Alex perpetrates gruesome acts of violence for no better reason, it seems, than that he likes to. As Deltoid, his probation officer, says to him, “You’ve got a good home here, good loving parents. You’ve got not too bad of a brain! Is it some devil that crawls inside of you?” Alex himself doesn’t have a better explanation for his actions. He simply takes pleasure in being evil the way other people take pleasure in being good, he explains. He enjoys seeing blood flow and calls it “beautiful” or “lovely.” He enjoys the power he has over people, even his fellow hoodlums. Though at times he feels sad and low, he doesn’t appear to feel any empathy with his victims. The violent life is just a feel-good game to him. Somehow Alex’s flippant disregard for others gives him an appealing vitality. His extravagant enjoyment of music is contagious, and even his enjoyment of violence makes him seem astoundingly alive. His actions are inherently evil, but his love of life, even an evil life, keeps him from being simply a monster.
Despite being a rapist and murderer, Alex has a strangely innocent, schoolboylike charm. The actor who plays Alex, Malcolm McDowell, also has youthful, even cherubic features, and he speaks in a gentle voice, saying “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to the officials. This gentleness isn’t only hypocrisy. When he first arrives in prison and the prison guards instruct him, in military tones, to do this, do that, stand there, sign here, Alex does it all without much anger. He doesn’t like his lot and tries to change it, but when he can’t, he accepts it. He may pity himself, but he doesn’t wallow in it, which makes him more likable. When he imagines the crucifixion of Christ, he doesn’t dwell on Jesus’ suffering but rather pictures himself as a Roman soldier taking part in the torture. Compared to the holier-than-thou attitude of the prison chaplain, Alex’s sacrilegious response feels refreshingly, almost childishly honest.
Alex does not undergo any fundamental transformation in his personality. In most works of fiction, the main character’s struggles with questions of identity or moral choice propel the story forward. In A Clockwork Orange, however, Alex undergoes trials and adventures like other characters, but he is essentially the same at the end of the film. Ultimately, A Clockwork Orange doesn’t ask what Alex should do, but what we as a society should do with Alex. (The novel A Clockwork Orange actually includes an additional chapter in which Alex grows up and renounces violence, and so does change and develop, but the novel’s American publisher chose to cut that chapter. Kubrick based his film upon that version of the novel, much to the disapproval of its author, Anthony Burgess.)
Throughout the film, the prison chaplain exhibits a certain blindness to reality, and our first view of him is as a sanctimonious, foolish, and ineffectual man. He preaches fire and brimstone to the convicts, and they ignore and ridicule him. He also consistently underestimates Alex’s destructive potential and overestimates his desire for true moral reform. The chaplain believes, when he and Alex study the Bible together, that Alex is contemplating the goodness of Jesus and the evils of sin, but we know he is not. The chaplain believes Alex sincerely wants to reform, but we know he simply wants his freedom. This limitation in the prison chaplain’s character doesn’t invalidate his argument that even a criminal should not be stripped of his ability to make moral choices, but it does undermine his message to a certain extent.
The prison chaplain is both foolish and authoritarian in his religious outlook, but he speaks eloquently, if not completely convincingly, about protecting the individual’s ability to make moral choices. When Alex tells the chaplain he wants to take part in Ludovico’s Technique so that he can make the rest of his life “one act of goodness,” the prison chaplain responds: “The question is whether or not this technique really makes a man good. Goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” After the minister of the interior shows off just how well the state has cured Alex of his violence, the prison chaplain voices an objection to such far-reaching state power. He says: “The boy has no real choice, has he? . . . He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.” The prison chaplain is an employee of the state, so his speaking out against the state is unexpected. The minister of the interior scornfully dismisses the chaplain’s words, but the moral question the chaplain raises complicates Alex’s “cure.”
Unlike the prison officials who bark their orders, the minister of the interior wields a quiet power. In all his scenes, he appears pleasant. When he visits Alex’s prison to choose a guinea pig for Ludovico’s Technique, he is suave, dressed in a good suit and speaking in a calm voice. He uses pretty words, saying that criminals should be dealt with on a “curative basis.” In other words, they shouldn’t be punished but reformed. However, these niceties belie more sinister intentions. The minister believes the government’s goal should be to run society cleanly and efficiently. Ethical and existential questions don’t concern him. When the prison chaplain tries to lecture him about the rights of man, the minister tells him that what matters is what works. He wants to maintain law and order in the streets, even if he must hire thugs as policemen. He wants to use their brutality in the service of the state. At the prison, he explains that the government wants to empty the prisons of violent criminals to make space for political prisoners. We don’t learn more about these political prisoners, but clearly they are people who oppose the minister and his party. Like any thug, and like the prison officials who seem so high on their authority, the minister of the interior seeks power at any cost.
I was wondering if anyone could tell me where I could find the original interview with Burgess talking about George Steiner when he says, ‘so foolish as to wonder why Nazis, why a concentration camp officer could listen to Schubert and at the same time send Jews to the gas’.
The Catcher in the Rye
A Clockwork Orange