Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange

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Anthony Burgess’ novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’ wrestles with the question of what makes us human. More precisely, it asks whether free will is an essential human quality. Burgess poses this question through the vessel of Alex, an extremely violent juvenile who is ultimately deprived of the choice to exercise his violent instincts by a new treatment which associates violence with a negative physical reaction.

Burgess presents Alex as some form of anti-hero, furthering the trend explored during the 1950s through characters like James Dean’s Jim Stark in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955), creating a character who is both abhorrent in his behaviour but also distinctly endearing through his sheer intelligence and sophistication, with Alex adoring the dramatic Ninth Symphony of ‘Lovely Ludwig Van’. As a result, the reader might find themselves mourning Alex’s eventual inability to commit acts of violence just as much as Alex himself, despite the removal of a source of terror from the streets.

In so doing, Burgess tacitly brings his reader to the conclusion that it is better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed on him because, as is stated by a dissenting character, ‘a man who cannot choose ceases to be a man’. However, upon further reflection, I am not convinced that this is a wholly agreeable conclusion.

Some like to label ‘A Clockwork Orange’ a dystopia but, if it is indeed a dystopia, it must surely fall into the category, also inhabited by Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, of a dystopia seemingly lacking in dystopic features. After all, there is no totalitarian regime, the government is democratically elected and its aim is to reduce crime, which it successfully does. Sure, the government’s methods to reduce crime might not be the most scrupulous, forcibly changing behaviour and enlisting Alex’s old ‘drooges’ to the police, but if the result is fewer muggings, rapes and murders then perhaps it is a price worth paying.

To an extent, then, this novel deals with the age-old question of libertarian values versus security, arguably making Burgess’ story rather prescient given our society’s current fight with COVID-19. At the moment, the vast majority are seemingly willing to sacrifice their right to go outside and live completely freely as they wish to safeguard well-being and combat coronavirus. Burgess, however, perhaps suggests that this is not a price worth paying.

Arguably, Burgess’ end goes some way to discrediting the idea that we have to have a choice to maintain our humanity in the first place. Following being cured of his cure, Alex gradually loses his desire to be violent, even contemplating settling down and living a normal life. However, he realises how his child ‘would do all the vesches I had done, yes perhaps even killing some poor starry forella surrounded with mewing kots and koshkas, and I would not  be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers. And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round’. This rather nihilistic statement might be questioning the ability of a human to make an independent choice in the first place. If this is true and a human can indeed not make an informed and autonomous choice, then what effect does someone else forcibly making our choices for us have on our humanity? Absolutely none.

Yet whilst I might not simply agree with Burgess’ conclusions, there is little denying that he writes a thought-provoking novel which raises poignant questions. When it is further considered that Burgess provides the reader with a complicated, multi-faceted but hugely intriguing narrator telling a frenetic story in a semi-invented language, it becomes difficult to overly critique this novel.

Rating: 4/5