This Day In Literary History
On May 14th, 1962, A Clockwork Orange, the classic novel by the famous English writer Anthony Burgess, was published in London. The title comes from the British slang expression, "queer as a clockwork orange."
An antifascist parable set in a dystopic England of the future, it examined a major problem facing Britain at the time of its publication - a huge rise in juvenile delinquency and the government's inability to deal with it constructively.
The novel is narrated by its main character, Alex, who refers to himself as "Alexander the Large." A highly intelligent but psychopathic teenager, he leads the Droogs, a violent street gang comprised of his friends Pete, Georgie, and Dim. Alex introduces everyone and sets the scene in this unforgettable opening paragraph:
There was me, that is Alex, and my three Droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much, neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no licence for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthmesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog and All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I'm starting off the story with.
The dazzling poetic prose is written in Nadsat, a language invented by Anthony Burgess for this novel. It's a dialect that combines proper English with British and Russian slang words and phrases. Alex speaks this lyrical language as he tells his horrific story.
The novel opens with Alex and his gang at a milk bar, where they drink drugged milk to get themselves high and ready for committing random acts of violence. First, they gleefully beat an old, homeless drunkard. One night, while joyriding in a stolen car, the gang breaks into an isolated cottage.
There they terrorize the occupants, beating the husband and raping his wife. When he's not out with his gang, Alex passes the time in his dreary home, escaping his poor excuse for parents by blasting the works of his favorite composer, "Ludwig Van," (Beethoven) and masturbating to violent sexual fantasies.
When Georgie challenges Alex for leadership of the gang, he puts down the rebellion by beating Georgie in a fight and slashing open Dim's hand. Then he takes them out for drinks at the milk bar.
Georgie and Dim have had enough, but Alex demands that the gang follow through with Georgie's plan for a "man-sized" job and rob a rich old woman who lives alone. The robbery is botched when the old woman calls the police - but not before she is assaulted and knocked unconscious.
The gang then turns on Alex, attacking him and leaving him to take the fall when the police arrive. The old woman later dies of her injuries and Alex is accused of murder.
After spending a couple of years in prison, Alex becomes an involuntary participant in an experimental rehabilitation procedure called the Ludovico Technique, which is supposed to remove all violent and criminal impulses from the human psyche.
The prison chaplain is opposed to the Ludovico Technique. He argues that conscious, willing moral choice is a necessary component of humanity. Nevertheless, Alex is forced to undergo the procedure.
For two weeks, his eyes are wired open and he is forced to watch violent images on a screen while being given a drug that induces extreme nausea. It's basically a horrific form of aversion therapy.
When Alex recognizes the soundtrack to the violent film presentation as Beethoven's fifth symphony, he begs the doctors to turn off the sound, telling them that's a sin to take away his love of music, and Beethoven never did anything wrong. They refuse.
After the procedure is completed, Alex is brought before an audience of prison and government officials and declared successfully rehabilitated. To demonstrate this, they show how Alex is unable to react with violence even in self defense, and becomes crippled by extreme nausea when sexually aroused.
The outraged prison chaplain again protests the Ludovico Technique, accusing the state of taking away Alex's God-given ability to choose good over evil. "Padre," a government official replies, "There are subtleties. The point is that it works."
Alex is released from prison, but his life plunges into a downward spiral. He finds that the Ludovico Technique has rendered him physically unable to listen to his Beethoven and unable to defend himself from attack. He is promptly beaten up by a former victim.
The police arrive, and they turn out to be Alex's former gang member Dim and former rival gang leader Billyboy. They beat him savagely and leave him for dead. Later, Alex is befriended by a political activist who turns out to be the man whose wife Alex had raped during the home invasion.
When the activist finally recognizes Alex as the gang leader, he tortures him with the classical music he once loved. His life destroyed by the therapy that was supposed to make him a model citizen, a desperate Alex attempts suicide and survives.
A huge scandal erupts and the embarrassed government officials agree to reverse the Ludovico Technique in order to quell the bad publicity. Afterward, they offer Alex a cushy job at a high salary, but he looks forward to returning to his violent ways.
He forms a new gang, but after watching them beat a stranger, Alex finds that he has tired of violence. He contemplates giving up gang life, becoming a productive citizen, and doing what he secretly always wanted to do - start a family of his own. He wonders if his children would inherit the violent tendencies he once had.
In the U.S. first edition of the novel, the last chapter was cut. The publisher wanted the story to end on a dark note, with Alex looking forward to resuming his violent ways. He believed that the original UK edition ending, with Alex deciding on his own to reform, was unrealistic.
Anthony Burgess resisted the idea at first, but gave in because he needed the money. He would always regret allowing the final chapter of A Clockwork Orange to be cut from the U.S. edition. In America, the novel would not be published in its original version until 1986.
When legendary British filmmaker Stanley Kubrick adapted it as an acclaimed feature film in 1971, he based his screenplay on the U.S. first edition of the novel, ending the film on a dark note, with Alex smirking wickedly and saying, "They cured me all right!"
A huge success at the box office and widely praised by critics, A Clockwork Orange was one of the few X-rated films to be nominated for Academy Awards. The movie did have its detractors, due to its relentlessly dark tone and violence.
Passed uncut for release in the UK, the film sparked outrage when several violent juvenile offenders claimed that their crimes were inspired by it. After he and his family received death threats and their home was picketed, Stanley Kubrick withdrew the film from circulation in the UK, where it would remain out of print until after Kubrick's death in 1999.
I've read both versions of the novel, and I prefer the U.S. first edition because its grim ending really brings home the main theme of the novel - that fascism is an evil far worse than the societal ills it promises to cure.
The cut final chapter makes for interesting reading, but it does seem unlikely that the damage done by the horrific Ludovico Technique could be reversed, which leaves the reader wondering if Alex's ultimate rejection of violence really was the product of his own free will.
Today, both editions of A Clockwork Orange are available in the U.S., and the novel remains a classic work of literature.
Quote Of The Day
"It seems priggish or pollyannaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy. It is the novelist’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself." - Anthony Burgess on A Clockwork Orange
Today's video features a complete reading of Anthony Burgess's classic novel, A Clockwork Orange. Enjoy!