The Classic Brilliance of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange



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Many books that became favorites of mine were discovered by chance and curiosity. I discovered Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi in middle school when I went to a Dollar General. I found Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show at a Barnes and Nobles in high school. Discovering Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange was a bit more random for me.

The picture you see with this post is the cover of the Clockwork Orange copy I found in my uncle’s old room at my grandparent’s house, long ago when I was just 14 or 15. To this day, I kick myself for losing this particular version, and wonder where it is. As soon as I started reading the book, I was hooked, and became a Burgess fan to this very day.

Since this is a well-known story that’s been out for decades, I’ve got a few spoilers here.

When I found this book, the title looked very familiar to me. I’d heard of A Clockwork Orange as a movie, but had never seen it. Nor had I heard of Anthony Burgess. What I discovered when I opened the book would become a lifelong inspiration. A Clockwork Orange became one of my favorite books, and Anthony Burgess one of my favorite authors. This was one of the many reasons I didn’t watch the movie for years, until my college years.  Stanley Kubrick was a movie genius, but still, the book is light-years beyond the movie and for good reason- Burgess was an innovative literary miracle.

It was Anthony Burgess, a self-described Joycean, who would also teach me who James Joyce was, and give me an grand treatment of how authors, like Burgess and Joyce, could play with language. Through Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess plays with adolescent slang, borrowing heavily from Russian, with his narrator and main character Alex.

Alex runs with a group of thugs, young hooligans in a dystopian England. They skip school, drink milk spiked with drugs, and rob houses among other horrible things. All in all, they are horrible people. Alex’s bad deeds catch up with him, and he ends up going to prison, where he is eventually signed up for a revolutionary treatment that will alter his mind for ‘good’.

There’s a powerful moralistic aspect to this story. Anthony Burgess was a big believer in free will, which came from his religious background, and he uses the character of Alex to show a person who always has a choice. Alex decides whether to do these horrible things he does, or not. Due to his youth, and his criminal inclinations, he leans towards error until he is forced, through a scientific experiment, to be mindful of the law. Being forced to be obedient, however, has dreadful consequences. Alex’s mind is altered to such an extreme that he goes from being a criminal to a cowering weakling. He leaves prison, and can’t really cope with the outside world. Alex runs into one of his old hoodlum friends, now a cop, who is just as brutal and sadistic as a law enforcement as he was a hooligan. After being harrassed and ridiculed by his former friend and enduring a bunch of other humiliating circumstances in his rehabilitation, Alex learns his change has been for the worst. Alex’s mind is later treated again and he is “reversed” back to normal.

I live in the US and our version of the book basically ends without the essential final change of Alex taking steps towards becoming a good human being. I found the final chapter around the same time I first saw the movie online (yay for modern technology) and it’s a shame that it didn’t come in American versions of the book. Kubrick’s version ends in the American vein without the final chapter, but Burgess’s original idea of free will and, if it’s better for an individual to choose good instead of the state choosing good for him, is so essential to the book. I’d recommend anyone looking up the real final chapter if they’ve never read it (should be online).

If you’ve never read A Clockwork Orange, please do. Please get immersed in the cool language, the interesting “near future” that didn’t happen (this book was released in the 60’s… but in a way, maybe this book kind of happened when the punk movement hit England? Adicts anyone?). Check out the complicated character, Alex, and the psychological trauma of a man forced to think and feel in a different way. Very eye-opening and thoughtful book that remains a classic to this very day.

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