A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess


The gifted author, Anthony Burgess (1917—1993), is best known for the one book he regretted writing. Published in 1962, A Clockwork Orange might soon have been forgotten had it not been made into a celebrated and notorious Stanley Kubrick movie. As a consequence of the film’s success, Burgess’s novel transformed into a kind of Frankenstein monster insofar as its creator was concerned.

Within a futuristic setting, the plot concerns fifteen-year-old Alex who spends his free time assaulting, robbing, raping and generally terrorizing any vulnerable citizens that he and his three “droogs” happen to encounter. A killing occurs in the course of such activities, and Alex is charged with murder. But he contrives to shorten his fourteen year prison sentence by volunteering for a new treatment purported to render violent criminals harmless. The subject of this Ludovico’s Technique is conditioned—via special drugs combined with viewings of gruesomely violent film footage—to experience agonizing sickness as soon as he feels any impulse to do harm. In the case of Alex, the treatment is judged a success, and his prison sentence is commuted. But his reemergence into free society is dampened by his depressed condition, which intensifies as he begins to reap what he had sown during “those carefree days” of his criminal life.

The novel’s theme—which is, believe it or not, a religious theme—is stated by the Prison Chaplain: “Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?”

Alex, the narrator, tells us early on what he has chosen: ‘But what I do I do because I like to do.’

The book has an interesting history. There were two editions: the original British version and an American one. The American edition, which was the version that Kubrick used for his movie, omitted a final chapter that depicted Alex moving in the direction of moral reform. At first glance the British version, which was the one that Burgess preferred, seems more attractive and less cynical than its American counterpart. But there are a number of problems with the optimistic or redemptive ending. In that version, Alex observes that his past behavior was a kind of mechanistic outcome of his youth; that his brutality toward others was something that he could not help or stop—as if raping and killing were as natural to adolescence as the growth of pubic hair. Plus, doesn’t this undermine the novel’s thematic affirmation of free will? Finally, if the author insisted that Alex change for the better, the process required something more dramatic than mere boredom with his thuggish life or a run of the mill realization that he should finally grow up!

Notwithstanding these and other objections, I like A Clockwork Orange. It is a book that I have read many times over the years, and I continue to find it fascinating, brilliant and even funny—darkly so, of course.