A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Edited by: Alan Liang
The cover of A Clockwork Orange
The cover of A Clockwork Orange

"'As queer as a clockwork orange' - phrase from East London indicating something bizarre internally, but appearing natural, human, and normal on the surface" (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/queer_as_a_clockwork_orange).

Clockwork Orange - clockwork meaning mechanically responsive, orang meaning human in Malay (the language).

Author Background

Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess was born on 25 Feb 1917 in Harpurhey, Manchester. Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in 1962, this being his 8th novel (Josselson).
A Clockwork Orange is based on several events that occurred in Burgess' own life:
Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess

  • Burgess became interested in music after listening to Claude Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. He originally wanted to pursue a career in music, but he was held back because he did not pass a required physics class. Because of this setback and also because he was told that he had a brain tumor and only had one more year to live in 1960, Burgess decided to best use his time by becoming a writer. However, after his death sentence passed, Burgess made several musical compositions while continuing his writing career. His passion for Debussy inspired the main character of A Clockwork Orange, Alex, to also love classical music (Carruthers, Susan).
  • Other children would attack Burgess when he was young because he was well-dressed. This gang like behavior is represented in several scenes in the novel, two examples being when Alex and his droogs attack a drunk, an elderly but avid reader, and an aspiring writer called F. Alexander (Carruthers, Susan).
  • Burgess was raised as a Catholic and he held onto its doctrines more so than the other religions that influenced his life. Catholic influence can be seen in the novel when Chaplain Charlie tries to convert Alex into a good boy or through the novels major theme of free will and moral choice, a strong identifying characteristic in Catholicism.
  • In a blackout during WWII, Burgess' pregnant wife was beaten and raped. As a result, she lost her child and attempted suicide. In the novel, F. Alexander's house is broken into and his wife is brutally beaten and raped. Later, Alex learns that the wife died from that event (Carruthers, Susan).

Burgess responded in an interview that he was displeased because he will be remembered for A Clockwork Orange while he believed that his other books were more compelling and better written. Burgess died on November 22, 1993.

When Writing A Clockwork Orange
Burgess was inspired to write A Clockwork Orange after visiting Leningrad, Russia in 1961. In 1961, Russia led the world in space technology, being the first ones to send a satellite into outer space (the Sputnik). Furthermore, Russia's form of government, communism, was rapidly catching on in several areas throughout the world. Burgess didn't agree with the idea of communism which went against his Catholic morals, mainly the idea that people deserve free choice and that they should not give up their liberties to give the government more power even if it is for the betterment of the nation. These influences layed the foundation for A Clockwork Orange.

Plot Summary

The story is centered around Alex - a mischievous 15 year old boy who spends his free time making criminal acts in a futuristic England. Alex goes around with his gang and beats up and rapes people for seemingly no reason but to have fun; he doesn't need the money or attention because his family is well-off and provides him with food, shelter, and love (Anthony Burgess, 43). Alex's psychiatrist, P.R. Deltoid, tries to deter him from his criminal track, but ultimately Alex refuses to give up his risky lifestyle and ends up getting caught by the police after accidentally killing a woman and being betrayed by his gang.

Alex has his eyes pried open to receive his "treatment" in Stanley Kubrick's film adaption
Alex has his eyes pried open to receive his "treatment" in Stanley Kubrick's film adaption

Alex goes to prison where he lives peacefully for a while until a new cellmate appears who drives Alex over the edge. When no one does anything to prevent the new cellmate from molesting Alex, he takes matters into his own hands and violently attacks the man. The next morning they find that the man is dead. Prison officials decide that Alex must undergo the Ludovico Technique to correct his terrible behavior.

Alex is at first pleased with this situation because the corrective treatment is supposed to take less than a fortnight (14 days). He receives good food, shelter, and clothing but he soon finds that the treatment is unbearable - he is forced to watch acts of "ultra-violence" (rape and other criminal acts) while being drugged up with a chemical that makes him feel sick when watching these things. After the doctors finish with Alex's treatment, he is unable to make moral choices, and when he leaves prison, he cannot retaliate when he is wronged.

The remainder of the novel deals with Alex meeting up with characters that he had previously mistreated. This time, however, Alex is on the other side of the stick. Disheartened, Alex eventually tries to commit suicide. He wakes up in a hospital to find that he is still alive and that the Ludovico treatment was reversed and that he can once again funciton as a criminal.

In the 21st chapter, Alex decides that forming a family is more interesting than committing crimes. He suggests that he will give up his ways and become a respectable citizen.

Stanley Kubrick's Film

external image clockwork_orangeRating: R
Stanley Kubrick does a very nice job with his film adaption of A Clockwork Orange which was produced in 1971. Malcolm McDowell plays as Alex and follows the events of the novel faithfully with some minor changes to help the movie flow more easily. The film is incredibly sexual by today's standards with several nude and rape scenes. However, the "ultra-violence" depicted is not at all gruesome to today's desensitized audience. Still, the fight scenes are effective and accurate representations of what is described in the novel.

In Kubrick's film, the audience is almost forced to sympathize with Alex more so than the book. In Jackson Burgess' Film Quarterly review, Jackson explains that only Alex has any real character and everyone else in the film play minor roles and have little to no character development. Even though Alex is technically a bad person, at least he loves being bad.

Jackson doesn't believe that being treated with the Ludovico treatment is worse than letting Alex reign free and being evil. Though Alex cannot defend himself, it was still terrible for Alex to beat on other people before. In the end, Jackson claims that "what it really boils down to is forty minutes of seeing Alex torture people, and then forty minutes of seeing Alex tortured. He wins because he brings to his torturing more style than his tormentors..." (Jackson Burgess). Really, the movie is about fear. Kubrick shows that fear will stop unruliness.

Kubrick did not include the 21st chapter of the book in his film, namely because he was an American and wrote his script based on the American version. Burgess did write an alternative script, but Kubrick decided to stay with his own. Reception of his film in America was bad. Critics were disgusted by the extremely sexual artistic display and disliked it's desensitized violence. British critics, on the other hand, enjoyed the piece. They thought that the violence depicted in the movie would not encourage violence but act like the Ludovico technique to deter viewers from such terrible acts (Carruthers).

Kubrick's Clockwork Orange movie was banned in England in 1973 until Kubrick's death in 1999 (see Debates & Critical Response section).

Themes, Symbolism

Free Will
A Clockwork Orange is a dystopia that asks whether being evil while having a choice is better or worse than being good without having free will. A priest that Alex meets in prison is the first one to question the morality of the Ludovico technique. If someone is forced to do good, then he cannot be good. The scientists behind the Ludovico technique counter this argument by saying that stopping crime is more important than the morality of the situation. Free will is also a theme important to means of social control mentioned below.

Social Control: Libertarian vs Authoritarian
The novel deals with the question of social control. Libertarianism is the belief in the idea that human perfection can be achieved by itself while authoritarianism is the belief that humans are inherently evil. At first, A Clockwork Orange faces libertarian rule where there is social chaos, but at least there is free will. Later the Ludovico treatment is used in view of the authoritarian side, where Alex is stripped of free choice but there is relative peacefulness. Eventually authoritarian rule goes back to libertarian rule because people see more and more that perhaps people can be perfect within themselves without the need of strict laws; this process can be seen in chapter 20. Things become chaotic again and this process of change into opposite ruling types repeats itself indefinitely.

This idea of constant change from libertarian to authoritarian can also be seen in some of the characters in the novel. For example, the writer F. Alexander says that he believes in human perfectibility and "'...to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my swordpen - '... (25)" But later in the novel he shows anger towards Alex whom raped his wife. Because there were no "laws and conditions" imposed on Alex, he caused the death and humiliation of F. Alexander's wife. Alexander responds by agreeing to drive Alex to suicide. F. Alexander's behavior shows that his original libertarian view did not work out for him. Another character that shows this flip-flop tendency is P. R. Deltoid who initially tries to help Alex as a psychologist, believing that he can be good, but ultimately finding that Alex is a lost cause. Because of this, P. R. Deltoid realizes that such people cannot be perfected and they must have inherit sin (Robinovitz).

St. Augustine
Alex as a character is much like St. Augustine - a religious man famous for his confessions. Like Augustine, Alex is redeemed after a sinful youth and tells his story to the reader in a confessional tone (Robinovitz).

Alex loves classical music, especially Beethoven. He can easily picture himself beating up or raping people while the tune is playing. In Kubrick's film, there is always some type of music in the background, usually Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Rossini's William Tell Overture. I find Alex's passion for classical music quite odd. Classical music is usually associated with being sophisticated or intelligent. However, in this instance, the music is juxtaposed next to violence. This makes the violence more brutal, as if the violence is a sophisticated, planned act.

At first Alex takes advantage of his parents, making excuses to get out of school. Later, his family effectively disowns him for Joe. Alex feels betrayed and has no where to go. He constantly searches his now desolate town for a home, but not even the house with a welcoming HOME label written on it will take him in (Anthony Burgess, 170). Also, Alex's droogs form a type of family for Alex to lead. At the end of the novel, in the 21st chapter, Alex decides that family is worth more than violence.

Intrusive Narrator
Burgess uses an intrusive narrator for A Clockwork Orange, letting Alex talk to the reader. Alex tends to foreshadow things a lot, saying how he originally thought the Ludovico Technique would be a quick escape from prison, but that he would find out that he was very wrong. At the end of the novel in the 21st chapter, the reader finds that Alex has been telling the story to the reader the whole time. This can be inferred from the other chapters as Alex refers to himself as "your humble narrator."

Debates & Critical Reception

The Novel and Film
Critics met A Clockwork Orange with mixed reviews. Some claimed that it was a brilliant composition while others were disgusted by its violence and pornographic content. British people did not particularly enjoy the book, but it became a cultural phenomenon among American college students at the time (Carruthers). The film faced opposite reactions with Americans detesting the film while British critics prasing it for its aethetic qualities (Literature Criticisms Online).

21st Chapter
A Clockwork Orange did not originally include the 21st chapter when it was published in America. Burgess' American editor believed that the last chapter deviated from the book's point. In the intended last chapter, Alex decides to leave his old habits to find true love after seeing his droog and friend from the past, Peter, in a relationship; suddenly Alex is able to turn his life around and he gives up all of his violent behavior to start his own family. A dark, mischeavous book with seemingly no solution suddenly ends with a happy ending. Burgess agreed to the deletion of the 21st chapter because he was pressed for time and money. However, Burgess later added this chapter in A Clockwork Orange: Resucked which was published in 1986; he believed that it was an essential part of the book which would make it complete. His original intention was to have 21 chapters because 21 is the significant age when people are allowed all the freedoms of an adult (Davis).

In response to the different versions of A Clockwork Orange, critic Michael Gorra aruged that the original British verson was "far darker than the glibly apocalyptic American version (Davis)." A different critic, John J. Stinson, believed that "the truncated ending, which leaves the reader with a stark presentation of unregenerate evil, surely carries more impact (Davis)." Davis defends the 21st chapter explaining that family is a much more important part of the novel than most critics realize. Throughout the book, Alex is constantly searching for a family. His parents are ignorant and cannot serve his intellectual needs and his friends tempt Alex into a life of crime. Alex finds himself in prison where he can only collaborate with other criminals. After Alex is treated by the Ludovico Technique, everyone rejects him and he cannot even find peace at a place called HOME (Anthony Burgess, 170).

Film Banned in England
Kubrick's withdrew his film in England in 1973 because it seemed to promote criminal acts such as violence, theft, and rape. Initially, upon release of the film, Americans gave poor reviews for A Clockwork Orange, but British critics gave a large amount of support for the work. However, once real-life incidents started popping up in Brittain that resembled scenes from the movie, Kubrick decided to prevent his film from being shown in Britain (the film could still be watched everywhere else). Some of these clockwork incidents included a nun getting gang-raped by four teenage boys dressed like droogs from the film in Poughkeepsie, a 17 year old Dutch girl raped by youths singing "Singin' in the Rain", and the murders of several tramps within the country (Carruthers).

Anthony Burgess was outraged because he was given all the credit for making the film and creating some gruesome ideas; while Kubrick received the money for the production, Burgess took the blame and was scolded for the murders and rapes. However, he should not have been too mad because it was mainly Kubrick's film that brought Burgess to fame.

Since then, people have debated whether or not Kubrick's film should ever have been banned. Perhaps it was just an untimely release for the film in England when crime rates were starting to rise. In 1999, after Kubrick's death, the BBFC reviewed Kubrick's works and deemed that A Clockwork Orange could again be shown in Britain, ending the 26 year ban. During the ban, British people still watched the film secretly and children were further drawn towards it because of its illegal and pornographic nature (Carruthers).


Nadsat is the slang that Alex uses around his gang and when he is relaxed. Burgess does not explicitly explain what these words mean, but leaves the reader to understand their definitions through context. Nadsat plays heavily on sound; many of the words mean what they sound like. Here are some common examples of nadsat and their respective definitions:

Bezoomy - mad
Bog - God
Bratchny - bastard
Chelloveck - fellow
Cutter - money
Devotchka - girl
Droog - friend
Glazz - eye
Govoreet - talk/speak
Gulliver - head
Horrorshow - good
Krovvy - blood
Litso - face
Malchick - boy
Malenky - small
Millicent - police
Nadsat - teenage
Nochy - night
Pishcha - food
Platties - clothes
Prestoopnik - criminal
Ptitsa - girl
Razrez - to rip
Rooker - hand
Skolliwoll - school
Skorry - quick
Slooshy - listen
Slovo - word
Smeck - laugh
Soomka - woman
Tolchock - to hit
Veck - guy
Viddy - to see
Yarbles - testicles
Zoobies - teeth
A more complete list can be found here: http://soomka.com/nadsat.html

Nadsat is based heavily on the Slavic language. Two doctors treating Alex with the Ludovico Technique explain that Nadsat is: "Odd bits of old rhyming slang...A bit of gipsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration (Anthony Burgess, 129)." Robert Evans explains in his article Nadsat: The Argot and its Implications in Anthony Burgess that the Slavic language is used as a warning against the Communistic ideas that Russia employs. Burgess claimed that he based nadsat off of the Russian language for purely aesthetic reasons, but Evans' reasoned that if Burgess had just wanted a nice-sounding or hypnotic language, he could have used French or Arabic which would have better suited his English and American audiences. Also, A Clockwork Orange is set in a bleak futuristic England, reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984 that is also set in England (Oceania was once England/Britain) and also anti-communistic in tone.

Original Analysis

Overall, I find Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange does not provide a convincing warning to society. Written at least partially as a response to Soviet Union communism (see Burgess' biography above), the warning that our society might end up like the society in A Clockwork Orange is unconvincing since several of the events of the story are not believable or unlikely to happen. Perhaps it is because I live in America and the book is set in a futuristic, chaotic England; I have never faced these types of social problems so I am not capable of understanding how to deal with them.

First of all, the level of crime in Alex's world is outrageous. Though the people that exist are well-clothed, well-educated, and well-nourished, there is still theft, rape, gang wars, etc. that seem misplaced. The government seems to have no means of control and the police are not good enough to protect ordinary citizens (Alex and his droogs beat up a drunk, a poet, and a writer in the introduction of the novel). And Alex's mentality for crime is sickening. He doesn't need to commit these violent crimes, but he does so because he enjoys it. For ordinary people, they commit acts of violence because they believe that they don't have any better options. The gangs in A Clockwork Orange and people of the city take crime for granted - as if there city could not exist without it; while the gangs roam the city without too much concern about being punished, ordinary citizens never unlock their doors because they know that most visitors are hoodlums. Again, I probably find this situation insane because I have never lived in an unsafe area before. However, even for a bad place, Alex's city seems too bad to be true.

Secondly, I'm not sure how effective the Ludovico Treatment could be. Burgess was intrigued by studies on behaviorism in which animals and humans could be tamed or taught to perform certain activies through a punishment and rewards system. He used this idea to create his Ludovico Technique which involved injecting a patient with a chemical that would make him react strongly to acts of violence and rape (Contemporary Liteature Criticism). Though behaviorism has been proven to work for teaching animals and humans to perform specific tasks, it seems implausible for it to teach someone to completely not do evil as is suggested when Dr. Brodsky, the main doctor behind the Ludovico treatment, claims that Alex will "be your true Christian...ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify, sick to the very heart of thought even of killing a fly (Anthony Burgess 143)." To prevent someone from sinning, this means that we need a complete understanding of what is good or what is evil. Furthermore, seeing gruesome and cruel acts of violence and rape would definitely be sickening at first even without the injected chemicals, but at the same time, excessive amounts of this torture could desensitize its victim to small acts of crime; Alex is exposed to a lot of "ultra-violence" throughout his 14 day treatment, but his body is only conditioned to revolt for extreme cases of violence and rape. When he gets beaten up or sees the really pretty girl as part of his test at the end of the Ludovico treatment, these events are hardly extreme and by this time Alex should be desensitized to such mild problems.

These two problems are essential to the creation of Burgess' dystopia. Neither of these events are currently occurring or are likely to occur in America and Britain. Also, we have since outgrown our fear of communism. A Clockwork Orange is unsuccessful at being a warning to society, but perhaps Burgess had alternative motives for writing this novel. After all, his solution to this chaotic society (revealed in chapter 21) is that hopefully everyone will simply grow out of their criminal stage and begin to form happy, productive families (Anthony Burgess, 210-212). All of this leads me to believe that Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange for completey personal motives having based the story partially on his own life (see biography section) and also asking his favorite question about free will through the use of a cycle of lbertarian and authoritarian governments.

Fun Facts

  • Ludovico technique is named after Ludwig Van Beethoven (Ludovico is Italian for Ludwig)
  • As revenge against Stanley Kubrick, Burgess had in his playwright version of A Clockwork Orange an actor playing "Singin' in the Rain" on a trumpet with a beard like Kubrick's to be kicked off the stage (Carruthers)


Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. New York: Norton, 1986.

Burgess, Jackson. Rev. of A Clockwork Orange, dir. Stanley Kubrick. Film Quarterly 25 (1972): 33-36. JSTOR. 6 Mar. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1211519>.

Carruthers, Susan. "Past Future: The Troubled History of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange." National Forum 81.2: 29. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 20 Mar. 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy2.library.uiuc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=4514171&site=ehost-live>.

"A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess." Contemporary Literary Criticism 94 (1997): 21-88. Literature Criticism Online. Gale. 20 Mar. 2009 <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitCrit/uiuc_uc/FJ3523850003>.

Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womack. "'O my brothers': Reading the Anti-Ethics of the Pseudo-Family in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange." College Literature 29.2: 19. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 20 Mar. 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy2.library.uiuc.edu/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=112&sid=d5228991-e246-4214-acac-92bdb6d54214%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=6542577>.

Evans, Robert O. "Nadsat: The Argot and Its Implications in Anthony Burgess' 'A Clockwork Orange.'" Rev. of A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. Journal of Modern Literature 1 (1971): 406-410. JSTOR. 6 Mar. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831064>.

Josselson, Diana. Rev. of A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. The Kenyon Review 25 (1963): 559-560. JSTOR. 6 Mar. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4334366>.

Rabinovitz, Rubin. "Ethical Values in Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange." Studies in the Novel 11.1: 43. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 20 Mar. 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy2.library.uiuc.edu/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=108&sid=96e4ec4b-2927-4dee-abc4-8772a79b1e47%40sessionmgr109&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=7087265>.