A Clockwork Orange was written in Hove, then a senescent seaside town. Burgess had arrived back in Britain after his stint abroad to see that much had changed. A youth culture had grown, including coffee bars, pop music and teenage gangs. England was gripped by fears over juvenile delinquency. Burgess claimed that the novel's inspiration was his first wife Lynne's beating by a gang of drunk American servicemen stationed in England during World War II. She subsequently miscarried. In its investigation of free will, the book's target is ostensibly the concept of behaviourism, pioneered by such figures as B. F. Skinner.
Burgess later stated that he wrote the book in three weeks.
Burgess gave three possible origins for the title:
- He had overheard the phrase "as queer as a clockwork orange" in a London pub in 1945 and assumed it was a Cockney expression. In Clockwork Marmalade, an essay published in the Listener in 1972, he said that he had heard the phrase several times since that occasion. He also explained the title in response to a question from William Everson on the television programme Camera Three in 1972, "Well, the title has a very different meaning but only to a particular generation of London Cockneys. It's a phrase which I heard many years ago and so fell in love with, I wanted to use it, the title of the book. But the phrase itself I did not make up. The phrase "as queer as a clockwork orange" is good old East London slang and it didn't seem to me necessary to explain it. Now, obviously, I have to give it an extra meaning. I've implied an extra dimension. I've implied the junction of the organic, the lively, the sweet – in other words, life, the orange – and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined. I've brought them together in this kind of oxymoron, this sour-sweet word." Nonetheless, no other record of the expression being used before 1962 has ever appeared. Kingsley Amis notes in his Memoirs (1991) that no trace of it appears in Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Historical Slang.
- His second explanation was that it was a pun on the Malay word orang, meaning "man." The novella contains no other Malay words or links.
- In a prefatory note to A Clockwork Orange: A Play with Music, he wrote that the title was a metaphor for "...an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness and agreeable odour, being turned into a mechanism."
In his essay, "Clockwork Oranges," Burgess asserts that "this title would be appropriate for a story about the application of Pavlovian or mechanical laws to an organism which, like a fruit, was capable of colour and sweetness." This title alludes to the protagonist's positive emotional responses to feelings of evil which prevent the exercise of his free will. To induce this conditioning, the protagonist is subjected to a technique in which violent scenes displayed on screen, which he is forced to watch, are systematically paired with positive stimulation  in the form of nausea and "feelings of terror" caused by an emetic medicine administered just before the presentation of the films.
Point of view
A Clockwork Orange is written using a narrative first-person singular perspective of a seemingly biased and unreliable narrator. The protagonist, Alex, never justifies his actions in the narration, giving a sense that he is somewhat sincere; a narrator who, as unlikeable as he may attempt to seem, evokes pity from the reader by telling of his unending suffering, and later through his realisation that the cycle will never end. Alex's perspective is effective in that the way that he describes events is easy to relate to, even if the situations themselves are not.
Use of slang
The book, narrated by Alex, contains many words in a slang argot which Burgess invented for the book, called Nadsat. It is a mix of modified Slavic words, rhyming slang, derived Russian (like baboochka), and words invented by Burgess himself. For instance, these terms have the following meanings in Nadsat: droog = friend; korova = cow; gulliver ("golova") = head; malchick or malchickiwick = boy; soomka = sack or bag; Bog = God; khorosho ("horrosho") = good; prestoopnick = criminal; rooka ("rooker") = hand; cal = crap; veck ("chelloveck") = man or guy; litso = face; malenky = little; and so on. Compare Polari.
One of Alex's doctors explains the language to a colleague as "odd bits of old rhyming slang; a bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav propaganda. Subliminal penetration." Some words are not derived from anything, but merely easy to guess, e.g. "in-out, in-out" or "the old in-out" means sexual intercourse. Cutter, however, means "money," because "cutter" rhymes with "bread-and-butter"; this is rhyming slang, which is intended to be impenetrable to outsiders (especially eavesdropping policemen). Additionally, slang like appypolly loggy ("apology") seems to derive from school boy slang. This reflects Alex's age of 15.
In the first edition of the book, no key was provided, and the reader was left to interpret the meaning from the context. In his appendix to the restored edition, Burgess explained that the slang would keep the book from seeming dated, and served to muffle "the raw response of pornography" from the acts of violence. Furthermore, in a work of literature where a form of brainwashing plays a role, the narrative itself brainwashes the reader into understanding Nadsat.
The term "ultraviolence," referring to excessive and/or unjustified violence, was coined by Burgess in the book, which includes the phrase "do the ultra-violent." The term's association with aesthetic violence has led to its use in the media.
Banning and censorship history in the US
In 1976, A Clockwork Orange was removed from an Aurora, Colorado high school because of "objectionable language". A year later in 1977 it was removed from high school classrooms in Westport, Massachusetts over similar concerns with "objectionable" language. In 1982, it was removed from two Anniston, Alabama libraries, later to be reinstated on a restricted basis. Also, in 1973 a bookseller was arrested for selling the novel. Charges were later dropped. However, each of these instances came after the release of Stanley Kubrick's popular 1971 film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, itself the subject of much controversy.
In 1985, Burgess published Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence, and while discussing Lady Chatterley's Lover in his biography, Burgess compared that novel's notoriety with A Clockwork Orange: "We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d'esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley's Lover." Burgess also dismissed A Clockwork Orange as "too didactic to be artistic".