‘A Clockwork Orange’ is narrated by the main character, Alex, a teenage boy in a near future but very recognisable society. Alex leads a gang of ultra-violent thugs, who every evening rape, murder, steal, and commit crimes with impunity. Alex really enjoys this aspect of his life, and the casual nature with which he describes his crimes is chilling. This effect is compounded by several other features of the novel – his age, his love of classical music (which poses the question how could one love music and yet be a monster) – but principally through the use of nadsat, an invented teenage slang. Burgess had noticed that teenagers adopt a specialist argot to confirm membership of their tightly knit group (which of course is the whole point of slang) and writes almost exclusively in this language. Alex can speak conventional English, and does so when the occasion requires (when he is pretending to be civilised, usually in furtherance of a crime) but his language of choice is nadsat. Just to give a flavour of this:
“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days”.
Don’t let the apparent impenetrability of the language put you off – most words can be understood from their context – droogs here being gang-members for example – and even where the exact meaning is not immediately apparent, the overall meaning is usually very clear. The use of an alternative language reinforces the sense of alienation Alex and his droogs feel for the oppressive society they live in.
Burgess tackles several big themes in this novel. Violence and the degeneration of society – Burgess looks at the gang culture of post-war Britain, and anticipates it getting more prevalent and extreme. Free will is another central theme – once imprisoned, Alex is treated, brainwashed, so that any attempt at violence makes him feel immediately unwell, reducing him to a clockwork orange i.e. something apparently natural, but not so). In an aside, it is mentioned that the Government needs this treatment to be effective, to create more prison space for an anticipated influx of political prisoners. Language is also central to the novel, not only to express Alex’s alienation, but also that of his peer group – teenagers literally talk a different language from their parents; Burgess also notes that some ten year old girls that Alex picks up and brutalises speak a different argot – so each group is developing its own language. Burgess isn’t critical of this – he seems to accept it as inevitable, and while nadsat may not be the language of Shakespeare, it is creative and very expressive, both in its adoption of new terms (I particularly like the term “horrorshow” for “extremely”) and rhetorical phrases such as “Oh my brothers”.
Burgess undoubtedly wrote better books than ‘A Clockwork Orange’ – I have written here previously about my love for the Enderby novels for example – but none made a bigger impact, either at the time of publication, or more infamously with Kubrick’s film adaptation. The principal accusation is that the novel (and the film) glamorised and celebrated violence. There are certainly aspects of the novel that could justify that claim. The language used to describe violence reflects Alex’s enjoyment of the same:
“And, my brothers, it was real satisfaction to me to waltz-left two three, right two three-and carve left cheeky and right cheeky, so that like two curtains of blood seemed to pour out at the same time, one on either side of his fat filthy oily snout in the winter starlight”
The novel ends with Alex recognising that he is growing up, and there might be a future for him in settling down, getting a normal job, and raising a family. It is a strange, downbeat note on which to end, and apparently this final chapter was omitted from the American version, and the film adaptation. While the novel positively fizzes with ideas it is not, however, didactic – I doubt if anyone ever had their ideas or lives changed by it. I recognise that this may not have been Burgess’s intention – he once described the novel as “a sort of tract, even a sermon, on the importance of the power of choice” – but if it is, it is an unconvincing one. Would we really prefer pre-treatment Alex in his raping, murdering, ultra-violent glory to compliance, obedient post-treatment Alex? Yes, the loss of freedom of choice is painful, but so is the lawlessness and anarchy Alex creates when free. That of course is an entirely academic debate – the Ludovico treatment is fictional – so it is hard to get too exercised by the issue. Instead, the film generated a more pressing debate on whether portraying violence in a glamorous way can incite it. The relationship between film violence and criminality is not actually raised in the book – Alex not once attempts to justify his behaviour by reference to anything he has watched – in fact his cultural interests are completely high-brow.
Given a choice between more time in the bleak, post-war urban landscapes of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and the wit and erudition of Enderby, and I choose the lonesome poet every time.