A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange Study Guide

Easily Anthony Burgess's most famous book - and his personal least favorite - A Clockwork Orange would have become a controversial work in the 20th-century canon even if not for Stanley Kubrick's stylized 1971 film adaptation. The futuristic novel relates the adventures of fifteen-year-old Alex, leader of a teenage gang who delights in stealing, beating, and raping London's helpless citizens - all this rendered in the teenage slang of "nadsat," a Russian-influenced vocabulary Burgess invented. Alex's lawless freedom is eventually curbed by a new scientific technique, Ludovico's Technique, that renders Alex physically ill when he sees, or even thinks of, violence. Turned into a "clockwork orange," the novel's central image of humanity made mechanical, he loses his free will. Burgess ultimately argues that even evil, so long as it is chosen, is better and more human than the forced, deterministic goodness Alex endures under Ludovico's Technique.

Burgess also examines the totalitarian aspects of socialism - especially its subliminal use of mass media for mind-control - and disturbingly parodies the immaturity of British youth culture. These two themes combined with the central question of free will in an ironic way after the film's release. "Copycat" crimes based on those in the film sprang up around the United Kingdom, and Kubrick eventually decided to ban the film in the U.K. (only recently, after his death, has it been re-released). Though Burgess understandably doubted that his work could be the sole influence on the criminals, the incident does point to the unconscious, deterministic capacity for evil in man (the perpetrators mechanically copied the crimes), the immaturity of youth, and the influence of mass media.

Perhaps the ban could have been avoided had Kubrick used the British, and not American, edition of the book for his film. Burgess, needing money badly, allowed W. W. Norton to omit the final, 21st chapter of his novel for American publication in 1963. Without the final chapter's examination of Alex's maturation and redemption, the novel and film pessimistically seem to endorse violence. Burgess regretted permitting the excision, as well as the inclusion of a nadsat glossary in the American edition.