Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The freedom of individuals to make choices becomes problematic when those choices undermine the safety and stability of society, and in A Clockwork Orange, the state is willing to protect society by taking away freedom of choice and replacing it with prescribed good behavior. In Alex’s world, both the unfettered power of the individual and the unfettered power of the state prove dangerous. Alex steals, rapes, and murders merely because it feels good, but when his violent impulses are taken away, the result is equally as dangerous, simply because freedom of choice, a fundamental element of humanity, has been taken away.
Thematically, the minister of the interior stands on one side of Alex, supporting an ordered society, and the prison chaplain and Mr. Alexander stand on the other, supporting freedom of choice, even with the negative consequences that go with it. The minister of the interior argues that government should have the power to bring law and order to the streets, and that questions of individual liberty are insignificant compared with the values of safety and order. He cites the suffering Alex causes his victims as evidence for his argument’s merit, but the minister’s own misuse of power, such as hiring thugs as policemen and imprisoning political opponents, undermines his argument. Mr. Alexander, on the other hand, argues for the protection of individual liberty, but he weakens his own argument with his willingness to sacrifice Alex’s life and liberty in order to further his party’s agenda. The prison chaplain seems more sincere in his defense of the right of individuals to make moral choices, equating the ability to choose with being human, but his willful ignorance of Alex’s true destructive potential makes him seem almost naïve. Throughout A Clockwork Orange, the film forces us to weigh the values and dangers of both individual liberty and state control, and consider how much liberty we’re willing to give up for order, and how much order we’re willing to give up for liberty.
The importance of evil as well as good in human nature is a fundamental theme of A Clockwork Orange. Alex is despicable because he gives free rein to his violent impulses, but that sense of freedom is also what makes him human. Unlike so many of the adult characters in the film, he, at least, seems exuberantly alive. When Ludovico’s Technique eliminates the evil aspects of his personality, he becomes less of a threat to society, but also, the film suggests, less human. He is not truly good because he didn’t choose to be good, and the utilization of that choice is vital to being a complete human being.
Alex, with his many evil deeds, isn’t a traditional hero, and this is characteristic of and unique to Kubrick’s films. The good and bad in Kubrick’s characters are almost always inextricably intertwined. Through his characters, Kubrick suggests that dark impulses are a fundamental part of human nature. Human destructiveness and power-lust don’t go away with proper conditioning, except when that conditioning is so extreme that it makes us inhuman. Instead, we must decide how to channel those impulses, when to give them free rein, and when to suppress them by force. A Clockwork Orange illustrates the extremes of both freedom and suppression.
In A Clockwork Orange, characters view and use art in many different ways, creating a complex and conflicted picture of how art and real life interact. Alex uses music, film, and art to express and understand his life. During the two weeks that doctors show Alex reel upon reel of sex and violence, he is amazed that the real world looks even more real on a television screen. He and other characters also use art to detach from life and to cut themselves off from other people. When Alex beats Mr. Alexander and prepares to rape his wife, he sings “Singin’ in the Rain” and dances like Gene Kelly did in the musical. By making the violent act into a song and dance, Alex distances himself from the brutality and from his victims’ suffering. The cat lady, whom Alex kills, expresses her sexuality through her statues and the paintings on her walls, but when Alex touches her statue of a penis, she screams at him not to touch it because it’s a work of art. Through art, she makes sexuality an object not to be touched, rather than an act that is all about touching.
The characters’ varied responses to and uses of art in A Clockwork Orange suggest that art has within it the potential for both good and evil. Art both expresses and channels human impulses, and it can therefore enhance or deaden life. It can bring people closer to reality or it can distance them from it. Kubrick makes sex and violence look unreal in the film. He directs fight scenes to look like dance, slows down the camera, and distorts images. He plays with our perceptions so that we never forget we are watching a work of art. Some critics have said that the stylized and detached way Kubrick presents violence makes accepting it easier, and that the film even celebrates violence. However, the detachment we experience as a result of the film’s artistic elements can also make us reflect more deeply on our own ability to distance ourselves from violence.