Anthony Burgess’s novel, A Clockwork Orange, later adapted to the screen in a movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, has been noted by many to be one of the most talked about and controversial book/movie duos of the past 50 years (Davies, 2000; Parsons, 1993). Based on the story of Alex, a 15-year-old hoodlum who delights in rape, violence, thievery, and classical music, the text tells a story of betrayal, morality and reformation.
The film and novel were acclaimed by some, such as John Trevelyan (Chairman of The British Board of Film Classification from 1956 to1971) who passed the film with an “X” rating and said it was “…an important social document of outstanding brilliance and quality” (Davies, 2000). The film was also nominated for an Academy Award in 1971 for best picture, best director, best film editing and best screenplay (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2003). However, A Clockwork Orange received a vast amount of negative press also, due to the moral panic it created in regards to the propagation of violence by young people (Arkell, 2000).
The text was blamed for a spate of copy-cat violence that followed the release of the film, “almost overnight the film’s very title had become a press and police euphemism for teenage crime” (Davies, 2000). The moral panic was so great that the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, withdrew the film from circulation in Britain in 1974 after receiving numerous death threats to himself and his family (Arkell, 2000). This essay aims to address the rationale that provoked the moral panic amongst so many when the book, and later the movie, were released, focusing on the way youthful identities are constructed within both texts.
Told in first person narrative, both the novel and movie forms of A Clockwork Orange are presented through the eyes of Alex. This choice to narrate in first person in contrast to omniscient and controlled third person narration styles lends to the plausibility of the story. Aimed toward a youthful audience (either those still in their youth, or those reminiscent of it) the narration of Alex, who himself is in his youth, gives the reader a sense of legitimacy because of his similarity to the reader (viewer).
The reader, as suggested by Roth, is lulled into trusting and seduced into sharing Alex’s world view through the rudimentary and infrequent sharing of his feelings thoughts and perceptions – thus, appearing to tell his story economically and honestly, giving an air of reliability (Roth, 1978). This close audience (reader) identification and confidence in the story can be duly linked to the moral panic evident in society at the time of the release both the novel and the film. It is expected that those who helped sustain the moral panic of the time found this relationship between the target audience and the character of Alex, who is portrayed as rebellious and excessively violent, both disturbing and potentially harmful.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?” (Burgess, 1962) Portrayal of Alex’s youthful identity steadily changes throughout the text. However, the character demonstrates a substantially more thorough developmental evolution in the novel; as the final chapter of the book was overlooked in the production of the film. ‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’ is the question asked at the commencement of each of the three sections of the written text and quoted frequently in the film.
First asked by Alex, then by the prison chaplain, then by Alex again in part three, this phrase leads into three distinct yet similar sections of the novel by encapsulating the confrontation depicted in each part. Alex physically confronts both his friends and a helpless old man in the first section. In the second and final sections it is Alex himself that is confronted, first by the choice of freedom from prison for the sacrifice of his destructive behavior through psychological conditioning; and in the final section the confrontation, akin to the first section, is physical, retribution takes place as Alex is confronted by those whom he demoralized in the first section.
The construction of Alex’s identity is aided by the context he is placed within. As a citizen of a repressive futuristic society where violent street gangs and deadening mass culture are rife, Alex finds comfort in his disregard for property, human life, but most of all his love for classical music. His choice of evil can almost been viewed as a deliberate act of spiritual freedom in his world of radical conformism.
Much like insubordinate teenage gangs of 1950s and 60s England, Alex is not alone in his escapades; joined by three other rebellious hooligans (Alex’s ‘droogs’) the appearance of the group shares similarities with the teddy boys, a tough British 1950s subculture who dressed well and were widely feared by the masses. Alex possesses much of the elegance displayed by the teddy boys, in his enjoyment of both the aesthete and experience of violence; he often seems frustrated with the inability of his droogs to carryout the acts of abhorrence with a sense of style.
Associated with the connection between the style of Alex and his droogs, and teenage subculture, is the way in which they rebel from the oppressive society they inhabit. Alex’s droogs, Georgie, Dim and Pete, are not just oppressed by the state, but by their own peer, Alex. As is often seen in teenage subcultures, the droogs submit to mindless conformity dictated by their leader; they dress like Alex, talk like Alex, and follow his directions.
Alex and his droogs think that they are rebelling, but infact they are submitting to the teenage subculture of the time. Although the violence may be more extreme than some of their peers (however, quite similar to that of rival gang led by Billyboy), they share the same language ‘nadsat’ (a teenage slang invented by the author which is a mixture of English and Russian) and hatred for authority. “And it was like for a moment, O my brothers, some great bird had flown into the milkbar and I felt all the malenky little hairs on my plott standing endwise and the shivers crawling up like slow malenky lizards and then down again. Because I knew what she sang. It was a bit from the glorious Ninth, by Ludwig van” (Kubrick, 1999)
As the text progresses form the first section toward the second, Alex’s droogs begin to foster animosity toward their leader. Alex’s love of classical music spawns an incident that causes the droogs to question his leadership. Dim makes a rude gesture at a women who begins to sing, in their local hangout, part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Alex’s favorite composer). Alex, in a demonstration of his supremacy, punches Dim in the face for disrespecting his idol. At this point in the novel Dim makes his discontent with Alex’s leadership known, however, backs down into his place as follower promptly.
The other droogs agree that Alex took undue advantage of his leadership position and plan to betray him. Up to this point Alex and his droogs have managed, among other things, to assault a scholar, fight with a rival gang, beat a writer and rape his wife, and rape two ten year old girls without penalty. However, on Alex’s last escapade in the ‘free world’ his droogs betray his leadership and after breaking into a rich old lady’s house, Dim strikes him across the face with a chain, leaving him immobile and powerless when the police arrive to take him to prison. ‘…I was 6655321 and not your little droog Alex not no longer.” (Burgess, 1962, p. 61)
It is from this point onward that the construction of Alex’s identity begins to alter. He becomes a number in the prison system; his identity is no longer Alex, but 6655321. Throughout the second section, Alex becomes dehumanized and instead of being in charge, traumatizing and violating innocent citizens, it is now Alex who is the victim. After two years in prison, he is chosen as an ideal candidate for Ludovico’s Technique because of his aggressive history. Ludovico’s Technique, a new experimental brainwashing technique to reprogram ‘goodness’ into the subject, appears to Alex as a ‘get out of jail free card’ when he is offered, in return for participation, an early release.
Much to the disagreement of the prison chaplain, who believes the technique has the capacity to strip the participant of humanity, through removing the ability to make moral choices, Alex proceeds. In the two weeks that follow, Alex is turned into a guinea pig and psychologically conditioned into becoming extremely ill if he so much thinks a violent thought. An unanticipated side effect occurs and Alex also becomes ill when exposed to the once loved sounds of Beethoven (used in the conditioning process). Now robbed of his individuality, personality and humanity by being transformed into a ‘clockwork orange’, a compliant and mind-numbed citizen, Alex is released back into the world from once he came.
For the first time in the novel, Alex becomes entirely vulnerable. With the means by which he survived in the world previous to prison no longer available, he is victimized by those he demoralized in his old violent existence – before his ability to make the ethical choice between good and bad was removed. The tables turned, Dim, once faithful droog, and Billyboy, former enemy, have become policemen, almost certainly to exercise their taste for violence in a more official capacity.
Alex is now the subservient victim, unable to defend himself; Dim and Billyboy take their vengeance by driving him into a field, beating him, and then leaving him with his wounds. In search of refuge Alex finds F. Alexander, a political dissident, who offers Alex a place to stay. It is soon discovered that F. Alexander sees Alex as a no more than a political weapon to demonstrate the dehumanizing consequences of Ludovico’s Technique. Subsequent to the discovery that Alex was one of the hooligans that broke into his house years earlier, beating him and raping his wife (who died as a result), F. Alexander goes to such lengths, in the process to shame the government, Alex attempts to commit suicide.
The attempt at suicide leads Alex down a new road toward freedom of choice once again. As a result of the suicide attempt and the negative light the government is placed in, the effect of Ludovico’s Technique is reversed and Alex becomes a creature free to choose between good and evil once again. With this newfound freedom, Alex turns back to his old ways, and this is how the movie ends. However, the novel goes onto show Alex growing up, not taking responsibility for, but getting bored with his destructive ways, he yearns to settle down and have a family.
A Clockwork Orange demonstrates the destructive capabilities of both man and society. The youthful identities are constructed within the text as forces to be reckoned with in their pursuit of violence, thievery and rape. It is expected that it was almost solely the negativities of the actions of the youthful characters in the text that caused the height of moral panic, when the two versions of the A Clockwork Orange were released.
However there is another side, the youthful identities, especially Alex, are also presented as victims of a repressive, manipulative society. Without tackling both positive and negative aspects of the construction of youth identities within the text, it is unfair to pass judgment. A Clockwork Orange pressures the audience to ask the question ‘is the right to chose evil freely, preferable to submission to an enforced “good”‘.
Alex grows through his violent escapades and distressing experiences (in the novel) into a person of higher moral integrity. After leaving his life of violence behind him, he finally grows up and chooses good over evil; it is the freedom to make this choice, not the outcome, which stresses the message: “Goodness is something that comes from within … Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” (Burgess, 1962, p. 67)
Arkell, H. (2000). “Cinema to rewind Clockwork Orange”, Bath Chronicle, 15 Mar, p.13 (News).
Burgess, A. (1962). A Clockwork Orange, London: Heinemann.