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A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, published in 1962, technically falls after the period deemed as 'Modernism', yet it embodies all of the features that were characteristic of that literary era. Burgess's novel is a futuristic look at a Totalitarian government.
A Clockwork Orange abandons normal 'language' (which Modernists believed couldn't always convey meaning anyway) and is written in 'Nadsat' (which means teenager). It is a slang that is spoken by the teenagers at the time. Burgess uses approximately two-hundred and fifty 'nadsat' words (most of which have Russian roots) to convey his story. This gives the reader a sense of intimacy with Alex and his 'droogs' (friends) due to the fact that the adults in the novel can't understand what they are govoreeting (saying). There is also a disruption of the linear flow of narrative aside from this private language; Alex ('Our Humble Narrator') tells the story in a remembering type sequence, but often interjects with thoughts or questions posed directly at the reader.
Aside from the strange language that is found on the pages of this novel, one of the most obvious modernistic features is Burgess's ability to shock. There are many different scenes that are quite disturbing and violent. Alex's propensity to rape young girls (ten years old), and his absolute joy in the sight of blood and pain. ' ...while I ripped away at this and that and the other...and real good horrorshow [good] groodies [breasts] they were that then exhibited their pink glazzies [eyes], O my brothers, while I untrussed [undresses] and got ready for the plunge. Plunging I could slooshy [hear] the cries of agony' ( Burgess 23). This ties in with the fact that, as readers, we tend to follow the actions of Alex and his droogs and it is easy to get caught up in all this violent action and loose sight of the real meaning of Burgess's novel. Burgess writes this novel from and to the "ID". Alex and his droogs embody all animal or primal instincts and the tale that has been set before the reader has little respect for realism. We are presented with a world in which the teenagers rule the nights, keeping all real people in their houses. A world where there are milk bars (moloko kordova) in which fifteen year olds can be served with milk that was laden with drugs.
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Another characteristic of this novel is the blurring of normal understanding, or the frustration of conventional expectations. Alex takes every chance to scoff at books, education, and learning. There is also the lack of remorse and guilt in Alex for all of his violent acts. Alex steals and kills for no other reason than for his own personal pleasure. He states that he does not steal for the want of money, but for the pleasure of it. Though all of these things are definitely different from what the reader may expect, the fact that Alex is the 'hero' is probably the most bizarre. The reader has relived each of these horrific incidents with him yet at the end of the novel the author solicits our empathy or sympathy for him.
Alex obviously is in strong conflict with the norm (or the bourgeoisie). He is a depiction of the 'bad element' of society that England was dealing with at the time that Burgess wrote this novel. Alex is the embodiment of all that society would like to ignore or eliminate. Aside from pitting Alex against the bourgeoisie, Burgess uses his story to magnify their decline. He uses this surreal method of aversion therapy (which was actually being discussed at the time) to show the dangers of this type of 'human experiment'. Alex loses his identity first in prison when he becomes 6655321, and then the therapy ultimately takes away his ability to choose to do wrong.
I believe that the leftist writer in this story is Burgess himself, and that the Reclamation Therapy and Dr. Brodsky are meant to depict a composite of B.F. Skinner and Pavlov. Burgess was greatly opposed to this sort of 'treatment', and though his own experience mirrored that of the writer in the book (Burgess's wife was raped and died due to an intruder in their home when Burgess was away in WWII) and he was a victim of a person such as Alex, he was still opposed to what he believes to be unethical. Burgess uses the Bible verse, "What god has put together, let no man put asunder" to explicate this point. This may be a bit of a stretch, but I have read that Modernist writers often flirt with ideas of Fascism, and it seems that this idea is seen often in the friendship of Alex and his droogs. Alex does not treat his friends as equals and is only satisfied with complete control and a dictator-like position, at one point even referring to one of his droogs as 'Dim the soviet' (54). This idea is often tested in physical confrontation. This is one of the recurrent themes of the novel.
Another reoccurring theme is that each section (and the final chapter) all begin with the line, "What's it going to be then, eh?" I believe that the purpose of this is to show the repetitiveness of Alex's life, and the vicious circle that society has placed him in. This serves to bind the whole of the novel together, even to the final chapter where Our Humble narrator is finally ready to break the repetition of violence and crime.
I found one of the most disturbing aspects of the novel was how Burgess choose to question religious norms. Alex often has thoughts that link God and drugs, and that fact that music was better than either. 'As I sloosied [listened], my glazzies [eyes] tight shut to shut in the bliss that wasbetter than any synthetic Bog [god] or God, I knew such lovely pictures. There were vecks [guys] and ptitsas [girls], both young and starry [ancient or old], lying on the ground screaming for mercy, and I was smecking [laughing] all over my rot [mouth] and grinding my boot in their litsos[faces]' (33). There are two different places in the book in which Alex imagines himself as the one who is whipping Jesus and nailing him to the cross. ' I closed my glazzies [eyes] and viddied [saw] myself helping in and even taking charge of the tolcholcking [whipping] and the nailing in, being dressed in a like toga that was the height of Roman fashion' (79). This, in itself, fulfills almost every criteria of Modernism.
The ultimate purpose of the novel - which is Predestination verses Free Will - is also an age-old religious debate which Burgess (being a lapsed Catholic) is well aquatinted with. Music, which is a devise that was to bring one closer to God, brought Alex violent pictures of joy. The illustration of the deconstruction of individualism, and the reconception of social issues in terms of the 'masses' rather than 'individuals' is a continual theme. Alex is viewed as inhuman by society ( he is inconsequential and without a vote), and therefore a 'cure' is welcome even at the cost of Alex's freedom of choice and identity as a human being. The good of society is put ahead of individual rights. The State and society will both profit from Alex's reclamation. There is also a reference to a mural that seems to possess characteristics of the impressionistic features of Modernism. Nudes were usually gods or goddesses lounging around and in the Municipal painting in Municipal Flat 18a that Alex describes is naked men and women that are 'stern in the dignity of labour at workbench and machine' (31).
Burgess has rendered a magnificent thriller of a novel that embodies all of the objectives and concerns of the modernist writer. Burgess introduces the idea of new alternatives in the final chapter (the one that is missing from the American version). Alex has lived a life of horror and crime, but has the opportunity to make a change - of his own free will, and decides to do just that. This is Burgess's forum to magnify the potential horrors of a government (and of the science of consciousness and repetition) that he saw was threatening to deprive people of their essential right to choose. His message is that it is better to have the choice to do bad than to be forced to do good. Burgess delves into his own experience with a nadsat like Alex to give this novel its force and to give validity to its ultimate message. Burgess's tale, A Clockwork Orange, is not only intriguing but extremely poignant in issues of State and religion.
Works Cited and Consulted
Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.
Bergonzi, Bernard. The Situation of the Novel. Riley 2: 85-86.
Connelly, Wayne. Critical Essays on Anthony Burgess. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1980.
De Vitis, A. A. Anthony Burgess. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
Edelheit, Geoffrey, Ed. Critical Essays on Anthony Burgess. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co. 1986.
Evans, Robert O.: The Nouveau Roman, Russian Dystopias and Anthony Burgess, in: Studies in the Literary Imagination, 6 (1973) S. 27-37
Evans, Robert O.: Nadsat: The Argot and Its Implications in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, 1 (1971) S. 406-410
Kubrick, Stanley, director/producer. Clockwork Orange. Warner Brothers, 1971.
Rabinovitz, Rubin: Ethical Values in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, in: Studies in the Novel, 11 (1979)
Stinson, John J. Anthony Burgess Revisited. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Stinson, John J. Anthony Burgess: Novelist on the Margin. Riley 4: 82-83.
Tilton, John. Cosmic Satire in the Contemporary Novel. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc. 1977.
Morris, Carolyn, and Phyllis Carmel Merdelson, eds. Anthony Burgess. Contemporary Literary Criticism.
Detroit: Book Tower, 1976. Vol. 2, 4, and 5.