Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Nadsat is the single most striking literary device that Burgess employs. An invented slang that incorporates mostly Russian and Cockney English, Alex uses nadsat to describe the world of A Clockwork Orange. Its initial effect is one of exclusion and alienation, as the reader actively deals with the foreignness of Alex’s speech. This effect is important because it keeps us removed from the intensely brutal violence that Alex perpetrates. Before we can evaluate Alex’s character, we must first come to identify with him on his terms: to “speak his language,” literally. In this way, Alex implicates us in the remorseless violence he commits throughout most of Part One, and we in turn develop sympathy for him as our narrator. In some sense, then, nadsat is a form of brainwashing—as we develop this new vocabulary, it subtly changes the ways we think about things. Nadsat shows the subtle, subliminal ways that language can control others. As the popular idiom of the teenager, nadsat seems to enter the collective consciousness on a subcultural level, a notion that hints at an undercurrent of burgeoning repression.
Nadsat’s origins also help to illuminate the world that Burgess chooses to depict in the novel. The combination of Russian and English indicates that Alex’s society is inspired by the two major superpowers of Burgess’s time, American capitalist democracy and Soviet Communism, suggesting that the two entities are not as far apart from one another as we might have thought.
Classical music enters A Clockwork Orange on a number of levels. On the formal level, the structure of the novel is patterned after musical forms. The novel, which is divided into three parts of seven chapters each, assumes an ABA form, analogous to an operatic aria. Accordingly, Parts 1 and 3 are mirror images of each other, while Part Two is substantially different. The A sections both take place on the streets near Alex’s home and in a country cottage, while the B section takes place in a jail. The A sections begin with Alex asking himself “What’s it going to be then, eh?” The B section begins with the same question, but this time, the prison chaplain asks the question to Alex. The A sections identify Alex by name, while the B section identifies him by number. Additionally, the A sections, as mirror images of each other, feature inversions of the same plot. Whereas, in Part One, Alex preys on unwitting and unwilling victims, in Part Three those same victims wittingly and willingly prey on him. These formal symmetries help us to make comparisons as the thematic material develops over the course of the novel.
On a textual level, Burgess studs the novel with repeated phrases, a very common feature of classical music. Alex supplies these linguistic motifs when he howls “out out out out” to his friends, or tells us that “it was a flip dark chill winter evening though dry,” or when he begins the book’s three parts—as well as the final chapter—with the question “What’s it going to be then, eh?” Burgess was unique as a writer, in that he aspired to adapt the forms of classical music in his writing. His novel Napoleon Symphony derives its structure from Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which was initially written for Napoleon.
Classical music also enters A Clockwork Orange on a narrative and thematic level. Though Burgess probably did not intend it to, Alex’s love of classical music within the confines of the novel’s repressive government invokes Plato, who argued that the enjoyment of music must be suppressed if social order is to be preserved. Plato identifies music with revolutionary pleasure, an association that may easily be applied to Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Alex’s love of classical music is inextricable from his love of violence, and he rarely thinks of one without the other. Both of these passions fly in the face of a government that, above all else, desires a Platonic order. It is thus no accident that Alex’s taste for Beethoven and Mozart sours once he undergoes Reclamation Treatment.
The repeated references to Christ serve two functions in the novel. First, they provide a structural and thematic analogy for Alex’s life. Alex is a martyr figure who gives up his individual identity for the citizens of his society. His attempted suicide in the last third of the book works as a sacrifice that exposes the repressive State’s evils. In addition, Alex’s narrative goes through a succession of three stages that invoke Christ’s three final days. As Jesus dies, is buried, and is resurrected on the third day, Alex gets caught, is buried in prison, and returns to his former self by the end of the novel. Alex occasionally alludes to Christ, such as when he refers to himself as a Christ figure in Part One, calling himself the “fruit of [his mother’s] womb,” and again in Part Two, when he mentions turning the other cheek after being punched in the face. Second, the repeated Christ references subtly insinuate that the State is using Alex’s violent impulses against him. Alex’s impulse toward violence twice leads him to identify with the Romans who torture and crucify Christ. In this way, Alex unwittingly aligns himself with the State, since the Romans who crucified Christ were, in effect, the “State” of biblical times.