Note: This review will not attempt to avoid spoilers (It’s been 50 years!)
A Clockwork Orange is perhaps best known for being perhaps the most disturbing of Stanley Kubrick’s films. Yet one does not really even need to watch the film to see why this is a distinct possibility, even likelihood. Oft analyzed scenes such as the infamous “Singing in the Rape” serve as an attempt to get the viewer into the thoughts of Alex, the main character of the novel and film. While Burgess’ novel can let his actions stand alone as what they are (namely: unconscionable, vile acts) and then surround them with Alex’s own thoughts before and after, Kubrick does not have the luxury of such a ploy without falling into tropes, thus, to go along with Alex’s horrid actions, Kubrick has him not narrate them, but add to them. Somehow make them worse. Namely, by adding pure joy. Kubrick has to show us that Alex not only has no qualms with his crimes, but also that he enjoys them. This is why the film version of A Clockwork Orange is oft-accused of glorifying violence.
Yet the novel finds itself in a different place, as readers are presented with a stream-of-consciousness/post-log of Alex’s day-to-day life in a futuristic dystopian New York. He and his droogs roam the city at night and, for what it is worth, terrorize its inhabitants, beating them to a pulp or worse. It is during one of these night romps that he is caught by the police after accidentally murdering a woman who had sent her cats to attack him (it should not be understated how humorous the novel is at times; including a moment in which, when Alex returns from prison, his father informs him that the state had to sell all of his things so that it could afford to take care of the old woman’s cats). They hall him away and he is sentenced to 12 years in prison, but after two he is offered a deal to walk-free. Participate in the trials of the Ludavico experiment and he will walk after “only a fortnight.” The Ludovica experiment subjects him to intense “ultra-violence” (a term coined by Burgess) in the form of film and Alex is forced to develop such an aversion to violence that he becomes sick at his stomach and feels intense pain when he even begins to think about violence. Likewise, because the films are scored with classical music, he can no longer partake of his favorite composers either, which seems to scar him the most. Upon being released no one, not even his family believes that he is actually a good, changed person. When he finally finds someone who does, the man desires to kill Alex after realizing that Alex broke into his home years ago and raped his wife. Alex’s goodness becomes utterly irrelevant, and he becomes useful only as a pawn in governmental infighting. He attempts suicide unsuccessfully, and in the process being healed they reverse the process of Ludovica, allowing Alex to be violent once more.
And here’s where the fun begins. In the original American release A Clockwork Orange only has 20 chapters, despite Burgess writing 21. At the end of chapter 20, Alex sits in a hospital bed and simply gives in to his violent nature, regaining his humanity, but in the most upsetting of possible ways. Yet, in the rerelease of the novel, with chapter 21 included, the reader joins Alex with his new droogs readying for a night of mischief and terror. Suddenly Alex decides he is not in the mood and tells them to carry on without him. He leaves and runs into Pete, one of his old droogs, who is married and has a family now. Alex is deeply moved that even a person as lowly and desolate as Pete could find such happiness and vows to begin his life anew as a good person.
This last chapter is routinely thought of as being out of character an unconvincing, and on a first read I felt similarly. But as I continued to ponder it, I cannot help but take into account the overall theme of the novel, namely as the importance of choice. That it does not matter if you are feeding the homeless or standing up for the rights of those less fortunate if you do not have a choice in the matter. Without choice the action becomes empty, void of all quality. Burgess makes a case for a sort of endless dualism in which good cannot exist with bad, and vice-versa. That as long as Alex is completely unable to be evil, he is unable to do good as well. This is set up by the line from the prison chaplain to Alex before he enters the Ludovica experiment, “When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” I cannot say I want to simply dismiss the final chapter, as it is reminiscent of perhaps my favorite conversation in literature between Samuel Hamilton, Lee, and Adam Trask in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. A conversation in which Lee argues that the importance of what God tells Cain after he curses him, timshel; thou mayest triumph over sin. It’s not a command, it’s not a promise, it’s an choice inherent to all of us. And in a way, I really like chapter 21, as Burgess remains consistent, telling us it’s a choice, just as he has all along. But I will not deny that ending on chapter 20 was far more satisfying.
Recommended to: It’s a novel about big questions in ethics. More philosophical than anything else, hinging on a consistent ideal rather than the story itself, thus there is a specific niche of people who will adore this novel.
Avoid as if it is Finnegan’s Wake and you have a headache: The language barrier to this novel is notable. If you do not enjoy novels that use a heavy amount of jargon, pidgin, or slang then you should pass on this one.