Burgess’s novel, A Clockwork Orange, met with little success when published in 1962 and was mostly forgotten until Kubrick’s film adaptation brought it to international prominence almost ten years later. The film raised criticisms for its frank portrayals of ultra-violence, including sexual violence. Even more interestingly, it also raised really complex emotional and intellectual responses to its representations of free will and its curtailing, which is a central question to utopian studies.
Kubrick’s film version of A Clockwork Orange is strangely beautiful. The violence is clearly portrayed, but it’s also stylized in a way that makes it manageable. The film quite deliberately leaves us uncomfortable and uneasy and unsettled partly because of the details, but also because it so clearly captures the central problem Burgess lays out in his novel, does the State have the right to punish its criminals by removing their free will?
What’s the right balance between security and freedom? Under what circumstances is it acceptable for the State to curtail individual freedoms? A Clockwork Orange delves deeply into this problem, which is something Burgess has written about extensively.
The Title of Burgess’s Novel
Burgess tells us there were lots of reasons for choosing this memorable title,
I had always loved the Cockney phrase ‘queer as a clockwork orange’, that being the queerest thing imaginable, and I had saved up the expression for years, hoping some day to use it as a title. When I began to write the book, I saw that this title would be appropriate for a story about the application of Pavlovian, or mechanical, laws to an organism which, like a fruit, was capable of color and sweetness. But I had also served in Malaya, where the word for a human being is orang.
The Question of Responsibility
So, is that why the reception of A Clockwork Orange varied so dramatically from one decade to the next? Burgess asked himself that question too, and here’s his answer,
People preferred the film because they are scared, rightly, of language. I get that. The language of A Clockwork Orange is scary. My students always tell me they hate reading dialect because it’s so slow because they aren’t always sure they completely understand what the character is saying. Read it aloud, I advise them, and you’ll be able to hear it and feel how it’s being said.
But that doesn’t work for A Clockwork Orange since Alex narrates the entire novel in an invented language that combines English, cockney, and Russian roots in a certain youthful exuberance that’s deeply disconcerting. Strangely, the novel isn’t really a slow read, despite the fact that so much of the vocabulary is unfamiliar. But it does leave readers unsettled, a feeling some of us may enjoy, but that’s also a bit scary.
Learn more about utopian and dystopian literature.
Language for Communication
So, on a basic level, readers might be scared of Burgess’s very particular use of language in this novel. He’s saying what Orwell is saying in Nineteen Eighty-Four, at its very best, language is inherently inadequate in representing human experience. At its worst, language can be manipulated so deeply that it doesn’t only misrepresent human experience, it can actually reshape not only experience but even memory.
In some ways, words are all we have to communicate with each other across space and time, across history. Which means they are bound up in enormous potential, positive and negative.
And it’s true, as Burgess says, that the film provides a visual tapestry that offsets the language, even though Kubrick keeps a lot of Burgess’s own words in voice-overs. In some ways, Kubrick’s visuals and Burgess’s invented language both act as counterbalances to the ultra-violence so necessary to set up the scope of the State’s intervention into Alex’s behavior.
The Ethical Conundrum
If Alex was just a troublemaker, a nice kid with problems, the State’s use of behavioral conditioning would seem way overblown—taking away agency from someone who could be redeemed. But Alex isn’t just violent. He’s ultra-violent, which means the State’s actions can be justified in this case, unless those actions are simply, regardless of the criminal in question, unjustifiable.
If you end the novel at the end of Chapter 20, you have a deconditioned criminal returned to society, complete with his free will. There’s a very easy way to read this as terrifying.
Learn more about Yevgeny Zamyatin and dystopian uniformity.
The Final Chapter
But Burgess wrote one more chapter. It’s a complicated final chapter that recasts the entire novel by showing a new Alex, a deprogrammed Alex who has reached maturity, who has outgrown his childish obsession with ultra-violence and has decided—of his own free will—to eschew criminal behavior. So does that mean Burgess believed in transformation? In redemption? Yes, he did. And he believed that the key to transformation was free will.
People use free will, Burgess tells us,
to choose between good and evil. If he can only perform good, or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange—meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with color and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or—since this is increasingly replacing both—the Almighty State.
And it’s only when Alex gets his free will back—and yes, the community gets the threat of Alex back—that the community stops being a totalitarian dystopia.
Common Questions about Free Will and the State
The phrase ‘a Clockwork Orange’ is meant to imply strangeness or oddness as in the Cockney phrase ‘queer as a clockwork orange’, as also to echo the Malay word orang meaning human.
Burgess’s very particular use of language in A Clockwork Orange implies that, at its very best, language is inherently inadequate in representing human experience.
Chapter 21 of A Clockwork Orange recasts the entire novel by showing a deprogrammed Alex who has reached maturity, who has outgrown his childish obsession with ultra-violence and has decided—of his own free will—to eschew criminal behavior.