By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Burgess’s novel, A clockwork orange, met with little success when it was released in 1962 and was almost forgotten until Kubrick’s film adaptation brought it to international notoriety nearly ten years later. The film has drawn criticism for its candid portrayals of ultra-violence, including sexual violence. More interestingly, he also elicited some very complex emotional and intellectual responses to his representations of free will and its limitation, which is a central question for utopian studies.
The film version of Kubrick A clockwork orange is strangely beautiful. Violence is clearly depicted, but it’s also styled in a way that makes it manageable. The film deliberately leaves us uneasy, worried, and confused in part because of the details, but also because it so clearly captures the central issue Burgess sets out in his novel, does the state have the right to punish its criminals by suppressing their free will?
What is the right balance between security and freedom? Under what circumstances is it acceptable for the state to restrict individual freedoms? A clockwork orange delves into this problem, about which Burgess has written extensively.
This is a transcript of the video series Great utopian and dystopian literary works. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The title of Burgess’ novel
Burgess tells us there were plenty of reasons for choosing this memorable title,
I had always loved the Cockney expression “queer as a clockwork orange”, which was the strangest thing imaginable, and had kept the expression for years, hoping to someday use it as a title. . When I started writing the book, I saw that this title would suit a story about the application of Pavlovian, or mechanical, laws to an organism that, like a fruit, was capable of color and sweetness. But I had also served in Malaysia, where the word for a human being is orang.
The question of responsibility
So, is this why the reception of A clockwork orange varied so much from decade to decade? Burgess also asked himself this question, and here is his answer,
People preferred the film because they are rightly afraid of the language. I understand. The language of A clockwork orange is scary. My students always tell me that they hate reading the dialect because it’s so slow because they’re not always sure they fully understand what the character is saying. Read it out loud, I recommend it, and you will be able to hear it and feel how it is said.
But it doesn’t work for A clockwork orange since Alex tells the whole novel in an invented language that combines English, Cockney and Russian roots in a certain youthful exuberance that is deeply disconcerting. Oddly enough, the novel is not exactly a slow read, despite the fact that much of the vocabulary is unknown. But it leaves readers unsettled, a feeling some of us may appreciate, but it’s also a little scary.
Learn more about utopian and dystopian literature.
Language of communication
So, at a basic level, readers might be afraid of Burgess’ very peculiar use of language in this novel. He says what Orwell says in One thousand nine hundred and eighty four, at its best, language is inherently inadequate to represent human experience. At worst, language can be manipulated so deeply that it not only distorts 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, through history. Which means they are linked with huge potential, positive and negative.
And it’s true, as Burgess puts it, that the film offers a visual tapestry that makes up for the language, even though Kubrick keeps a lot of Burgess’ words in the voiceover. In some ways, Kubrick’s visuals and Burgess’ coined language both act as checks and balances to the ultra-violence so necessary to define the scope of state intervention in Alex’s behavior.
The ethical conundrum
If Alex were just a troublemaker, a nice boy with problems, the state’s use of behavioral conditioning would seem like overkill – taking the agency away from someone who could be redeemed. But Alex isn’t just violent. He is ultra-violent, which means state actions can be justified in this case, unless those actions are simply, whoever the criminal in question, is unjustifiable.
If you complete the novel at the end of Chapter 20, you bring a deconditioned criminal back into society, with his free will. There is a very easy way to read this as terrifying.
Learn more about Yevgeny Zamyatin and Dystopian Uniformity.
The last chapter
But Burgess wrote one more chapter. It’s a complicated final chapter that overhauls the whole novel by showing a new Alex, a deprogrammed Alex who has reached maturity, who has moved beyond his childhood obsession with ultra-violence and decided – of his own free will – to avoid criminal behavior. Does that mean Burgess believed in transformation? In redemption? Yes he did. And he believed the key to transformation was free will.
People use free will, Burgess tells us,
choose between good and evil. If he can only do good, or only do bad, then he is a clockwork orange, which means that he has the appearance of a charming organism with color and juice, but is not in fact a mechanical toy to be wound up by God or the devil. or — as it increasingly replaces both — the Almighty State.
And it’s only when Alex reclaims his free will – and yes, the community recovers Alex’s threat – that the community ceases to be a totalitarian dystopia.
Common questions about free will and the state
The phrase ‘a clockwork orange‘is meant to imply strangeness or strangeness as in Cockney’s sentence’strange as a clockwork orange‘, as also to echo the Malay word orang human sense.
Burgess’s very particular use of language in A clockwork orange implies that, at its best, language is inherently inadequate to represent human experience.
Chapter 21 of A clockwork orange revamps the whole novel by showing a deprogrammed, mature Alex who has overcome his childhood obsession with ultra-violence and decided, of his own accord, to avoid criminal behavior.