In this short novel, Burgess traces the happenings of a teenage “gangster”. With the use of Nadsat, Burgess’s invented language, the protagonist, Alex, is stylistically portrayed as a symbol of rebellion and ultra-violence, whose journey spans between high and lows of power. The narration is kept simple and linear, though not without interesting twists, and concisely raises some key questions about humanity, repression and freedom.
The language in the novel created a challenge for me to break the ‘code’ of speech, and although I still haven’t understood every word in Nadsat, I can appreciate the tone of rebellion that the language conveys. And throughout the novel, the language is fast-paced, straightforward, strong, depicting sharp images of attacks and assaults, as well as Alex’s quick-minded intelligence. This all makes “A Clockwork Orange” a compact novel, surged with adrenaline and fright.
The novel is not just about violent crimes however, but also of subtle but “big” questions of our humanity. It challenges the idea of being “cured”, “healthy” and “good”, as opposed to being evil and repressive. Alex remains quite undeniably a horrible villain until the second part of the book, where the “good intentions” of the people trying to cure him becomes questionable. Surely Alex is “evil”, but so is the government, according to those who are against the Ludovico technique, since it tortures and distorts individual personality, striping people off their right to choose his own fate. So what constitutes as evil? It is easy to agree evil is beating up helpless people, but is it also evil to beat up those who beat up people, with an even more powerful and torturous method? It is debatable how far the government’s power should extend to, in the name of justice even, to “correct” or transform human beings into personalities accepted by the general society. “You’ve sinned, I suppose, but your punishment has been out of all proportion. They have turned you into something other than a human being.” (Chapter 4, part 3) Forcing conformity is repression, therefore it is evil, but what if it is the conformity to “goodness”? And with the juxtaposition of two situations of “cure”, one announced by Dr. Brodsky, whose mission is to turn Alex into a violent-hating and “good” citizen, and one announced by a different doctor later on, who considers him returning to a violence-seeking state of mind as “good”, emphasizes the subjective of “healthiness”, and the fact that upon different intentions, different meaning and idea are used for the same word. So what constitutes “evil” and “goodness”? Perhaps they can never have definite meaning, since human intentions vary wildly from person to person, and from time to time.
Another idea the book tackles is the meaning of being “human”. Raised by the jailer and F. Alexander, the subject of debate involves concepts of freedom of choice: if a man is good, but he did not choose to be good, instead forced to be good, is he still human? In contrast, if a villain chooses to be evil, he is still human, because he has a choice in his actions. Is it still humane to force an individual to be “good”, even though that means stripping away his freedom? Or is this act acceptable, because “goodness” trumps freedom? “You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable only of good.” (Chapter 4, part 3) Alex’s situation puts our morals into question, asking whether it is freedom that is superior to “goodness” (which consists of kindness, caring, respect, etc.), or the opposite. How important is freedom, and how much are of it are we willing to give up for other benefits. For example, would you give up your right to smoke in public so you don’t have to smell other people’s smoke? “The tradition of liberty means all. The common people will let it go, oh yes. They will sell liberty for a quieter life.” (Chapter 5, part 3) And it is also the question of how much freedom should one be allowed, and how much of it should be restricted upon individuals who have encroached on other’s well-being. In reality, this issue arises in areas such as the debate around whether the capital penalty should be legal, whether rapists should be castrated etc. And in Alex’s case, I had to debate whether he is a hero or a villain, and still i have not decided.
Finally, “A clockwork orange” is a portrayal of youth, with all its strength and power, its capacity to do good and bad, to be influenced and to revoke and fight against influence. Burgess demonstrated this chaotic time of one’s life through the over-the-top violent life of Alex, with all his sins and wit, his ability to realize what is being done to him and the rebellious instinctive behaviour that is so familiar to any youth. And the final chapter, where the anger and greed for power subsides, Burgess calls the dying flame of violence “maturity”, a state of mind with calmness and seeking of the future. Alex is a hyperbolic description of us teenagers and young adults, who seek for pleasure and fight to find it, who thirst for being a non-conformist and being free to pursue what we claim make us powerful. But it is not just a novel for growing youths, it is also a reflective piece on the freedom of life and self-determinism.