A Clockwork Orange
by Anthony Burgess
Review By Dan Geddes
Perhaps I expect too much of literature. Coming to read a novel for the first time, one nearly always has preconceptions of it, whether from its reputation, reviews, word of mouth, a movie version, or because you’ve read works by the same author.
I suppose with A Clockwork Orange I expected something a little more powerful, a little less up-climax-down structurally. And the version I read, the American version that finally included the “legendary” twenty-first chapter did nothing more than incite expectations. So too, the author’s introduction only further shaped my preconceptions, and told me what to look for thematically.
A Clockwork Orange is obviously the work of a young writer, a writer anxious to both titillate, and to achieve status as a philosophical novelist. The violence is indeed titillating, but is also veiled by the Nadsat language employed. Undoubtedly, if the book has a cult status similar to the movie, it is the violence and the youth saga elements of it that appeal to youngish readers, rather than the philosophical point.
I have to agree with the author that, though the novel does have some of the elegance of simplicity, its philosophical point about moral choice is too baldly put; the work is too didactic.
A Clockwork Orange is primarily about moral choice, especially that the State cannot change humans into automatons in order to achieve socially acceptable behavior. The novel’s setting has the hue of a negative utopian novel, but this is merely trapping, and the novel could just as easily be set in 1960s Britain. The rendition of the setting is too sketchy to have a sociological import, or to really serve as social critique, or even to say much about totalitarianism. If anything, Burgess gets some jabs in against the Left, for apparently using the dehumanized Alex as a poster child for the horrors of totalitarian policies.
Indeed, one leaves with the impression that Burgess is making the somewhat loftier philosophical point that free will is a necessary condition of humanity, even if it often results in evil; and there is even echoes of predestination/free will debates, that answer the question of the problem of Evil, and why would God would knowingly create evil.
I find it pretty slim fare that this is really the only issue the novel addresses. Yes, this lesson can be applied politically as well as to theology and ontology, but no other issues are addressed.
Taking a different tact, the novel may be seen as a bildungsroman, especially taking into account the final chapter where Alex seems to want bourgeois life. Yet, given the lack of transition from chapters 20 to 21, there is no real explanation for Alex’s change of heart, unless it is simply the aging process and a concurrent slowing of the blood. There is no lesson here, especially considering that the causes of Alex’s initial violent behavior are never explained. Is violence simply a characteristic of youth that eventually dissipates? Demographic realities do not bear this out.
But the novel is an enjoyable read, seamless, and the initial discomfort at the unfamiliar language eventually passes. Each of the parts flows, and we are given enough to imagine each scene. The characterizations are sketchy but functional. The idiom is infectious, and helps to characterize Al.
In the introduction, Burgess claims to be a writer who believes in the import of arithmology, that numbers must have meaning and never be arbitrary. That there are 21 chapters, he argues, symbolizes maturity. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but this use of number seems linear to me, and I don’t see how the use of chapter numbering carries much weight. It is balanced and symmetric, the way he divides the chapters, but I cannot see how this can carry much thematic weight or be worth much consideration. Surely, if one can find a way to make chapter divisions thematic, to add to the whole, then surely they–like anything else at the novelist’s disposal–should be used. Perhaps his musical background has given Burgess an exaggerated estimation of the importance of numerical form, especially about something so obvious as chapter divisions.
In short I find this to be an enjoyable work, but somewhat light, and not really masterful. The structure and the philosophy are just too easy. Work has gone into the smoothness of the prose, and the transitions, which are never jarring. Philosophically, I appreciated the fact that Alex’s indoctrination took the form of movies. It was like the theater scene in Hamlet, and had echoes of the Allegory of the Cave. As such, Burgess shows himself to be an interesting novelist of ideas, but not profound.
15 November 1999
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