A Clockwork Orange, Part I

by Annelise Royles

Let me preface this post with a note about organization: this post will discuss the first seven chapters of A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess split the events in his novel for a reason; I only find it right to honor his work with three separate posts that follow Burgess’ designed breaks in his story.

Written in 1963, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange follows a young violent teen who undergoes forced reform from delinquency. This dystopian classic encompasses all of the beauties of the genre: an intriguing anti-hero, questions regarding human morality, a futuristic vision using language, and symbolism at every turn.    

In connection with my short preface, my edition of A Clockwork Orange includes an introduction written by Burgess in 1986, which is after the novel became famous because of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel. This introduction provides the reader with an interesting look at how Burgess perceived his work; more importantly, it details how others misrepresented it. The introduction is chiefly to explain that the American edition of the novel has been missing a chapter since its publication. With that said, Burgess explains that he wrote twenty-one chapters for a reason: “21 is the symbol of human maturity, or used to be, since at 21 you got the vote and assumed adult responsibility" (x). He adds that every number included in A Clockwork Orange carries symbolic meaning; this follows the trope of the dystopian saturated with symbolism. Additionally, Burgess confirms that coming of age is key to understanding his novel.   

Alex is a famed anti-hero in the literary world, and for good reason. The first part of his narrative quickly dives into the violent crimes he commits with his “droogs,” or friends. He takes his reader through the events of an average night, which consists of ingesting a drug called milk-plus and brutal beatings of academic types. After he physically abuses a few more people he encounters, Alex and his droogs go to a cottage that belongs to an author and his wife. This scene becomes curious when Alex reads the title of the book: A Clockwork Orange (25). Alex then quotes the text, which makes the scene even more meta; Burgess clearly views authors as constantly in danger for their writing. Additionally, he inserts thematic elements that anchor the meaning of Alex’s narrative: “‘...The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my swordpen--’” (25). Here, Burgess writes an appeal for the goodness that although may not thrive, lives within every human being. This sentiment even includes those such as Alex, who allow their violent impulses control everything they do; little does Alex realize in this first section, however, that this youthful rebellion against law and order transforms him into a clockwork orange, or mechanical man. Alex bases his actions on what society rejects, which is where his pleasure stems. His rebellion is the primary pleasure enforcer, and the joy of inciting violence is a secondary source of pleasure.

Readers often forget that A Clockwork Orange is a coming of age story where the nature of a young protagonist’s rebellion is in part determined by the society around him. This is not to say that Alex’s actions can single-handedly be blamed upon society, because they clearly cannot, as he enjoys inflicting pain upon others; rather, I believe that Alex’s character needs to be put in perspective. He is a character who readers often view as a singular entity with with excessively dark thoughts, and it is a disservice to reduce him and his surroundings. Getting back to the narrative, after reading this excerpt, Alex rips this book apart and kills both the author and his wife. So at this point I am definitely beating a dead horse, but THE SYMBOLISM HERE. Burgess’ own character destroys the work within he exists; Alex takes on the role of the anti-hero very literally.    

The novel’s first-person perspective clearly distinguishes itself from that of 1984, which I incorporated in dystopian tropes. Alex controls his narrative, as shown through lines such as “...and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with” (4); his personality shines through his telling of his story, as the reader quickly learns of Alex’s need for absolute control. When Alex has a dream after his eventful night, he beats his droogs to tell them that they should not his authority over them. Moreover, all of the scenes Alex includes are there for a reason, which again connects to the idea that every detail in dystopian novels contain greater meaning.

Alex’s control connects to the narrative’s liberal inclusion of slang called Nadsat. He uses his own words with which he is comfortable when talking about himself. In his introduction, Burgess describes Nasdsat as “a Russified version of English” that “was meant to muffle the raw response we expect from pornography” (xiv). Further, Nadsat “turns the book into a linguistic adventure” (xiv). Burgess almost creates a madlib novel that exposes the reader’s preconceptions and assumptions about certain scenarios. This fictitious slang is also where Alex pledges his allegiance to the reader, as he speaks Nadsat with people he roughly considers his equals. Alex creates this us versus them dynamic with her interactions with those he deems lesser than him. For example, when he approaches the man walking out of the library within the first few pages of the novel, he speaks to the man with no slang at all: “‘I see you have books under your arm, brother. It is indeed a rare pleasure these days to come across somebody that still reads, brother’” (8). Alex’s treatment of the reader is key when considering his youth; he, just like other teenage characters such as Holden Caulfield, may not be the most reliable narrators, but he is extremely candid with his readers. Alex demonstrates the teen angst that defines his character when pondering the good versus bad binary. He explains, “...brothers, this biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into what is the cause of goodness, so why of the other shop?...the not-self cannot have the bad, meaning they of the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self” (44-5).

Of course, this text deserves more than just the loose ends I listed above, but there is one question which I think the first part of the novel (let alone the entire piece itself) asks given Alex’s regular life and arrest: What is and what forms the self?    

— Annelise Royles is an English major at Kenyon College. She edits for Persimmons Literary Magazine, which was founded and still operates on Kenyon’s campus. A few of her favorite books include A Clockwork OrangePassing, and Middlemarch.