Book Review: “A Clockwork Orange” (Anthony Burgess) (4 Stars)

23 Sep

Summary: The paths of violence navigate through a forest of moral choices-what is the worth of the
automatic man?

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes or our website:

Review: The depth of this work is not fully realized in a passing read. Indeed, the author himself dismisses it as much too pedantic to be artistic. Yet, the work does seem to have layers with which the reader can be drawn into thoughtfulness. It is a violent work, born in part, from a violent act. Burgess’s wife suffered an attack not unlike one of the horrendous acts which the main character perpetrates. This fact alone make the work mind-boggling and curious. Why would the author write a work like this, told from the perspective of the actual criminal mind?

And yet, he distances himself from all the violence. Blurring the heinous crimes with a hypnotic made-up language that populates the book. Burgess admitted this. The language of this book, perhaps a bit difficult to get through at first, becomes more and more familiar as we are sucked along in little Alex’s head and all his misadventures. It covers over the violence and keeps the reader from being completely turned away. Perhaps we even feel a strange sympathy for the main character when he is being used by the political forces in this world? As we might be sucked in by any charismatic criminal.

Moral choice? In the book, the main character is evil, but the government attempts to make him good by physically disabling him from doing bad. The religious figure, a prison Chaplin, decries this saying that without freewill a person ceases to be a person. By contrast a prison warden scorns that the government’s action is missing the point – for where is redemption without punishment “an eye for an eye” and all that. The government officials in the conservative party say that the only point of all this is to lower the crime rate (and in so doing to get reelected). The scientists who invent the special technique which transforms the main character don’t even want to get into ethics at all. But what about Alex’s parents and former social worker? They all sort of seem perplexed by him or maybe indifferent. And the main character himself is unconcerned with all this – he just wants to get back to his old ways as quick as he can.

If you read the 21st chapter (the one originally cut out in the American version) you end on a different note. The character grows up. Seemingly all on his own. His change appears to come from within. Yet, I feel it is not completely from within – for at the end – he has a job doing something he likes (which is not destructive), and he is now earning money NOT stealing it. Back in his crime-filled sprees it was easy come – easy go. Yet little Alex, now big Alex is not so quick to part with his cash when he’s been meant to become a part of society and earn his keep. So, when Alex gets set up doing something he likes (associated with his love of music) his destructive ways are diverted.

But compare this with Alex’s companions: George, the droog who had a notion to take over leadership – falls victim to his own criminal ambitions. Dim, a lack-witted brute, throws in with Alex’s enemy– perpetrating his old violent tricks now as a corrupt (or sadistic) police officer. Then there is Pete who was the least violent in the group, who renounces his old ways and finds a girl—moves on—matures—grows up. We are led to believe that Alex might follow in Pete’s footsteps. Did he come to this conclusion on his own? Did the government help him to it by providing him a way of making a living with something positive he is interested in? Or did it just become tired of being a criminal (or more mature). After all, the last chapter is the “21st” chapter and made to be symbolic with the coming of age at 21 years.

In Alex’s world, everyone connected with the criminal way seems to be using everyone else. Alex and his droogs use people by preying on them. Then Alex is preyed upon by the government for political reasons and exploit. Despite Alex’s unforgivable lifestyle, we are still left feeling unsatisfied with the government’s solution. Somehow we can’t quite swallow turning someone into an automaton. Burgess makes sure of this by making the governments technique have the side effect of causing him pain and awful discomfort whenever he hears music (his one arguably redeemable quality). And this side effect is then exploited to cause Alex to try to “snuff it” (end his own life). This would be unacceptable, for if the government had wanted that, then they simply could have administered capital punishment in the first place.

This book is very successful in sucking you in to a sort of comfortable and hypnotic read of things that would otherwise jolt you off the page, and then after you’ve gone too far into the character’s head it’s too late to turn back. You are caught in the bright and harsh lights on the big moral issues at stake surrounding crime, morality, maturity and freedom of choice.

1 Comment

Posted by on September 23, 2014 in Book Reviews


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One response to “Book Review: “A Clockwork Orange” (Anthony Burgess) (4 Stars)

  1. jeannemeeks

    September 23, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    Well done review. Makes me want to read the book, though I HATED the movie when it was first released. In truth, I don’t remember it, only the violence, and that turned me off.


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