‘Of course it was horrible,’ smiled Dr Branom. ‘Violence is a horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning now. Your body is learning it. … You are being made sane.’
Given A Clockwork Orange‘s standing as one of the greatest and most influential books of the 20th century, you would expect Anthony Burgess to carry a considerable level of pride for his most well-known work.
Not so. In his Confessions of Anthony Burgess he described being “sickened by my own excitement at setting it down”; in 1985 he went as far as to say he should not have written it at all.
Part of his regret came from the 1971 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, which Burgess felt ignored his book’s core message and instead twisted it into a glorification of sex and violence. “It made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about,” Burgess said, “and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die.”
But in Kubrick’s defence, it’s not hard to see where that misunderstanding came from—A Clockwork Orange is an extremely violent book. Inspired by his first wife’s assault by drunken American servicemen, it follows Alex, a sociopathic teenage delinquent living in a dystopian vision of England. During the day, Alex skips school to the frustration of his social worker; at night, he terrorises the streets of his hometown with fellow thugs Georgie, Dim and Pete. Hyped up on drugs and bloodlust, Alex and his gang tear around in stolen cars, assaulting strangers, robbing shops and invading homes.
And so it begins. Put the book down after a few chapters and you’d be forgiven for thinking it nothing more than an orgy of ultra-violence, as gleefully written as it is perpetrated. Alex and his “droogs” rip through the pages like a gallery of Gotham City villains, laughing away as they beat and batter, while Burgess hides the sick details of their spree beneath a blanket of his own “Nadsat” street slang:
That was old Dim’s cue and he went grinning for this veck’s dithering rot, crack crack, first left fistie then right, so that our dear old droog the red—red vino on tap—started to pour and spot the nice clean carpet.
But it would be wrong to judge A Clockwork Orange on its opening alone. As Burgess himself said, this book is about more than just violence; underneath the outer level of perversity, it’s packed full of questions about free will and human behaviour.
Because as Alex’s criminality gets ever more impassioned, so too do the efforts of those intent on reforming him. And when the threats of the police and his social worker prove impotent, the government decides the only option remaining to curb his brutality for good is to subject him to the Ludovico Technique, a form of nauseating aversion therapy designed to condition away Alex’s violent compulsions.
It’s that—Alex’s enforced rehabilitation during the second act—that form the centre Burgess felt was lost in the Kubrick version. Because although Act I leaves no doubts about the barbarity of Alex’s inner nature and the need for it to be dealt with, Burgess makes it abundantly clear as to what he thinks of his characters’ preferred solution.
It’s enough just to read his descriptions of the doctors and officials overseeing Alex’s treatment: these are slimy, almost lizard-like, characters—gargoyles who loom over Alex from a moral perch as sound as a crumbling church roof. Seen through that lens, their work comes across as meddlesome and sadistic; one image that came to my mind was of children pulling the limbs off an unwanted toy.
And, in a way, that is exactly what Dr Branom and his behavioural team do to Alex. They don’t rehabilitate him, they leave him impotent, stripped of the free will to choose between violence and compassion. The Ludovico Technique transforms him into the titular clockwork orange, described by Burgess as “the junction of the organic—in other words, life—and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined”. Conditioned by fear into doing good, is Alex really any better than a man who makes the choice to do bad?
And that, O my brothers, is what A Clockwork Orange is really about.