Writing A Clockwork Orange essay
Whether you're talking about the novel or the film, A Clockwork Orange is a fascinating subject for an essay. It raises a lot of difficult questions about society and morality, so there's no shortage of things to talk about.
- Alex, the anti-hero, is part of a distinctive teenage subculture. Easily identified by the way they dress, they drink milk laced with mind-altering drugs then go on orgies of recreational violence. Anthony Burgess wrote the novel in 1962. How does this behaviour compare with today's binge drinking culture and the random violence often seen in town centres at the weekend?
- Alex and his friends use a distinctive dialect called Nadsat. This is the Russian suffix for "teen" and most of their expressions are Russian or derived from it (Horrorshow from the Russian Kharasho - good - being one example.) Burgess was writing during the Cold War and he intended that to properly understand the book the reader would need a Russian dictionary. At the time the Russians were regarded as the enemy. By identifying Alex and other teens with them, what point was Burgess trying to make? Was he arguing that teenagers are an enemy of society, that the Russians were misunderstood or simply trying to make Alex and his companions seem alien?
- Eventually Alex is arrested and jailed for his crimes. He becomes the guinea pig for an experimental new treatment, the Ludovico Method. This mentally conditions him so that even just thinking about violence or criminality will make him feel nauseated; he is no longer capable of being a criminal. However it could also be argued that he is no longer human; he has no free will. In one scene, in a discussion with a psychiatrist and a government minister about how Alex is now reformed, the prison chaplain says "He has no real choice, has he… He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice." A question Burgess asked was "Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?" Is a law-abiding society worth the price if it means turning people into robots?
- When the film was released in 1972 it caused an uproar and was accused of encouraging violence. Does this accusation stand up? The viewer is led to sympathise with Alex, but does that extend to approving of his actions? How did Burgess himself feel? It's worth mentioning that in 1944 his pregnant wife was beaten by a group of drunken American soldiers while Burgess was stationed in Gibraltar. She miscarried and Burgess always believed that the attack led to her early death.
No matter what your views on the characters, A Clockwork Orange is an outstanding piece of writing turned into a remarkable film, and as a basis for an essay it has almost endless possibilities. Make the most of them.
1. Explain the view of youth and youth culture in A Clockwork Orange. Is it a positive or negative vision?
The vision of youth culture in A Clockwork Orange is almost entirely negative, a horrifying extreme of the tendencies of young people in the early 1960s, when Burgess wrote his novel.
The young people are obsessed with fashion and insipid pop music, valueless products fed to them by the mass market. Throughout the novel, Alex comments on clothing he sees that is the “heighth of fashion.” Young girls spend several months’ wages on colorful wigs. The slavery to fashion speaks to the essential conformity of young people, as does their love for pop music. Burgess, a musician and composer himself, had a low opinion of popular music enjoyed by young people in the 1950s and 1960s. In the novel, callow pop songs with ridiculous names like “You Blister My Paint” and “Honey Nose” are enjoyed by the young people at the Korova Milk Bar. Alex alone enjoys classical music, and he is mocked for requesting a symphony at the record store.
The young people are oversexed, with girls not even ten years of age wearing padded bras, and rape seemingly commonplace. The graffiti on the walls of Alex’s flatblock walls is sexual in nature, showing that what obsesses juvenile minds is often obscene.
The actions of Alex and his droogs show that their psychological development is still in its infancy. They demand that all their impulses and desires be gratified, regardless of the cost to others, showing that like babies, they still have not developed a conscience. The droogs’ drink of choice is milk, significant to showing their infantile state, and Alex shows a preoccupation with female “groodies.” The young people’s use of nadsat slang, particularly their use of baby-talk sounding words like “eggiweg” (egg) and “fistie” (fist) emphasizes their childishness.
Over and over, in the book, the reader is shown how youth stomps on age and its values—the drunk in the street, singing of love and country, is brutally beaten; the old “schoolmaster type” coming from the library has his books torn apart; the old and rich are subject to robbery of their valued possessions. Youth, Burgess suggests, is a sort of clockwork period of its own, young people being too immature to think for themselves. Only through error and suffering will they reach maturity, as Alex does in the end of the novel.
2. What does it mean to be a clockwork orange? Was Alex always a clockwork orange, or was he made so by the Ludovico Technique?
A clockwork orange, according to the fictional writer F. Alexander, is what results from “the application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism oozing with juice and sweetness.” Deprived of free will by a repressive government, people become like clockwork oranges, natural on the outside but with the souls and hearts of machines.
The psychological conditioning imposed on Alex removes his ability to do wrong. Even when he wants to or tries, he cannot commit any act of violence, even to defend himself from harm. As a side effect of the procedure, Alex cannot listen to music, as it, too, inspires violent thoughts which then trigger his feelings of illness. Alex may appear “good,” but actually his goodness is meaningless because he has no other choice but to behave that way. Far from being a good Christian, he has become like a soulless machine.
Before the Ludovico Technique is used on Alex, he is a free being, given free will to do what he likes. And Alex simply likes to do evil and violence. However, it could be said that in his compulsive violence there is also some kind of mechanical quality. In the end of the novel, Alex likens youth to a state of being like a wind-up toy, going along straight ahead and banging into things because it is not able to turn and avoid them. In other words, Alex may always have been something of a clockwork orange. In the first part, he can only do evil, and in the second part, he can only do good. At last reaching maturity, Alex will be a creature capable of making moral decisions in life.
3. Explain the Ludovico Technique. How can this novel be seen as a rejection of the operant conditioning methods proposed by Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner?
The Ludovico Technique is a form of aversion therapy or conditioning. Patients are shown films that portray undesired behaviors, while simultaneously receiving injections that make them violently ill. Their brains make the association between what is being viewed and how they are feeling physically. The technique described is operant conditioning, a method proposed by radical behaviorist B. F. Skinner to help cure many societal ills. The technique does have its applications. Conditioning is used today to treat drug addiction. However, Burgess’s novel warns against the idea of using psychological conditioning as a tool against antisocial behavior, considering that the ethical problems involved are too great.
First, there are unintended side effects of the technology. There is no way to completely isolate an undesirable behavior completely, so that Alex will now have trouble listening to music, making love, or even reading the Bible after he receives the treatment. Second, the novel asserts, the ability to choose from right and wrong is what makes a person human. After conditioning, the person’s actions may conform to what is expected, but how sincere is the behavior, if the person is given no moral choice? Alex licks the shoe of a man who insults and hits him. Clearly this degrading act is not something he wishes to do; it is a hollow act, completely insincere. However, the motives for an action are of no concern to behavioral science, Burgess indicates. Ethics are not a part of the equation, but they are a concern to the chaplain in the novel, as they are to Burgess as the writer. Third, the novel suggests, behavioral conditioning to remove antisocial urges can have the effect of rendering a person unable to defend himself or herself. Alex cannot strike back when he is struck. The implications of this are clear. A person who receives conditioning so as not to behave badly will then be vulnerable to abuse by those who can behave badly. In particular, they may be vulnerable to agents of a totalitarian government, which benefit from a population unable to revolt or protest.
4. Describe the Government in Alex’s society. What evidence is there that it is quickly moving toward a completely totalitarian state?
The Government in Alex’s society seems to have many elements of socialism, a state in which housing, utilities, and businesses are owned and controlled by the state or collective. For instance, Alex and his parents live in Municipal Flatblock 18A, its hall decorated by a Communist-style “municipal painting” of strong workers. There is a Municipal Power Plant. Alex’s mother works at the Statemart, a state-controlled market; the baboochkas at the bar are supported on State Aid; and people watch Statefilms, that is, films produced by the government.
All adults in the society must work if they are able. The media is controlled by the government, who publish government newspapers boasting of the government’s accomplishments and broadcast, or “worldcast,” programs approved for everyone to view. Alex thinks that the worldcasts are stupid, and looks down on the middle-aged, middle-class people who stare hypnotized at their blue screens each night.
With the entry of the new Minister of the Interior, the Government seems to be tightening its grip on the citizens. The Minister remarks that he expects there to be more political offenders entering the jails in the near future. Later, F. Alexander is sent to prison.
Another new policy of the Minister of the Interior is to help control street crime by recruiting young hoodlums to be police officers. This is how Dim and Billyboy joined the police. The use of the Ludovico Treatment to render criminals incapable of crime seems to be the final step in the Government’s amassing of, as F. Alexander puts it, “the full apparatus of totalitarianism.” The Government now seems poised to win reelection, and after all political opponents are removed, it may decide not to hold any more elections in the future.
5. Burgess wrote his novel with twenty-one chapters, but his American publisher chose to omit the final chapter. Explain how the impact and message of the novel is different if the final chapter is omitted.
At the end of Chapter 20 (Part 3, Chapter 6), Alex has had his free will restored to him by the Government. He gleefully disrespects nurses, doctors, his parents, and finally the Minister of Education. He expresses a desire to smash eggs, rip the feathers out of a peacock, rape and beat people, and even nail Jesus himself to the cross. All of Alex’s riproaring antisocial predilections are right back in place. If the novel ends there, Alex has gone right back to where he was before, a sociopathic monster again.
At the end of Chapter 21, (Part 3, Chapter 7), Alex decides to make a change in his life. He wants to give up the criminal lifestyle he’s enjoying with his new droogs and settle down to start a family. Alex’s final transformation at the end of the book is due to his maturation. He is bored with violence and ready to create something meaningful.
Ending the book at Chapter 20 produces a shocking ending and an ambiguous moral. Some saw the message as endorsing violence, as Alex is expected to go triumphantly back to his “razrezzing” life; others might see the book as endorsing mind control, as it seems the only way to tame the vicious monster. Burgess felt that ending the book here left “evil prancing on the page and, up to the very last line, sneering in the face of all the inherited beliefs, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Holy Roller, about people being able to make themselves better.” He felt that it was not a realistic ending because people can and do change, and for Alex to go on being completely evil would be inhuman.
When the final chapter is added, the book ends on a more optimistic note. Violence will never end, as evil will always have its glamorous attraction to each new generation. Where good exists, evil will also. But human beings endowed with free will are able to grow and change and given time, can redeem themselves—even the most vicious of them, like our “little Alex.” Of his final chapter, Burgess wrote: “There is not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters.” He felt the transformation was necessary to complete the narrative arc of the work. Others have disagreed, finding the final chapter too sentimental and forced.
Either way the book ends, the moral expressed by the chaplain can be applied. Free will is what makes a person human. It is always preferable to allow a person free will, even if that person wills to bad, than to deprive one of free will and force him or her to do good.