I finally read the infamous A Clockwork Orange, a book that more people can talk about, but that few have actually read. They aren’t missing a whole lot.

The book displays a mastery of language, employing and inventing a futuristic slang, mixing Russian with English—an irony of two opposing ideologies merging together. Stylistically, Burgess created a masterful dystopian universe and tackled some complicated issues of violence, aesthetics, free will, and the connection of these issue in a moral universe.

The protagonist Alex only loves classical music more than he does extreme and arbitrary violence. After letting his hubris get the best of him, Alex’s friends betray him at an old woman’s house filled with cats. Alex breaks in to rape and rob the old woman, but he slips on a saucer, the cats and the old woman attack him, and his friends knock him out and leave him to be arrested by the police.

The state sentences Alex to fourteen years in prison. While there, he befriends a chaplain that allows Alex to play the music during mass and introduces Alex to the Bible—Alex identifies with Jesus’s captors and torturers and enjoys the violence. The prison becomes overcrowded and Alex has a confrontation with a fellow inmate and Alex ends up killing the man.

The state decides it will use Alex for a new program they have. Alex is injected with something and forced to watch hours of horribly violent films, which cause him to have a physical reaction of nausea and sickness, along with fear and anxiety. Eventually cured (after two weeks), he leaves and finds himself in a different world. The state has cleaned up crime on the streets, and Alex can no longer defend himself since he cannot even think about violence without getting sick.

He goes home and finds his room has been rented out. He ends up at a library trying to research ways to kill himself peacefully, where he meets a man who Alex had robbed and abused. The old man and his friends attack Alex and the police are called; however, the police are his old rival and his old droog, Dim, who betrayed him earlier. They take Alex out to the country where they beat him senseless. Alex ends up at a home where he raped a writer’s wife (the dude’s book was called “Clockwork Orange”). The writer is a dissident who wants to use Alex as a pawn against the government. The writer’s friends take Alex to an apartment and lock him in. He wakes up to classical music, which now reminds him of violence and he gets so crazy he jumps out of a window.

At the hospital, Alex is “cured” and realizes he can fantasize about horrendous shit again without getting sick. The government, in a moment of p.r. with elections coming up, make a big show about curing Alex and offer him a great job and a stereo. Alex rejoices in knowing he will return to his old criminal life while accepting this job—the writer was going to kill him anyway, so everything really works out for Alex. (The American version ends here)—the British version has a final chapter where Alex is older, and while he has a new gang, he begins to lose his taste for violence. He runs in to one of his old droogs, who is married and working now, which further makes Alex realize that all his violence was childish.

One of the central themes of the book is the necessity of free will for good and evil. If the state “cures” Alex, making him incapable of even choosing to commit crimes, then he cannot be good. Much of the commentary I’ve seen discusses this central concern: the text’s examination of free will and good, claiming, correctly I believe, that good only exist if we have free will. My problem with all this talk of free will is Alex’s characterization. If Alex has no capacity for shame or guilt, is that free will? How can Alex chose good if he doesn’t even know what good is? Grant it, that might be a weak argument: he knows what good is; he manipulates people in a knowledgeable way. Alex views violence as an art form, and he reveals his sense of violence as art, claiming some things wrong and something correct when it comes to inflicting violence; however, when one feels no remorse, no guilt, no empathy, that person is a psychopath, an the idea of free will and choice is skewed. When the doctors tell Alex, “What is happening to you now is what should happen to any normal healthy human organism contemplating the actions of the forces of evil, the workings of principles of destruction. You are being made sane, you are being made healthy” (Norton Critical Edition 71), they are partially correct. Alex has no sense of remorse at all for the violence he inflict; not even when he is helped by F. Alexander, knowing the women he raped died because of it. Alex feels no remorse at the violence he inflicted on the old man at the library—Alex is a psychopath, and the normal rules of society, or free will, apply to him.

Furthermore, these readings arguing for Alex’s lost free will overlook his suicide attempt, his choice to not tell F. Alexander that he(Alex) was the criminal who two years earlier broke in and raped his (F.) wife. Alex lies, purposefully and with malicious intent. While Burgess says “Goodness is nothing if evil is not accepted as a possibility” (135), I would also argue that evil is nothing if goodness is not accepted as a possibility.

Nonetheless, the novel displays the government as the ultimate psychopath, unrelenting in its manipulations, without remorse for its victims. The state uses Alex and the thugs to patrol the streets and keep common people scared and indoors, and then later, the state hires those thugs as police. On this point, the novel does an excellent job of revealing the ironies of a totalitarian regime.

But now this is all much too much to review later when I study for comps…

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