A Clockwork Orange — Updated

I saw the Stanley Kubrick movie years ago and probably understood little of it, so I’m in the midst of reading Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange 50th anniversary edition edited by Andrew Biswell.  It’s a future fiction dystopian novel written in 1960 depicting teenage fighting, violence, looting, muggings, arson, and all sorts of petty crime that eventually results in murder in a future urban setting that Burgess saw as a composite of Manchester, New York and Stalingrad (now St. Petersburg again). This anniversary edition restores the original text and contains the 21st chapter that was left out of the original U.S.A. edition.  There is an excellent introduction by Andrew Biswell and extensive notes on Burgess’s numerous allusions to passages from Shakespeare, the Bible, Greek literature and mythology and other sources.

This is a book that contains slang so densely leaden it takes some effort to get into.  It’s almost as if Burgess has invented a new English dialect.   Well, actually he has.  As one of the earlier editors from when it was first published cautiously noted, “Everything hangs on whether the reader can get into the book quickly enough…Once in, it becomes hard to stop.”  Yes, it took a while to get into it but there was no stopping me after that.

Just when in the future it takes place is not clear but at least 20-30 years later from when the novel was written, placing it in the 1980’s or 90”s.  Or it could be anytime, such as right now.  This little piece from today’s Telegraph for example, on the breakdown of the rule of law in the UK, the corruption in British police forces, and unstopped rioting by hooligans in the streets:

England has 39 police forces, headed by 39 chief constables or commissioners. In the past 18 months, seven have been sacked for misconduct, suspended, placed under criminal or disciplinary investigation or forced to resign. That is not far off a fifth of the total.

In the same period, at least eight deputy or assistant chief constables have also been placed under ongoing investigation, suspended or forced out for reasons of alleged misconduct. No fewer than 11 English police forces – just under 30 per cent – have had one or more of their top leaders under a cloud.

Most of these cases have barely been reported outside the local press. But they add up to the most serious spate of alleged wrongdoing at senior levels in the history of the police.

There were the riots, the most serious breakdown in order in 30 years, when the capital and many major cities were effectively no longer under the rule of law. They developed slowly – over three days – and could almost certainly have been stopped had police dealt more firmly with the first night of violence, which was confined to one London borough. Instead, they allowed the centres of Wood Green and Tottenham Hale to be ransacked and burned for an entire night, as news cameras broadcast the pictures to the world. As one London Labour MP, Diane Abbott, put it, the Met’s failure to intervene “gave the green light to every little hooligan in London to come out on the following days to loot and steal”.

There is the G20 killing, when we learnt that PC Simon Harwood, the officer who pushed Ian Tomlinson to the ground, causing his death, had a foot-long record of allegedly punching, throttling, kneeing or threatening suspects; that he had been forced to resign after altering his notes to justify an illegal arrest; but that he had then been almost immediately re-employed by the police and had returned to serve in one of the Met’s most sensitive units.

Perhaps Alex and his droogs Georgie, Pete and Dim have grown up and joined the police force.

“What’s it going to be then, eh?”


“Hell and blast you all, if all you bastards are on the side of the Good then I’m glad I belong to the other shop.” [Alex, Page 78]

A Clockwork Orange is divided into three parts.  When I posted the above I was finished with Part One.  I’ve now finished Part Two, which ends with Alex being released from prison far in advance of his 14-year sentence by his agreeing to undergo a brutal two-week regime of being forced to look at film clips of horrific violence with his arms and legs tied down and his eyelids propped open.  It’s supposed to be a state run experimental program to “cure” people like Alex of their violent behavior patterns.

Here is an analytical quote from Sparknotes that I find pertinent:

In Burgess’s eyes, the State’s cruelty toward Alex is a far graver perversion of morality than any of Alex’s crimes. Burgess has said that “the violence in the book is really more to show what the State can do with it.” The State of A Clockwork Orange has a legal monopoly on the use of violence, and as such, it may observe or reject the law as it sees fit. As the arm of government, the police who arrest Alex instantiate this power, and they exploit the law for their own pleasure when they beat Alex without cause. These men are as thuggish and brutal as any of Alex’s droogs, and Alex bitterly notes the hypocrisy of their esteemed place in an institution that supposedly upholds goodness—“if all you bastards are on the side of the Good then I’m glad I belong to the other shop.” This is the second time Alex refers to “the other shop,” and here the phrase takes on a richer meaning. Alex at this point is not expostulating abstractly from his kitchen—he is bloodily revolting against the hypocrisy of a State that wishes to harm him while simultaneously exhorting him to be a good, dutiful citizen. Alex’s subsequent confession of all his crimes, then, represents an impassioned assertion of his identity against the State.

When I finish Part Three it will be my task to explain the significance of the title to this book.

FINAL UPDATE: finished it.  Great book, it will be a classic and be read 200 years from now.  The significance of the title:  Before World War II a common Cockney phrase that might have been heard in London Pubs was “as queer as a clockwork orange.”  It implied a strangeness or “madness so extreme as to subvert nature, since could any notion be more bizarre than that of a clockwork orange?”, in the words of Anthony Burgess in his essay entitled “A Clockwork Condition.”  It’s relevance to the story is that Alex was subjected to “aversion therapy’ where he was forced to drink  nauseating chemicals and then made to watch horrifically violent videos, the idea being that his nature would be changed and he would develop a new nature of aversion to violence.  He would begin to feel sick at any feeling or image of violence, and thereby by “cured” of his criminal disposition.

There are a couple of interesting lines in the book put by the author into the mouths of some of the skeptical government workers who administer the treatment.  Some are heard to say “Anyone who no longer has a free choice is no longer human.”  After his release from prison Alex is non-violent for a time and then slips back into a life of crime.  The book ends on a hopeful note when Alex makes the voluntary decision to “grow up” and begin to live a productive life.  The theme of the book is government corruption and political expediency against the backdrop of human nature with a lingering question of which is the most dangerous to achieving good in the world.  The quest for human perfection is not only fruitless but positively harmful.  It’s the enemy of the good.

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