“Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?”
– Anthony Burgess
In 1917 John Anthony Burgess Wilson, known as Anthony Burgess, was born into a lower middle class catholic family in Manchester, England. Burgess as an adult would go on to describe his upbringing as a solitary experience; his mother and sister died a year after his birth, he was raised largely by his aunt as his father resented him, and he was often bullied by his schoolmates. While serving in the British military, Burgess’ pregnant wife was raped by American World War II deserters and she subsequently suffered a miscarriage. This tragic and unfortunate event, along with the spike in violence seen in the late 50’s and early 60’s In England, were inspirations for Burgess’ disturbing dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange (213 pages.) Written in just three weeks and published in 1962, A Clockwork Orange is a novel about humanity, ethics, and youth.
The story takes place in the future in a very different England. The language spoken amongst the young Alex, the main character, and his nefarious gang isn’t English but Nadsat, a strange mixture of Russian and English amongst other things. The preferred pastime of the 15 year old protagonist and his vile friends is doing what they call the “Ultraviolent,” committing heinous and atrocious crimes against innocent citizens. These acts are usually preluded by drinking narcotic infused milk and sometimes are accompanied by the sounds of classical music, specifically Beethoven, Alex’s hero.
The book deals with a multitude of themes and ideas ranging from betrayal, the role of government, forced amelioration, revenge, and so on, but all these ideas funnel back into the overarching themes of humanity, ethics, and youth. The very name of the book, A Clockwork Orange, plays into these themes as it refers to the idea of something organic and living functioning like a machine or robot. Burgess himself doesn’t consider his book a work of art, he comments saying “it’s too didactic to be artistic.”
A Clockwork Orange has been a controversial book since it was written, and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation has only made the title even more controversial. Due to the nature of the book, its difficult to come away from it without having some sort of opinions about it. I thought I’d share some of mine.
Things I Liked
As a big fan of books that deal with tough and controversial issues I think Burgess does a brilliant job of exploring these tricky subjects. Burgess doesn’t hold back in the book and he certainly is not afraid to be explicit, but he doesn’t encourage wrongful actions, he points out the faults in them.
The book, unlike the original American version and Kubrick’s movie, offers hope. Despite the grim and nasty picture the novel often paints, the 21st chapter offers a silver lining for readers to cling on to.
One of my favorite adages is Socrates famous quote that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” A Clockwork Orange is a thought provoking book and allows you to see things from new perspectives. It also does a good job at questioning things that are often taken for granted.
Things I didn’t Like
The book can be disturbing and foul and its the primary reason I might not recommend it to someone. After reading the first 20 chapters I decided to try to watch the movie and found it unpalatable to the point of turning it off within the first 30 minutes.
The Nadsat made the read challenging, especially since I was unaware of it until I started reading the novel. I don’t know if I necessarily disliked it, if I would’ve known before hand I definitely would have appreciated it better. If you are thinking about reading the book it’s definitely something to consider.
I’d definitely recommend A Clockwork Orange, but with some significant reservations. This is a a cerebral book that uses its own language and can be too dark and too sickening for some, so approach with caution.