Monday, August 15, 2011

A Clockwork Orange - Review

I've been wanting to read this novel for quite awhile. But at the same time, I was hesitant - unsure I would like it, or appreciate it. I wrote about some of those hesitations and about my thoughts on the author's introduction to the novel here.

Now that the bar is over and I have considerably more brain power and my attention span has returned, I dove in ready for whatever Mr. Burgess had in store for me. Boy was I surprised - this novel wasn't as difficult, uncomfortable or unlikable as I thought. I really liked it.

A Clockwork Orange

By: Anthony Burgess

W.W. Norton & Co. 1987

The Language:

The language and vocabulary of this novel were challenging at first, but it was a very interesting aspect of the novel. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of the language, and to learn the vocabulary, but I eventually learned that rot means mouth and tolchock means a punch. I still am honestly unsure of what the word "horrorshow" means - but I do know it's an adjective that denotes something happy or good or cool or hip or fun or something similar.

Teenagers always have their own language - using and creating new words - but this was crazy. The trick to reading it is to just accept it and let it slide on by. Because I was so confused by the language the first few pages, I considered giving up the book. But after a few pages I began to understand words from context, and after a couple of chapters, the language was no longer a barrier.

In fact, the language really is a character all itself - a character I grew to appreciate, if not love. A quote from William Burroughs on the back of the book sums up the language element nicely: "I do not know of any other writer who has done as much with language as Mr. Burgess has done here - the fact that this is also a very funny book may pass unnoticed."

The Story

The story is simple: young, sociopathic hooligan eventually gets careless; goes to jail; government creates controversial "cure" for criminal and violent behavior; hooligan becomes the test subject; hooligan is "cured;" anti-government group uses "cured" hooligan as a poster boy for their cause; hooligan's "cure" is undone by the government because of all the bad publicity.

It's a simple story, but the characters and philosophical questions are complex. These are teenagers committing these horrible crimes. Alex is 15(!) and he's committing random and senseless thefts, assaults, rapes, and eventually murder. These are sociopaths - no human emotions or empathy - just the desire for entertainment at the expense of others with no regret. It's horrible. Somehow, though, the language used makes the fully described crimes seem dulled and at least less horrible.

The Philosophical Question

The controversial "cure" mentioned above is essentially behavior modification. The doctors give the subject a shot that will make him physically ill. They then sit the subject in front of a movie screen, prop his eyes open and make it impossible for him to move while they show him hours upon hours of violent films. Over a two week period, the subject learns to associate violence and criminal behavior with feelings of physical illness, and eventually without the medication, he feels sick whenever he considers violent behavior.

It seems like a great idea, if you are looking for a less criminal society. It saves space in jail and cuts down on the costs of rehabilitation. Also, it makes for a more thoughtful and considerate, law-abiding society.

The argument against it, of course is that now the subject has lost his freedom of choice. His motivations do not change - only his behavior does. He doesn't choose non-violent behavior, he basically has no choice. He isn't automatically good - he just appears to be. So it's a debate about what's more important: "Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness?" (p. 95 of my edition, a question by the prison chaplain.)

The "cure" doesn't make Alex a better person - he still wants to do bad things to people. He doesn't want to get a job and become a productive member of society. He is still horribly mean to his parents who have always been his doormats. He hasn't grown or become more understanding of his parents or of others. He is still wholly self-centered. He only refrains from violence and thieving because it makes him physically ill. It's almost like the "cure" made him more self-centered. "Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to [act in a way contrary to his inclinations]." It's an interesting debate, but also, the author is obviously in favor of choice.

The Extra Chapter / Conclusion

This is a novel of change and evolution. It's only fitting that my feelings about the novel changed so drastically from start to finish. After reading the first couple of pages, I expected the book to be a chore and the character of Alex to be unlikeable. However, in the end I really enjoyed the philosophical questions and the evolution of Alex - even though his evolution wasn't really internal.

Also, it is impossible to talk about this novel without discussing its conclusion, so sorry for any spoilers (but not that sorry since this book was first copyrighted in 1962 - you've had plenty of time to read it). In my previous post about this novel (find it here) I wrote about how the author was so upset that the final chapter was left out of the original publications in the U.S. I can understand him being upset because he wrote it the way he did for a reason. But also, I can understand now why the U.S. publishers (and Kubric in his film) ignored the last chapter.

I found the last chapter to be disconnected and incongruous with the rest of the novel. It doesn't make sense. Why would a sociopath like Alex, suddenly cured of the "cure" suddenly just grow out of his violent tendencies? Does the author mean to tell me that all the raping, pillaging, destruction, and violence was just boys being boys? That's what it seems like - he just went through a violent phase, and now that he's an adult and he's been to jail for a couple of years, he's over that part of his life. It's almost insulting to my intelligence. Or maybe I'm just cynical. I know the author's point is that anyone can redeem his character, but I haven't seen any evidence of redemption in Alex. He still only wants things for himself - he wants a wife because he wants companionship. He is bored with his friends so he wants new ones. It's not a change in his way of functioning - it's only a change in what he wants.

Since reading the novel, I reread the introduction. In it, Burgess recalls his American publisher telling him the last chapter was a sellout. And I can see the publisher's point - it doesn't seem to match and it seems like it was put there to make the book more appealing. And, to give Burgess all the credit he deserves, he admits that his "aesthetic judgment may have been faulty. Writers are rarely their own best critics."

In the end, 21st chapter or not, the lesson to be learned from A Clockwork Orange is best stated in the words of the author: "It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be totally evil. The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate."


  1. I always took "horrorshow" to be their way of saying "cool" or "awesome."

    Tangentially related (I love this song):

    I don't know if the intro to your edition is the one in mine, but Burgess said the slang was based on Russian. Also, did he explain what a "clockwork orange" is?

    I think Kubrick was right to ignore the last chapter, too. I didn't buy it either.

  2. Yeah, the intro said the language was based on Russian and it contained an explanation of clockwork orange and how he meant it to be a sort of metaphor for the mechanistic application of an idea to a living, breathing, growing person. It was all much more meaningful after reading the novel than beforehand.