A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962. 220 pp)

Born in 1917 as John Burgess Wilson, this English author, poet, playwright, composer, linguist, translator, and critic published under the name, Anthony Burgess. Though he dismissed it as a lesser work, Burgress is best known for A Clockwork Orange, more than likely due to the controversial Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name. In his youth, Burgess attended Xaverian College and later studied at Victoria University of Manchester receiving a B.A. in English. In addition to his publications, Burgess composed many musical pieces in his free time. During his career, Burgess was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and earned honorary degrees from St. Andrews University, Birmingham University, and Manchester University. He died in 1993.

What Fried Chicken and Shepherd’s Pie Teach Us about Free Will and Determinism

What is for dinner tonight? Suppose I gave you two choices: fried chicken or shepherd’s pie. For most people, the corresponding choice defines the philosophical principle of free will. You like shepherd’s pie, so you choose it. You are free to choose fried chicken if you are in the mood, but today, it’s shepherd’s pie.
Philosophers – pesky and annoying as they are known to be – might disagree with your assessment. To them, you choose shepherd’s pie not because you hold the freedom to make a decision between two options; instead, they argue that the rules of causation demand that you choose shepherd’s pie. In other words, your pre-disposed likes and desires created by a causal chain throughout your life lead to this very moment where shepherd’s pie is the only choice you could ever make.
Known as free will versus determinism, A Clockwork Orange explores this debate.

An Anti-Hero and His “Droogs”

Scene from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange portrays a dystopian England ruled by violence and anarchy. The main character and anti-hero in the book, Alex, conducts brutal acts with his “droogs” – a term referencing fellow gang members – on the streets of London. With no moral compass, Alex ruins the lives of many for the sake of temporary pleasure.
Leaning heavily on his linguistic virtuosity, Burgess crafts a unique dialect for his ruffians. Amazingly, this Slavic- and Cockney-influenced English can be followed with a slightly focused reading throughout the work. To get a sense of the dialect, here’s a passage where Alex and his “droogs” are torturing a victim:

“’It’s a book,’ I said. ‘It’s a book what you are writing.’ I made the old goloss very course. ‘I have always had the strongest admiration for them as can write books.’ 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?’ Then I read a malenky bit out loud in a sort of very high type preaching goloss: ‘ – 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 swordpen –‘ Dim made the old lip-music at that and I had to smeck myself. Then I started to tear up the sheets and scatter the bits over the floor, and this writer moodge went sort of bezoomny and made for me with his zoobies clenched and showing yellow and his nails ready for me like claws” (25-26).

Despite his ferocious nature, Alex contains one endearing quality: he loves classical music. While most teenagers listen to and enjoy technologically advanced music, Alex prefers the stylings of “good ‘ol Ludwig Van.”

To Choose Evil or Be Forced to the Good

As with most morally questionable actions, Alex must eventually face the repercussions of his sins. Faced with endless years locked in the joint, Alex – or 6655231 as he is called in prison – overhears discussion about a new psychological technique announced by the government, one that forces the amoral to always make ethical decisions. In Alex’s mind, freedom carries more importance than choice. The chaplain in the prison, however, disagrees:

“It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him” (106)?

Determinism vs. Free Will

At the core of the novel resides the question of determinism versus free will. Do humans possess the capacity to choose from right and wrong or are they merely a product of their surroundings? Personally, I argue for both. Yet, A Clockwork Orange frighteningly portrays the results of determinism.

To Redeem or Not to Redeem

My version of the book, interestingly, supplies the final chapter not originally published in the first U.S. edition. Where the U.S. edition and the Stanley Kubrick-directed movie conclude on a decidedly negative point, the original edition carries a redemptive storyline in the end.
With the last chapter offering a strikingly different ending than the original U.S. version, the obvious question becomes is it better to end on a redemptive note? From a literary standpoint, I can certainly see the cohesive and exponentially depressing organization of the shortened U.S. version. However, the redemptive thread in the last chapter of the U.K. edition suggests that no matter the nastiness of an individual, he or she eventually grows out of it.
Knowing that the ending is in debate, however, created a better read. A Clockwork Orange is frightening and unpleasant. It explores the centuries-old debate on free will versus determinism. Although I am grateful for reading the book, I find it difficult to recommend.



2 Comments Leave a comment
  • Sarah Reads Too Much

    Great review! It has been awhile wince I read this, but you've brought it all back. I remember having to take some time to get use to the language… but what a powerful book.

  • Donovan Richards

    Thanks for the comment Sarah! I agree that the language is tough but I am also fascinated at how Burgess crafted a new language that is similar enough to understand but unique enough to make it seem like a new slang.

Leave a Comment