Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is so much more than an entertaining novel; it is a philosophical and theological fable built upon a conceptual struggle between good, evil, and our God-given and human ability to choose one over the other freely. It is a satirical treatise railing against the dangers of overextended government and its vain penchant for social solutions predicated on the contextual removal of individual free choice in moral decisions. It’s a nightmarish tale of sex and violence set in a dystopian world no sharp person would ever volunteer to live in, never mind confessions of actual and real-time occupancy. Yet, we all do go on living in that very world in spite of our best intentions, and everyday too!
The tale is an accurate reflection of the human condition and the sort of society shaped by this natural propensity towards evil and destruction. It is 100% commentary. Sometimes dystopia is not so imaginary. Life and living comes down to an individual’s freedom to choose good over evil. Goodness is something chosen; it comes from deep within. It can not be created or legislated from outside. The attempt to inflict morality from without leads to a cessation of individual choice. The inability to choose renders a human less than human. This is the message of this story. This message is delivered through young Alex, the narrator and criminal protagonist of the story (the fact that a criminal acts as protagonist speaks volumes). Alex is no Clockwork Orange. There is no such thing; Clockwork Oranges do not exist. This is the point of this fable: human beings must be permitted to make their own oral decisions, even if their decisions result in detriment and depravity.
A Clockwork Orange should be required reading in theology and philosophy skolliwolls. The raskazz is written real horrorshow; it really works the rasoodock. Skvat a copy and read it skorry. It just might change your warble, a malenky bit.1
The Story’s Overall Framework
The structure of A Clockwork Orange is based upon three parts. There are seven chapters in each part. Three sections + seven chapters per section = twenty one total chapters. The number of chapters is intentional by Anthony Burgess. Human maturity is symbolized by the number 21, according to Anthony Burgess’s introductory remarks in the newest edition. The book’s number of chapters is no accident; it is intentionally so, and hints of adult responsibility.
Part One of the Story’s Three Part Structure
A fifteen-year-old named Alex and his band of droogs terrorize the town in their quest to partake of ultraviolence. The once tight band of droogs splinter as a few members vie for respect and control of group leadership. Alex is betrayed, clubbed and left behind by his droogs to be captured by the fast approaching millicents during a home invasion gone bad. He is captured by the millicents and arrested for assaulting an elderly woman. The woman later dies from injuries inflicted by Alex during the home invasion. Alex is sentenced to fourteen years in prison for murder.
Part Two of the Story’s Three Part Structure
Alex attempts to make the most of prison life, in spite of regular beatings from prison guards and numerous rape attempts by fellow inmates. He spends much of his time working in the prison workshop making matchboxes. He even dabbles in prison religion, and as a result moves out of the matchbox business and works as Sunday Mass stereo operator for the prison chaplain (aka Charlie). Alex pours himself into the Bible, mostly because he adores the blood and violence of some of its stories. Alex asks the chaplain about a new rehabilitation program called “Ludovico’s Technique.” The chaplain seems uncomfortable with Ludovico’s Technique, and speaks only cryptically about it. Alex’s already crowded cell gets a new prisoner too. The unpopular new prisoner crawls into Alex’s bunk in the middle of the night while Alex sleeps. He begins to touch Alex while he sleeps. Alex awakes and a fight suddenly ensues. Cellmates join in and the new prisoner is killed. Blame is heaped upon Alex in the morning. Alex is now guilty of two murders and is shipped off to the governor’s office to begin “Reclamation Treatment.” Reclamation Treatment is a torturous process wherein a patient is first injected with an illness inducing “vitamin supplement,” then strapped immovably into a dentist’s chair - with head held fast and pointed directly at a silver screen while eyelids are stretched wide open - to force the viewing of films filled with violent and grotesque imagery. The goal of the government is to create an association between the illness inducing “vitamin supplement” and violence on the screen, to cure Alex. Should he even think about ultraviolence, he will become violently ill.
Part Three of the Story’s Three Part Structure
Alex is freed from his violent addictions. In fact, if he merely thinks about partaking of the ole’ ultraviolence he becomes violently ill. He literally has to grovel and beg people he would otherwise beat to accept his kind words and placating gestures. Our protagonist is released from prison, a cured man. His old, familiar world is, however, forever changed. His mother and father moved a new “son” into his room, his old droog Dim was now a bad police officer, as is an old arch rival, and the husband of one of his earlier victims unknowingly takes him in only to turn him into political fodder to use against the intrusive government he so despises. Alex attempts to commit suicide by jumping out of a window but only manages to break himself up badly. The Reclamation Treatment is reversed during his resultant hospital stay by a process called “Deep Hypnopaedia.” This reversal process is performed by the same government and minister of interior who facilitated the Reclamation Treatment. It was reversed as a result of negative public opinion and consequent political pressure. The story then closes with Alex and new band of droogs gulping laced-milk in a milkbar and seemingly falling into old patterns of ultraviolent behavior. Alex, however, winds up chastising his droogs for attacking the helpless and departs alone into the evening only to reach a personal place wherein he realizes that he is no longer young.
Parting Thoughts and Theological Reflections
There is no Clockwork Orange. Clockwork Oranges only grow in dystopia. God created a real world wherein a humanity could freely chose good over evil, or evil over good. We cannot, in spite of our socio-manipulative ingenuity and technological savvy, create or legislate good from the outside. The consequences of such vain attempts are devastating on individual and social levels. Authentic righteousness is born on the inside. Do not let the words of Jesus of Nazareth be lost on Pharisees alone; he was speaking to us all when he said, “First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” Righteousness comes from the inside, and it affects the outside later. Attempts at “Reclamation Treatments” abound in this broken word of ours. They fail, and cause irreparable damage each and every time. God gave us human beings the freedom to choose. Who are we to try to take that inherent choice away? Are there ramifications and consequences for choice? Yes. God forbid we attempt to erase those too. We can learn much from A Clockwork Orange.
1. Do yourself a favor and grab the PDF guide to the slang Burgess created for young Alex and his ultraviolent addicted droogs. Yes, you can download the Nadsat Dictionary.