‘A Clockwork Orange’, Anthony Burgess’ 1962 dystopian novel, is set in a future of youth violence and a repressive totalitarian government. In a society where brutality seems to be the societal norm, we follow Alex, a fifteen year old boy, in his peak of inhumane and immoral tendencies. Burgess traces the rise and fall of the young criminal, throughout his darkest offences, oppression and ill treatment, as well as his loss and rediscovery of the self.
Whilst we see events unfold through the eyes of Alex, I cannot help but feel as though I, as an audience member, take the role of the older generation in society, viewing an extremely heightened and intensified teenage stereotype, or at least a realistic portrayal of teenagers, through the viewpoint of an older generation- nadsat (the teenage slang), the obsession with violence and sex and the subversion of the law all conjoin to form the basis of such teenage stereotypes. However, the older generations of the novel seemingly overlook Alex’s high level of intellect, interest in classical music and leadership qualities, much like the ignorance younger generations experience today in the 21st Century. Even still, Burgess most heavily associates Alex’s infatuation with classical music with extreme and brutal acts of violence, taking away all traces of innocence from personal interests. Despite Alex’s intellect, in association with other characters, Burgess forces Alex to maintain the stereotype in his violent actions and unintellectual responses, as a substitute for rational thought. Alex, therefore, fulfils deep-seated societal expectations of the aggressive, threatening teenage stereotype. How can we expect the youth of any generation to act accordingly when negative stereotypes are thrust upon them? Burgess perhaps demonstrates the stubborn nature of the youth, in turn, by allowing them to play the role society expects of them.
On the other hand, Burgess still highlights the importance of free will and autonomy, despite its brutal consequences, for “goodness is something to be chosen. A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man”. Alex is ultimately an anti-hero, who we pity for losing his freedom, despite the negative assertion of his autonomy. Alex is essentially punished for choosing the negative path in life, as the minister indicates in ‘The Prologue to A Clockwork Orange: A Play with Music’ (a stage adaptation for Burgess 1986 musical):
Minister: “I’ll choose for you. That’s my privilege.”
Alex: “I’ll choose for myself. That’s mine.”
Minister: “you’ll choose wrong.”
However, in choosing to do wrong, facing punishment and becoming a mere automaton, we as an audience pity Alex’s loss of choice altogether, greater than his autonomous choice of immorality. This, in turn, is reiterated through each of the three sections’ beginning line “What’s it going to be then,eh?”, echoing Alex’s fundamental entitlement to choice. Would you rather live in an immortal, yet autonomous society, or a moral, yet subservient society? Despite the continuous juxtaposition of good vs evil, freedom vs oppression, adolescence vs adulthood and so on, the theme of duality highlights the importance of the paired concepts, for without one the other becomes meaningless. Similarly, as Burgess seemingly calls into question the free will defence, he criticises forced goodness, for goodness without choice is meaningless; likewise, good without bad cannot be good at all, for a point of comparison is needed, in order to distinguish behavioural ‘correctness’ and morality.
Furthermore, in studying A Level Philosophy and Ethics, the novel becomes especially interesting because of the heavy religious undertones exemplified throughout. Burgess perhaps presents a dystopian response to the problem of evil and suffering, as an argument against the existence of God. The argument goes as follows:
- God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent.
- If God is not able to prevent evil and suffering, he is not omnipotent.
- If God is not willing to prevent evil and suffering, he is not omnibenevolent.
- Evil and suffering exist, therefore God must not exist.
This earliest form of the argument derived from the Greek Philosopher Epicurus, who put forth his Epicurean Paradox (as mentioned above). However, in response to such an argument arose the Free Will Defence; in order for free will to be genuine, God cannot restrict our choice or intervene, for that would be in violation of the free will he has granted us. Personally, I found that this philosophy resonates greatly in Burgess novel, especially through the suggestion that “A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man”, which indeed without free will, we would be robots, a man might even be referred to as ‘A Clockwork Orange’- ultimately natural in matter, but artificial in mind.
Not only did my A Level studies highly inform my reading of the novel, but A Level Ethics in particular drew my focus towards ethical approaches, within the dystopian society of ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The government’s sacrifice of individuals (subjecting them to the torture, in order to erase desire for violence) for the stability of the whole is a prominent theme. The Minister of Interior clearly embodies and displays Utilitarian ideals; “the greatest good for the greatest number”. However, a weakness of such ethical ideals is the isolation of the minority- the youth of the novel become no more than outcasts and common criminals, in the eyes of the older generation. In turn, isolation is a common feeling evoked from myself, as a reader. Resulting from the nadsat slang, I felt a great sense of disconnection from the protagonist, almost as though I was an intruding stranger, peering through the window to Alex’s life, in order to watch the events of inside unfold. However, this separation may actually mirror the emotional barriers erected by Burgess, for the protection of Alex, our “Humble Narrator”. Within a distrustful society and with paranoia on the rise, the citizens have no choice but to retreat into themselves, for the safety of not only their being, but their sanity. Burgess’ exterior portrayal of Alex as a violent, immoral criminal then juxtaposes his subtle, interior vulnerability, thus enabling the maintenance of a masculine persona, expected within a hostile, untrustworthy society.
Overall, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is a certain must-read. Not only did the novel ignite my own passion for philosophical and ethical approaches, but it questioned and challenged my stance on morality. Finally, I’d like to address the issue of the final chapter. In purchasing the controversial restored addition, I was able to read the twenty first chapter, which has in fact been removed from modern additions. Personally, I am thankful for the choice (pun intended) to the read the final chapter, for it allowed me to find solace and peace of mind. Whilst I selfishly prefer the ending of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ with the original final chapter, for it appeals to my sense of morality, justice and learning curves, I feel a greater appreciation for the novel ending on the twentieth, or penultimate chapter instead. As a fan of ending lines and a person of bad habit, I like to read the final line of a novel before I even begin (I know, spoilers may ensue, but I can’t help myself!). Therefore, ending the novel on chapter six of part three, rather than chapter seven, evokes a greater sense of satisfaction, as a result of the more ominous and ambiguous tone. Let me know what you think: would you prefer ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to end on chapter twenty or twenty one?