A Clockwork Orange is a 1962 dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess that was adapted into a film in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. I’ll be discussing and comparing both. The story is narrated by its fifteen-year-old sociopathic protagonist, Alex the Large (DeLarge in the movie, played by Malcolm McDowell, who almost a decade after would play another psychopath, one from ancient Rome), a boy whose interests include drinking drug-laced milk with his “droogs” (Georgie, Dim [Warren Clarke], and Pete), beating people up (“tolchocking,” or “ultra-violence”), gang raping women (“the old in-out, in-out”), and listening to classical music, especially Beethoven.
In this futuristic world, the wayward teens speak a Russian-influenced argot called nadsat (<<If your nadsat is a little rusty, click the link provided [or this one], for I’ll be using quite a few of these words [I’ve italicized them, even in the quotes].). The central theme of the story is the dialectical tension between freedom and restriction, physical or mental, and how one may effectively–or ineffectively–resolve this tension, with or without harming society or the individual.
Here are some quotes:
From the novel: “What’s it going to be then, eh?” (Burgess, page 5)
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 our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. (page 5)
Then I looked at its top sheet, and there was the name -A CLOCKWORK ORANGE- and I said: ‘That’s a fair gloopy title. Who ever heard of a clockwork orange?’ (page 21)
‘ – 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 sword-pen – ” (page 21)
So I creeched louder still, creeching: ‘Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?’ (page 100)
‘Does God want woodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?’ –Prison Chaplain, to Alex (page 76)
From the film:
Irish Drunk: Can you spare some cutter me brothers? Go on, do me in, you bastard cowards! I don’t wanna live anyway. Not in a stinking old world like this.”
Alex: Oh? And what’s so stinking about it?
Drunk: It’s a stinking world because there is no law and order anymore. […]
“Ho, ho, ho! Well if it isn’t fat stinking billy goat Billy Boy in poison! How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap stinking chip oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if ya have any yarbles, ya eunuch jelly thou!” –Alex
[While listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony] Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!
“As an unmuddied lake, sir. As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer. You can rely on me, sir.” –Alex, to Deltoid
“You needn’t take it any further, sir. You’ve proved to me that all this ultraviolence and killing is wrong, wrong, and terribly wrong. I’ve learned me lesson, sir. I’ve seen now what I’ve never seen before. I’m cured! Praise God!” –Alex, during the application of the Ludovico technique
“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” –Chaplain
In the Korova Milkbar, Alex and his droogs are drinking their “milk plus something else,” laced “with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches,” wondering what to do that night. In the novel, the question, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” is repeatedly asked. The crimes they commit ultimately derive from boredom and sloth, a lack of purpose or direction in life. The boys also have too much freedom in their lives.
Excessive freedom, as Erich Fromm observed in Escape From Freedom, results in a sense of instability and unsureness, causing an anxiety that authoritarian rule would relieve one of. What are you supposed to do with yourself if you can do absolutely anything? A list of dos and don’ts provides a comforting structure, hence excessively free people (or, at least, people perceiving themselves as having too much freedom) tend to run back to forms of authority like fascism.
The violence of fascism can be symbolically seen in the droogs‘ crimes, as well as in their uniform-like outfits: in the novel, back tights, waistcoats with big shoulder-pads, “flip horrorshow boots for kicking,” and white cravats (pages 5-6); in the film, the iconic white outfits, black hats, codpieces, and black boots.
The ineffectual law enforcement of the government at the beginning of the story results in the droogs’ getting away with so much violence and rape; symbolically, this lax governance corresponds to a failed attempt at a left-libertarian society (Kubrick and other critics considered the society of his film to be initially like a failed socialism–the Russian-like nadsat symbolizes this sovietism, too, as does the pro-worker art that is defaced by graffiti).
In contrast, the later government’s use of the Ludovico technique on Alex, with its strict suppression of his criminal urges, symbolically suggests the rigidity and repression of fascism. The extreme left is not similar to the extreme right (as the horseshoe theory gets so absurdly wrong), but the one extreme dialectically phases into its opposite, as I’ve explained elsewhere.
The dialectic of freedom vs. restrictions is resolved with the idea that my right to swing out my arm, with my hand balled in a fist, ends where your face begins. Alex and his droogs, of course, have no respect for this resolution. Individual freedom to do whatever he wants is all that matters to Alex, even to the point of taking pleasure in hurting others.
Sadean delight in cruelty is shown in the film, not only with Alex and his droogs, but also with Billyboy and his droogs when they strip a beautiful “weepy young devotchka” naked and get ready to gang-rape her while a merry passage from Rossini‘s “Thieving Magpie” is heard in the soundtrack. This enjoyment in causing pain is especially evident during the “surprise visit,” when Alex gets ready to rape the “subversive” writer’s wife while singing “Singin’ In the Rain,” dancing, and slapping her and kicking her husband, forcing him to watch the rape.
In spite of how dreadful a human being Alex is, we nonetheless find ourselves liking and sympathizing with him, not just because he’s our “Friend and Humble Narrator,” but because he’s cultured and witty. His clever use of nadsat incorporates the archaisms of Elizabethan-era English, giving his already silver tongue an almost Shakespearean poetry. Then, of course, there’s his love of classical music–Beethoven in particular.
Normally, we stereotype punks as, for example, punk rockers; we look down on criminals as ‘low-life scumbags’; we think of sadists as brutish, unthinking monsters. That we can’t dismiss Alex in this way makes him all the more disturbing…for psychopaths are known for their dangerous charm. The juxtaposition of sadism with high culture is symbolic of the oppression of the ruling class. Nazis were art connoisseurs…though their reasons for liking or disliking this or that artwork were contemptible ones.
The sociopathic characters in the Marquis de Sade‘s explicit novels are cultured people in the upper classes: before and after their torture-laden orgies, they dine on sumptuous feasts, drink fine wine, wear beautiful 18th-century garments, and live in ornately decorated mansions. Sade’s satirical point in presenting his wicked characters in such finery was to allegorize the ruling class’s oppression of the people.
Alex is no aristocrat, but he has the narcissism of one. It shouldn’t be hard (pardon the expression) to know what he’s referring to in calling himself “Alexander the Large” (especially in the context of his raping the drunken ten-year-old “ptitsas” in his home while listening to Beethoven–page 39). As a pun on Alexander the Great, this moniker of Alex’s also embodies his egotism by comparing his assaults and rapes to the ancient Macedonian’s conquests and massacres. Alexander, ‘defender of men,’ defends individual freedom and culture by destroying those of other people; just as imperialism rationalizes its evil by claiming ‘to civilize the world.’
Alex has no illusions that what he’s doing is in any way moral, though. He knows his criminality is wrong; he does it anyway, because he enjoys it. Sade’s libertine characters also openly admit that they commit crimes, for criminal behaviour adds to their arousal. Deep down, we all like Alex because he dares to do what we’re too chicken to do.
We also have to consider Alex’s possible unconscious motives for committing heinous crimes. He’s obviously intelligent: why is he pressing his luck with the law? Even after Deltoid warns him that he’s getting dangerously close to being arrested (page 33), he still tempts fate…even to the point of antagonizing his fellow droogs (pages 25-27; 44-45), in whom he needs to have an unshakable trust. His wild rashness can’t just be reduced to youthful impetuosity.
Part of Alex’s unconscious is in conflict with his wish to be wild and free: part of him wants to be restricted. Recall Fromm’s analysis of the fear of freedom; people want a sense of structure, of where their place is in the world. Freedom from restrictions doesn’t often lead to a freedom to grow and fulfill one’s potential, to live in love and harmony with humanity. Freedom from, without the to following soon after, leaves a void.
Fascism and repression tend to fill that void. Fromm explains “the dialectic quality in this process of growing individuation. […] one side of the growing process of individuation is the growth of self-strength […] The other aspect of the process of individuation is growing aloneness. […] When one has become an individual, one stands alone and faces the world in all its perilous and overpowering aspects.
“Impulses arise to give up one’s individuality, to overcome the feeling of aloneness and powerlessness by completely submerging oneself in the world outside.” (Fromm, pages 28-29, his emphasis)
“We see that the process of growing human freedom has the same dialectic character that we have noticed in the process of individual growth. On the one hand it is a process of growing strength and integration, mastery of nature, growing power of human reason, and growing solidarity with other human beings. But on the other hand this growing individuation means growing isolation, insecurity, and thereby growing doubt concerning one’s own role in the universe, the meaning of one’s life, and with all that a growing feeling of one’s own powerlessness and insignificance as an individual.” (Fromm, pages 34-35)
Alex is smart enough to know that lashing out at his droogs will give the three of them motive for revenge. He’s been punished by the law before, though he’s “been out of the rookers of the millicents for a long time now” (Burgess, page 33); he has no reason to believe he’ll never get caught again, especially when he has to rely on three frienemies.
In prison, he has his structure, but no matter how much of the Bible he reads (which is just to be entertained by the violent parts), or how much advice he receives from the chaplain (Part Two, chapter 1), he still has no inclination to be good. In fact, Alex quickly tires of the physical restrictions he has around him, and mentally, he’s as free to be as wicked as ever; for prison overcrowding drives him to beat a new cellmate to death, or so is he blamed for it, anyway (Part Two, chapter 2). This, in the novel, is what causes him to be chosen to receive the Ludovico technique.
Despite what he says about wanting to be good (page 66), I’d say he only wants to change the nature of his restricted freedoms, from physical bonds to mental ones. So all of this switching from one kind of freedom/restriction dichotomy to another is just the sublation of the dialectical unity in opposition that Alex is trying to resolve.
Part of the contradiction of freedom vs. restriction is how one man’s exercise of such ‘freedom’ (licence, really) is another man’s bondage…to suffering. Alex’s freedom to beat up or rape his victims becomes their bondage to trauma. One opposite offsets the other; thus, they’re balanced in the Brahman of universal oneness.
When Alex has had the treatment turn him into “a clockwork orange,” that is, organic and natural-looking on the outside, but mechanical and inhuman on the inside, making him an automaton incapable of moral choice, he gets a karmic exchanging of the victim/victimizer roles, of enjoyer of freedom vs. victim of traumatic bondage.
From here on, we get the antithesis of all that we had from the beginning, and the opposites are paralleled especially in the movie. Instead of Alex and his droogs beating up a derelict, the derelict and his “droogs,” if you will, beat up clockwork Alex. Instead of him dumping Dim and Georgie into water, they–as corrupt cops–dump him in water (in the novel, Dim and Billyboy are the police who brutalize him–Part 3, chapter 3). Karma.
Instead of Alex terrorizing the “writer of subversive literature” (F. Alexander [another ‘defender of men’], played by Patrick Magee, who–in an interesting twist of irony–played the Marquis de Sade in the film version of Marat/Sade several years earlier) in his “HOME” and destroying his ‘Clockwork Orange’ writing, F. Alexander–Alex’s doppelgänger–sadistically terrorizes the boy by playing Beethoven’s Ninth (in the novel, it’s “the Symphony Number Three of the Danish veck Otto Skadelig”–page 130) and forcing him to hear it in a locked-up room, after the Ludovico technique has conditioned him to feel sick whenever hearing his beloved music. Karma, karma, and more cruel karma.
Instead of unconsciously trying to have himself incarcerated, Alex consciously tries to liberate himself from the hell of life, “the tortures of the damned” (in the novel, he even goes to the library to research how to kill himself painlessly–page 112).
Finally, he’s hospitalized instead of imprisoned, given “the best of treatment” instead of exposed to the tolchocking of cellmates, and had the Ludovico conditioning removed from him instead of put into his body. The self-serving government that made his body a concentration camp for his mind now gives him a job in exchange for forgiving them, so they can hope to be reelected. He’s “cured all right.”
Though the film excluded chapter 21, which the American editions of the novel had also excised until 1986; in a way, the final scene–of Alex fantasizing giving his grinning, willing bride [as I suspect she is] “the old in-out, in-out” in front of applauding onlookers (who, dressed formally, seem like wedding guests to me)–is the implied ending of the final chapter.
Eighteen years old now, and with a new trio of droogs, Alex is inspired by a conversation he has with his old droog Pete and his new wife (pages 145-146), and decides it’s time to grow up and give up on the life of crime. He ought to settle down and get married, too. Will his future son become a criminal, though?
“That’s what it’s going to be then, brothers…”
However lame this final chapter may be to readers who prefer licking their lips over dystopian writing with darker endings, it does make an important point about freedom: in choosing to give up on crime on his own initiative, Alex is demonstrating Fromm’s ideal about freedom to; Alex is going to use his freedom from restrictions, physical and mental, to be free to become a good, productive member of society.
And this is the final sublation of the contradiction of freedom vs. restriction: one freely chooses to restrict oneself from doing wrong to others. When I swing my fist, I stop myself from making it meet your face. Instead of a morally lax society that is too lenient on criminals, or one that’s repressively authoritarian, we have a society that understands the need to have a mix of freedoms and restrictions.
As Fromm explains, “submission is not the only way of avoiding aloneness and anxiety [resulting from excessive freedom]. The other way, the only one which is productive and does not end in an insoluble conflict, is that of spontaneous relationship to man and nature, a relationship that connects the individual with the world without eliminating his individuality. This kind of relationship–the foremost expressions of which are love and productive work–are rooted in the integration and strength of the total personality and are therefore subject to the very limits that exist for the growth of the self.” (Fromm, page 29, his emphasis)
So, the individual still is an individual, but one connected with the world. Limits exist, but for the growth of the self. This is that mix of freedoms and restrictions, the final synthesis of freedom vs. bondage. One isn’t merely free from evil, but free to do good. One is an orange, but sweet on the inside.
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, Penguin Books, London, 1962
Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1941