A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange Themes

The necessity of free will for humanity

The primary and most controversial idea in A Clockwork Orange is voiced repeatedly by F. Alexander and the prison chaplain: without choice and free will, man is no longer human but a "clockwork orange," a deterministic mechanism. Free will, Burgess and his liberal mouthpieces argue, is necessary to maintain our humanity, both individually and communally; revolutions are built on free will, as Alex points out.

However, free will becomes problematic in other ways when we extend it to the community. Alex's unhindered free will violates what philosopher John Stuart Mill termed the "harm principle," that any action is permissible so long as it does not harm anyone else. Burgess presents unequivocal evidence that Alex's immoral acts do harm others, so the question for A Clockwork Orange is whether it is better to allow harmful free will, or safely curb it. Burgess still maintains we should permit harmful free will, since goodness is authentic only if it is chosen; if goodness is forced, as is done to Alex through Ludovico's Technique, it is inhuman and mechanical.

Burgess also refutes the argument that ethical goodness has any relationship to aesthetic goodness. Alex comments on a newspaper article that proposes moralizing London's youth through the fine arts. Alex has refined taste in classical music, especially when compared to his pop song-loving teenage counterparts, but the gorgeous, sophisticated music only riles him up for violence and sex. When music becomes associated with immorality for Alex through Ludovico's Technique, Burgess demonstrates the utter malleability of aesthetics and ethics.

Burgess complicates matters more by suggesting that Alex's inclination toward evil is somewhat mechanistic as well. While Alex does gain satisfaction from committing violent acts, he does so in as reflexive a manner as he avoids violence after Ludovico's Technique. Burgess subscribes to the Biblical idea that man has Original Sin (see Original Sin over environmental behaviorism, below), and that condition implies a lack of choice. We see the mark of Original Sin everywhere in A Clockwork Orange, notably in the form of the Government - the doctors and other state officials have just as much sadism and evil intentions as Alex's gang of thugs. Nevertheless, a person with Original Sin certainly retains more free will than a subject of Ludovico's Technique, and Burgess also believes in redemption; Alex can choose goodness in Part Three, Chapter 7 on his own, once he has matured beyond the impetuosity of youth.

Original Sin over environmental behaviorism

P.R. Deltoid and the rest of society believe that the environment is somehow responsible for the immorality of London's youth. They believe that with proper parental and academic discipline, not to mention a bulked-up police force, youth will comport itself more appropriately.

This form of deterministic thinking ignores the Christian idea, embraced particularly by Catholicism (Burgess was a lapsed Catholic), that Adam and Eve's fall has blemished man with Original Sin. Just as there exists an impulse to do good, there exists an equally powerful impulse to do bad that cannot be reasoned away; as Alex says, "what I do I do because I like to do." He does not blame his evil-doing on the environment; rather, evil-doing like his has created London's quasi-apocalyptic environment.

At the end of the novel, Alex states his opinion in more overtly religious terms: as long as God keeps spinning the earth around, young men will continue to act immorally. By equating Original Sin with God's control over the earth, Burgess points out that Original Sin implies a certain lack of free will: we do not choose to act immorally, it has chosen us. However, Alex's maturation in Part Three, Chapter 7 provides hope for Christian redemption: over time, we can erase the effects of Original Sin by choosing goodness.

The oppression of Socialism

The government in A Clockwork Orange, or "Government," as it is called, is socialistic in many forms. While Burgess critiques capitalism at times, overall he seems to value the ostensible abundance of free will in an ostensibly free market; conversely, he abhors the lack of freedom in government-controlled societies. The Government owns all property; every able-bodied citizen is forced to work; jails are brutal and expanding; and the Government controls the media.

Burgess focuses most on this last element. Alex mentions "Statefilm," the Government-produced cinema, and briefly describes his disdain for television and its numbing effect on the masses. The Government uses mass media as propaganda and to sedate the populace, and Burgess draws analogies between mass media and Ludovico's Technique. Both exercise a form of mind-control over their helpless victims, either outright (in Alex's case) or subliminally forced (as with the populace) to watch Government-produced films that make them obey the state (again, much more obviously in Alex's case).

The novel ends pessimistically when we learn that F. Alexander and his group has been shut down and that the increasingly totalitarian Government will win re-election. However, Alex's newfound desire to join the middle-class suggests that perhaps his generation will come to understand how oppressive the Government is and overthrow it.

Immaturity of youth culture

Burgess parodies his contemporary British youth culture of the 1950s and 60s through a terrifying projection of them. In lieu of conventional youth slang, the teens have adapted an almost entirely new language with which Alex narrates the novel, nadsat. While influenced by Russian, which complements the socialistic world of A Clockwork Orange (see The oppression of Socialism, above), nadsat is also at times infantile; the words "appy polly loggy" (for "apology"), "eggiweg" (for "egg"), and "moloko" (for "milk") sound like they issued from the mouths of babes.

Burgess's decisions for which words become nadsat words are rarely incidental. These three examples, for instance, pertain directly to youth and free will. Eggs and milk are symbolic of birth and infancy (note, too, that the teenage hoodlums drink milk laced with drugs, and Alex, especially, seems fascinated by breasts). Moreover, Alex never delivers a heartfelt, willful apology throughout the novel; since he never fully chooses his actions, but immaturely and rashly heads into them, he does not have the adult capacity for remorse.

Alex matures in Part Three, Chapter 7, the 21st chapter of the novel and one symbolic of maturity (at the time, the voting age in England was 21, and is considered a rite of passage into adulthood). He also overcomes the Oedipal tensions in the novel: F. Alexander temporarily becomes Alex's father figure, and since Alex raped (and killed) F. Alexander's wife, it is as though he had sex with his own mother. In the 21st chapter, Alex decides he wants to have his own son, a sign that he is through with his Oedipal fascination with violence, breasts, and milk.

Structural symmetry

Burgess was a great lover of classical music and a composer. He sought to integrate more completely musical techniques into literature, and his main contribution to musical literature in A Clockwork Orange, aside from Alex's great love for Beethoven and other composers, is the symmetrical arrangement of chapters. The three parts of the novel each contain seven chapters, and the descending chapters of the third part usually reverse the ascending chapters of the first part. The effect of these reversals is highly musical and discordant, and follows a symphonic rise and fall. For instance, Alex delights in a beautiful opera piece about suicide in the Korova Milkbar in Part One, Chapter 3, while he is so tortured by classical music in Part Three, Chapter 5 that he tries to commit suicide. Burgess uses other musical techniques, such as peppering the novel with verbal leitmotifs (i.e. "'What's it going to be then, eh?'"), to complement his musical, nadsat-based prose. The philosophical point of the symmetry is to underscore the change Ludovico's Technique, comprising the middle Part Two, has wrought in Alex's life. He goes from being the victimizer to victim, willful agent of evil to deterministic subject of good.