A Clockwork Orange (Spoilers)
“has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State” (Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange)
In literature, there have been hundreds of controversial books. Some of them depict violence, drug use, sexual abuse, or torture. My favourite book, A Clockwork Orange, contains all of these devices and even more so. It’s my favourite book, mostly because before it I had never read anything so gruesome or captivating, and also because I found so many themes to explore in this short novel. I was impressed by the author’s ability to express his ideas in such a creative manner. The themes that I enjoyed in A Clockwork Orange include free will, teenage rebellion, and the evolution of language.
In A Clockwork Orange, the main character is Alex. He is a fifteen year old gangster in a dystopian future (the future being the 1990s). He takes drugs, tortures, rapes, and kills people for fun with his fellow gang members, fighting other gangs and just causing mayhem in the streets. He speaks in a slang that the adults don’t really comprehend, but all of the teenagers can understand. It’s woke, on fleek, ya feel? It’s bolshy, horrorshow, droogs skazat?
Eventually all of his “fun” leads his arrest. In prison he manipulates the system well enough to be noticed by a priest and a higher-up in the prison. They sentence him to receive special treatment. This treatment is practically torture, where he is injected with drugs that make him nauseous and weak while watching torture, rape, destruction, and other grotesque acts on a large movie screen that fills his entire field of vision, unable to blink to look away. It conditions him to feel weakness and despair whenever he is confronted with the acts he used to find enjoyable. Now, even though he wants to, he cannot. He is unable. He is released back to the freedom of civilian life, but now he is the victim of the crimes he used to commit. After being hospitalized, the treatment wears off, and he awakes and once again returns to his former life, able to freely do as he pleases. However, our once fifteen year old rebel no longer wants to torture or kill people, simply because he is growing up.
I read this book around the same time as I read Oedipus Rex. In short, Oedipus Rex is about a man who overhears that he is cursed by the Gods to marry his mother and kill his father, so he runs away from home unknowing that he was adopted. In his escape, he kills his father out of road rage, and then ends up saving a town from suffering. The queen of the town is thankful for his help and he marries her, eventually discovering that she is his real mother. The part about this story that fascinated me was whether Oedipus Rex had any control over his life because he was cursed by the Gods. Was everything predetermined, or were they his conscious choices that caused the self-fulling prophecy? If the Gods had decided no matter what happens in his life, he would inevitably kill his father and marry his mother; then Oedipus Rex merely had the illusion of free will. No matter his choices, it would result in the same outcome. If it was free will, then he had all the power within to make the decisions that would result in the curse becoming true or not.
The theme of free will in Clockwork Orange is where the story got its actual name. A Clockwork Orange, according to author, is a beautiful being unable to make his own choices, he is simply wound up and does what he is programmed to do. I found this concept interesting when considering religion, because free will is the gift that God gave mankind. So without free will, are you really human? The prison took away the mechanism that makes Alex a human being, his freedom. Without choices, he can be compared to a robot, only doing what others tell them. He is a slave to feelings of weakness rather than the empathy and consciousness that other beings are subject to. He cannot do what he wants to do. This is in comparison to Oedipus Rex, where the protagonist was cursed by beings higher than himself to be destined to a predetermined life where his choices were moot. Both characters do not have free will, they cannot choose a life for themselves.
While reading this, I felt such a strange pity for Alex. I was disgusted at myself for feeling this for such a horrid boy. He raped women, he tortured whoever he wanted, and he felt no empathy or regrets. He was teenager that followed his own rules, a rebel. But now, he was the one being tormented. He didn’t think about his future, but acted in the moment on what gave him adrenaline and joy. Much like teenagers of any era who are overcome with emotions and hormones, life is more vibrant and the taboo is always sweeter. All teenagers are punished for their actions when they break the rules, but most teenagers are not as extreme as Alex. Their punishments are being grounded, no driving the car, chores, detention, and the like. Didn’t Alex deserve the punishment for his crimes? Yet, I still wish he didn’t suffer. Maybe it was my heightened sense of empathy because I was only 16 or 17 when I had read this book, but I just found their treatment to be cruel, regardless of the outcome. The adults chose what he could do and not do, his feelings, and were incredibly restricting. I think it’s because this book takes his teenage rebellion to the extreme. At the time of reading it, I was only slightly older than Alex; I had my own teenage rebellion (albeit not violent – but my parents did restrict a lot of my freedoms). I’m almost certain older readers don’t feel the same amount of pity for Alex as they cannot relate to the freedom that Alex desires, but cannot attain. Therefore, free will and teenage rebellion were two themes that were deeply intriguing and entwined.
This is the power of literature. To express ideas, thoughts, dreams, fears in imaginative, provocative, and disturbing ways. It takes the reader to places they didn’t know existed, never would have thought could exist, and plants seeds inside their head which can one day be sown and harvested. It’s not about being a safe space, but rather another way to venture into the unknown and a discomforting place to grow once exposed to new concepts.
Finally, the book is written in a strange slang. I honestly did not understand the entire first chapter during my first read-through. By the time I got to the second chapter, I just decided to start over until I understood what I was reading. By the third or fourth time reading from the beginning, I just had a moment where the light bulb went on. Everything clicked. Every word was eventually understandable through context. I can read this book (I was so happy with my slight success), and I was excited for this adventure that changed my life. As I kept on going, I realized their slang is no different from the way teenagers speak today. This writer, Anthony Burgess, predicted the slang of the twenty first century. Though, I’m pretty certain the teenagers of the 50s and 60s spoke just like the way we speak now. It is how language evolves. My point is because of pop culture and the technology in day to day life, new words are invented, and new terms are used by the people who it affects the most: teenagers. In the book, they use terms like “horrorshow” for good, “droog” for friends, “starry” for old, and many, many more words throughout the entire book. I thought the whole book would be written this way until an adult spoke in the book (because the book is written from Alex’s point of view), and he spoke regular English! It’s true, language evolves, and every generation since the dawn of language had their own words that defined the times.
So, I came to the conclusion which is that the slang used today would be just as foreign to anyone else hearing it for the first time, even if they were a native English speaker. Just think about the strange things children will be saying thirty years from now. Nowadays, “molly” is a drug, which to anyone never hearing this before would think it was a name. “Chill”, is now calm down, when before it was just a term for being a bit colder. “On fleek” means it is on point, and to be honest I was really confused the first time I heard that. Language evolves, and the driving force for this change is the younger generation. As the younger generations use words more often, they become a part of daily life, which is then inherited by the next generation. That generation will then further contribute to our ever-changing lexicon. This is how culture and language develop, and idea that A Clockwork Orange demonstrated exceptionally well.
Thus, A Clockwork Orange is a wild ride that I don’t want get off of. It has many more themes than the ones I’ve mentioned and a lot more symbolism than I could ever adequately describe. It’s worth a read, I promise. Anthony Burgess has packed so much complexity inside such a short book. I wish that I had never read it so that I could read it again.