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A Clockwork Orange

by: Anthony Burgess

Important Quotations Explained

1. What’s it going to be then, eh?

This question appears several times in the book, at the beginnings of Parts 1, 2, and 3, as well as at the beginning of the final chapter. Besides helping to underscore the symmetry of the novel’s structure, this phrase reinforces some of the central themes of the novel, including the inviolability of individual moral choice and the necessity of commitment in life. Alex first asks this question to himself and his friends, as they plan ahead for a night of crime. Throughout Part One, Alex is confronted with a choice between being good and being evil. At this point, the question is an authentic one, as both options represent equally valid alternatives. In Part Two, however, Alex is not in the position to ask this question himself. Having convicted him of murder, the State restricts his options and revokes his right to determine his own behavior. The government is now the only entity that can authentically ask the question. Choosing his path for him, the State selects Alex to undergo conditioning to kill his capacity to consider socially unacceptable courses of action.

Neutered of his free will, Alex loses the power to make meaningful choices. The question as it appears in Part Three, then, is an empty one, since Alex’s conditioning has restricted him to a single option. Without the power of self-determination, Alex loses his identity as a human being. Alex becomes a mechanized thing, and therefore becomes vulnerable to being used in others’ schemes for power. Faced with the prospect of being either a good thing or a dead man, Alex chooses the latter and attempts suicide. Alex is unsuccessful. However, the government subsequently chooses to eradicate his conditioning, and Alex once again regains the capacity for evil. Despite his returned propensity for evil, the novel claims that, without the power to choose one’s own path of action, any human behavior remains meaningless.

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