leadership abilities.)
Burgess spends much of the novel parodying 1950s and 60s British youth through a frightening projection of them. Aside from their penchant for violence and drugs, the teenagers in the novel wear ridiculous fashions and speak in the odd Russian-influenced slang nadsat ("nadsat" is similar to "teen" in Russian, and it means "teens" in the novel). Alex is not a mere parrot, however; he uses nadsat in more creative and even poetic combinations than his friends do (yet another meaning in his name is "lex" for "lexicon," or dictionary). Their mixer of choice, milk, speaks volumes about their infantile behavior and lends Freudian connotations to their sex drives, while the childish tinge of nadsat - "appy polly loggies" for "apologies" - reinforces their immaturity.
Part One, Chapter 2 Summary:
Alex and his friends leave the bar and beat up an old, dirty man who sings old songs. They pause to let him condemn a world that allows young men to do harm lawlessly, and tells them to kill him, as he'll be better off that way. They beat him until he bleeds badly. They come across a rival gang, led by Billyboy, in the middle of raping a young girl. They fight with chains and razors, and despite being outnumbered six to four, Alex's gang prevails with Dim's strength. The cops come, probably alerted by the raped girl, and both gangs scurry away. Alex and his friends hide in an alley lit up by the glow of televisions in apartments. Dim wonders about life on the moon and stars.
They steal a car and joyride into the country, terrorizing pedestrians along the way. They drive up to a cottage labeled "HOME" and Alex convinces the woman inside that he needs to call an ambulance for his sick friend. When she opens the door, he and his masked friends run inside. The attractive woman's writer husband is also inside, and Alex inspects his manuscript titled "A Clockwork Orange." Alex rips up the manuscript while the others beat up the man and eat the food in the house. The boys take turns raping the woman while making the man watch. They smash up the objects in the house and leave the occupants moaning on the ground.
The manuscript of "A Clockwork Orange" states the main thesis of the novel: that any restriction of free will turns humans into machines - or, in the imagery of the title, it makes the fleshy, sweet, orange-ness of humans into a deterministic clockwork mechanism. The title also suggests an orangutan, a near-human that does not have our degree of free will. Still, Burgess presents great evidence for the contrary view that unfettered free will is destructive, here in the old man's howls against the lawlessness of the world and in the boys' continuing horrific actions.
Alex's thirst for violence is not as thuggish as his friends' is - far from it, in fact, since he reprimands them for their sloppy eating in the "HOME" cottage. He has an aesthetic thrill for violence, and this aesthetic purity is far divorced from any ethical purity, as we will see more of in Chapter 3.
Burgess also outlines the seemingly socialist state of futuristic London. The landscape is grim and government-owned (everything is "Municipal"), movies are produced by "Statefilm," and television is a numbing medium that sedates the masses. These features are only minor exaggerations of capitalist society, and Burgess demonstrates - notably in the television example - how they insidiously curb the free will of the citizenry.
The boys' forcing the man to watch his wife's rape foreshadows what will happen to Alex in Part Two. In both cases, the person forced to watch has his free will restricted and must experience something unpleasing to his nature.
Part One, Chapter 3 Summary:
The boys' car runs out of gas and, feeling hateful, they push it into a nearby body of water. They take the train back to the center of town and cause some damage on the ride. They return to the Korova Milkbar, where the drugged man still babbles away. Teens pack the place. In a pause between songs, a woman sings a piece of an opera Alex knows, and it affects him deeply. Dim mocks her and Alex hits him. Dim threatens to beat him up, and Georgie and Pete affirm Dim's right to be upset. They plan to meet up tomorrow. They go home separately.
Alex goes to his parents' flat in Municipal Flatblock 18A. He eats the dinner his mother has left out for him, then retires to his room. He blissfully listens to a violin concerto on his stereo, imagining himself raping young girls as he listens. He ejaculates at the piece's climax. After, he listens to Mozart and then his favorite, Bach. He thinks more about the people at the "HOME" cottage and wishes he had beaten them harder.
Alex's love for music takes center stage here in his defense of the woman in the bar and in his blissful experience in his room. In both cases, his appreciation for art is matched only by his desire for violence. In the former, he is woken from his dreamy respect for the pure beauty of the woman's voice only by smacking Dim. In the latter, his genuine aesthetic appreciation for the music is quickly overtaken by his lust for violence and sex.
Though Alex is a thug, he is a sophisticated one. He is not a mechanical clockwork orange, since he has the potential for great humanity and sensitivity, but the question remains if it would be better to turn him into a clockwork orange and restrain his free will. The drugged man in the Milkbar has turned himself into a clockwork orange by rendering himself insensible, but even this was a free choice.
Burgess explores free will in other subtle ways, as in his description of the municipal painting of workers in the hallway of Alex's flat. The painting resembles Soviet Communist artworks that depict healthy, proud state workers, further evidence that the world of A Clockwork Orange is socialist. This type of government, Burgess implies, also turns its citizens into clockwork oranges, mindless tools of the state. And while teens have disfigured the painting in their typical obscene ways, there is something rebelliously creative about the act; they refuse to be turned into clockwork oranges and lose their free will.
Part One, Chapter 4 Summary:
Alex wakes up the next morning tired and not wanting to go to school. His parents go off to work, as is required by the government, and he dreams that Georgie and Dim are ordering him around in the army. He wakes up to answer the door for P.R. Deltoid, his "Post-Corrective Adviser." Deltoid warns him that his name is being connected to the fight with Billyboy's gang last night and that the next time he gets in trouble, he will be sent to jail. Alex placates him but privately justifies his actions, bad though they may be.
Alone, Alex reads a typical newspaper article about "Modern Youth" which blames youth's wildness on lack of parental and academic discipline. The only article Alex has read on this subject with which he agreed instead religiously condemned adults for creating such a violent world. He turns on the radio and listens to some classical music, and remembers reading another article that argued that an appreciation of the arts would domesticate youth; Alex finds that classical music always riles him up for violence.
Alex takes the bus to his favorite record store, where two young girls browse through the pop records. The clerk sells Alex the Beethoven's Ninth Symphony recording he has been waiting for, and Alex invites the two girls, Marty and Sonietta, back to his place to listen to music. After treating them to lunch, he takes them back, listens to their pop records, gives himself an aphrodisiac shot with a needle, and has sex while listening to the Beethoven. At first the girls are drunk and do not mind, but when they sober up they call Alex a beast and leave in a huff. Alex goes to sleep.
Alex states his belief in Original Sin, the Biblical idea that evil is natural in man and is not a product of the environment: "...badness is of the self...and that self is made by old Bog or God." His assertion jibes with the article condemning adults and pointing to Original Sin: "IT WAS THE DEVIL THAT WAS ABROAD and was like ferreting his way into like young innocent flesh." While Original Sin implies a certain lack of free will, since God has sown the seeds of sin and the individual has not chosen it, it has a far greater degree of free will than in the belief that the environment has determined one's behavior, as the farcical Deltoid and the typical newspaper article believe.
Moreover, Alex time and again insists that he does evil because "what I do I do because I like to do" - he is in full charge of his actions. He also claims that modern history is the "story of brave malenky selves fighting these big machines" of repressive society, furthering his and Burgess's argument that free will at all costs is necessary, even if not always productive.
Still, there is faulty logic in Alex's reasoning. Bad behavior violates what philosopher John Stuart Mill called the "harm principle" in his work On Liberty. In it, Mill argues that any action is allowable so long as it does not cause harm to anyone else. Alex says he would not interfere with the actions of those who do good, and he expects the same in return; the difference, of course, is that bad behavior harms others, while good behavior benefits others.