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An introduction to A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange has had a huge influence on popular culture, but interpretations of the work often fail to take into account the novel's religious and instructive message. Roger Luckhurst explores how the novel has escaped its author's control.

A text with form

Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange, is hard to separate from the notoriety gained through Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation released in 1971. Kubrick’s brutal depiction of the thug Alex and his gang raping and pillaging their way through a futuristic London to the music of Elgar, Purcell and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was part of the new screen violence that emerged after the relaxation of censorship in the late 1960s. Very soon after its release, the prosecution of a 14-year-old boy on a manslaughter charge hinted at the influence of A Clockwork Orange on the crime. The film was then linked to another teenage murder, and a rape by a gang who were believed to be acting out scenes from the film. Feeling the pressure, the director Kubrick withdrew the film from circulation in the United Kingdom, and he policed this ban with a stern legal vigour until his death in 1999. You could only see the film at illegal screenings, or later on illegal video copies, for 27 years. For all that time, A Clockwork Orange had a frisson of great danger and glamour.

Burgess loathed the film (as fellow author Stephen King would loathe what Kubrick did to The Shining). Burgess felt that Kubrick had completely misunderstood the book's its premise. But even by the early 1970s, Burgess must have begun to grasp that misreading would dog what would remain his one enduring fiction in a rich and varied publishing career. Already Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones (a band Burgess despised almost as much as the Beatles) had expressed interest in filming the book. Burgess recorded that Jagger had looked ‘the quintessence of delinquency’.[1] David Bowie was also appropriating elements of the book for his stage shows by 1971. Yet this was the pop culture that the conservative and elitist Burgess was intent on castigating. The way that the language and iconography of the book continues to saturate popular culture would have appalled Burgess.

Origins and first contexts

A Clockwork Orange had its origins in a horrific incident during the Second World War, when Burgess’s wife Lynne had been attacked and assaulted by four American deserters in London during an air raid in 1940.

The novel is a dystopian future – a genre that upturns the long tradition of the idealised utopia and that could only have been born amidst the atrocities of the 20th century. His near future presents a dreary, anonymous city where youth gangs rove looking for chances for ‘ultra-violence’, and the work spoke to a number of post-war anxieties.

The surface of the world that is depicted contains echoes of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its run-down, uniform, vaguely communistic social system of standard housing blocks and rigid social policies. Instead of Orwell’s depiction of totalitarian control, however, Burgess picks up on the discourse of juvenile delinquency and generational collapse that was typical of the moral panics that gripped the press and policy-makers in the 1950s. While the US worried about zoot-suited urban youths and biker gangs creating social disorder, England had home-grown Teddy Boys and perennial clashes between Mods and Rockers. Sociologists and psychologists extensively debated what these revolts signified. These were the first symptoms of the eruption of youth culture of the 1960s, in which A Clockwork Orange unexpectedly thrived, since it not only mocked socialist conformity but also the indulgences of liberal Western democracies.

Thug theology

Indeed, despite its reputation, the core of the book is actually a rather earnest religious debate on the fate of the soul in post-war modernity. Unlike Graham Greene’s anxious and ambiguous lapsed Catholic ruminations, A Clockwork Orange is relatively orthodox and certain. This is a didacticism that often comes with the genres of utopia or dystopia.

The central figure, the thug Alex, is a bestial creature we see in his immoral pomp in Part One. Alex is properly evil for Burgess; he is never excused as a product of his environment. In Part Two, Alex is imprisoned and chosen as an experimental subject of a new treatment, the ‘Ludivico Technique’, which is designed through hypnosis and conditioning techniques to erase his ability to commit crime. This material is based on the behaviourist theories of psychologist B F Skinner, then highly in vogue. Like Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with the training of involuntary reflex actions in dogs in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Alex is trained to associate nausea and disgust with his violent and sexual feelings. This will correct his social deviance. Yet for Burgess, this is only to force the soul. He attacks behaviourism for its lack of interest in the inner man, the subjective life, the soul. Behaviourism, as the name suggests, was interested only in the external act, regarding interiority as a simple error of psychological projection. While Alex’s psychiatrists are mocked, Burgess has little patience with the liberals who defend human rights either. Alex is set free as a model citizen at the end of Part Two, only to be humiliated and tormented by the complete shackles that modern behavioural science has placed on his soul.

In an essay Burgess wrote for The Listener in 1972, he protested the absence of theology in Kubrick’s film adaptation of his book. Burgess argued forcefully that behaviourism was ‘in terms of the Judaeo-Christian ethic that A Clockwork Orange tries to express … perpetuating a gross heresy’. ‘The wish to diminish free will’, he concluded, ‘is, I should think, the sin against the Holy Ghost’.[2] The Ludivico Technique is reversed in Part Three, but this is no celebration of liberal humanism over the socialism Burgess so despised. It is Alex’s moral and ultimately theological choice whether to be a criminal or not that matters to the author. That the first American edition cut out the last chapter, where Alex renounces violence, did damage to Burgess’s theological narrative, and only played into fears of unregenerate youth. Here was another very prominent example of Burgess losing control of his text.

Inventing language: Nadsat

The religious thrust of the book is barely discussed in the way that the novel has since been taken up. In part, this is because the most striking element of A Clockwork Orange is its linguistic innovations, not its didactic debates. The street language of Alex and his ‘droogs’ is written in an invented slang that is mainly derived from bits of German and Cockney rhyming slang, but mostly from Russian (droog = friend, deng = money, veck = man, viddy = to see, and nadsat itself is the Russian suffix for teen). Burgess said that he had overheard the phrase ‘a clockwork orange’ in a London East End pub and thought it captured the collision of human soul and cybernetic control perfectly.

A Clockwork Orange, first American edition

A Clockwork Orange, first American edition

The first page of A Clockwork Orange, featuring ‘nadsat’ slang such as ‘droog’ that was invented by Anthony Burgess for the novel.

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Usage terms © The International Anthony Burgess Foundation. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

The experiment in future language is not as radical as James Joyce’s Finnegan’ Wake (a book Burgess much admired, discussed and longed to emulate with his own polyglot abilities), but it has more alienating effects on the reader than Orwell’s exploration of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, clearly one of the models for thinking about how language itself can effect social and political transformation. The reader of A Clockwork Orange has initially to work quite hard to put together the meaning by context. Introducing a linguistic novum is a common tactic of defamiliarisation in science fiction. This is perhaps why he so strongly objected to the first American edition containing a list of translations at the end: it made things too easy.

Rather explicitly through his choice of Russian, Burgess suggests that the future from 1962 might be more Soviet than socialist, or that at least youth will turn towards the allure of complete social revolution. To some extent, he was right about this, given that Conservative Party rule in Britain came to an end in 1964 and radical students revolted against the establishment in 1968 across Western Europe.

The use of Nadsat was again something Burgess could not necessarily control or foresee. In 2016, one of the tracks on David Bowie’s very last album, ‘Girl Loves Me’, is composed mainly in the invented language of A Clockwork Orange. If you listen carefully, I suspect you can hear deep in the background of the song the sound of Anthony Burgess slowly turning in his grave.

Resources:

The British library has that controversial American first edition, with some details: http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-clockwork-orange-first-american-edition.

The British Library manuscripts collection also includes the playscript of Ed DuRante’s staging of A Clockwork Orange from 2011.

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation is based in Manchester, where it houses a reading room for the Burgess papers collected there, hosts an active series of talks and seminars and maintains a blog on all aspects of Burgess’ life and work: http://www.anthonyburgess.org


Footnotes:

[1] See Graham Foster’s blog post, ‘Twanging Nonsense: Burgess on Pop Music’, http://www.anthonyburgess.org/?collections=twanging-nonsense-burgess-on-pop-music

[2] Anthony Burgess, ‘Clockwork Marmalade’, The Listener (17 February 1972), p. 198.


Copyright Roger Luckhurst

  • Roger Luckhurst
  • Roger Luckhurst is Professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a specialist in Late Victorian literature, Gothic and Science fiction literature and film, and the history of the supernatural. He is the author of Science Fiction (2005), The Mummy’s Curse (2012) and editor of the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, and H P Lovecraft. His book on the film Alien appeared in 2014 from the BFI and one called Zombies was out with Reaktion Press in 2015.