I’ll be the first to admit that A Clockwork Orange is a strange book. The first time I came across this title was when I watched Stanley Kubrick’s film adaption when I was in high school. Then I clearly remember my literature teacher at the time mentioning this book by Anthony Burgess. I’ve read this book now three times and upon completion I am always able to walk away with something new. A new concept or idea that I was not able to develop before. This book is right around 50 years old and is filled with satire and symbolism. A Clockwork Orange was published in 1962 by Burgess during the height of the Cold War. The book was then adapted into a movie in 1971 featuring Malcolm McDowell as the main character, Alex.
The book takes place in the future and is told through the perspective of 15 year old Alex. The first thing the reader will notice is the strange language the characters speak. This language, Nadsat, is something original developed by Burgess and is a mix between Russian, English, American Slang, and rhymes and slant rhymes. The story opens with Alex and his droogs (gang) compromised of three individuals, Dim, Pete, and Georgie drinking at the local bar. When they leave a strange string of events begin to happen that will make the reader despise these characters. Alex leads his gang to commit a series of heinous and violent attacks toward unsuspecting citizens. There is no motive or reason behind the attacks, the gang just does it for fun. After robbing a large house, Alex is knocked out by one of his friends and is left for the police. Alex is then sentenced to 14 years in a state penitentiary. To avoid serving the whole sentence Alex agrees to take part in Ludovico’s Technique. This program is based on psychologist B.F. Skinner’s experiment in the mid twentieth century. The idea of the experiment is to condition human behavior by handing out rewards for good behavior and serving a punishment for bad behavior. For two weeks Alex is injected with a drug that makes him sick to his stomach. After the injection, Alex is forced to watch scenes of violent acts with Beethoven playing in the background. Alex’s mind is making a connection between his sickness and violent acts. Because he gets sick when he sees these heinous acts Alex develops an aversion to both Beethoven and acts of violence. When Alex’s free will is stripped of him as a result of this experiment he is released from prison. Turned away by his friends and family and forced to live on the streets with the very people that Alex harassed, reformed Alex must find a way to survive.
This book is very different from young adult literature. Burgess writes in a very confusing dialect that speaks to the government and society’s ideals. He incorporates satire in the meanings of the words he develops on a level not found in young adult literature. This book is also filled with symbolism. The book is contains three parts that detail Alex’s coming of age and make up a 21 chapter book. The number 21 is interesting because in industrial societies such as America, Great Britain and Russia citizens are considered a mature adult at 21. Burgess states that “duality is the ulitmate reality” in this novel. The novel focuses on youth vs. maturity, good vs. evil, commitment vs. neutrality to name a few. This novel is exposes human free will as an inherent attribute that makes us human and separates us from lower animals or machines. Alex chose wickedness in this novel; the author intended him to be evil. Later in the novel after Alex undergoes the behavioral experiment, he is forced to be a hero which he is not cut out to be. Alex is robbed of his free will by the state.
So why did I read this book? I read this for the same reason I read The Picture of Dorian Gray. Growing up Batman was my literary hero and I spenthours reading about him and when I was little I even dressed up like him for Halloween. I was astounded by Christopher Nolan’s take on the film franchise that seemed to ground Batman in reality and make the audience members believe that these characters can exist in a real world setting. When The Dark Knight was in post production there was a 2007 MTV interview released with Heath Ledger before he passed away. The interviewer asked Heath how he researched his role for the Joker and if Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the 1989 film version of Batman was a blueprint. Heath then went on to explain that his Joker was very different and anarchy motivated his character. Heath explained that his Joker was the one that should of been in the comics all along. Heath used Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious as an influence on the character. He also drew upon Alex from The Clockwork Orange to influence his take on the character to make him darker and more sinister. Heath went on to win a posthumous Oscar Award for his performance in The Dark Knight. Although The Dark Knight had some serious themes and jumped around in plot, it was still a PG13 movie and appealed to both adults and young adults alike. Heath’s Joker was based on a character from classic literature and was brought to life on the silver screen to appeal to a multitude of audience members. It was this notion that attracted me to read A Clockwork Orange.
To read the MTV interview with Heath Ledger on his role as the Joker click here.
Here is a 1973 controversial interview with a young Malcolm McDowell on his role of Alex in A Clockwork Orange by clicking here. Here is another interview with McDowell in 2008, click here to view it.
You can learn more about author Anthony Burgess by clicking here.