A Clockwork Orange
Part One, Chapter 1
Dressed fashionably, with their pockets full of money, Alex and his gang—Pete, Georgie, and Dim—sit at the Korova Milkbar, drinking milk laced with stimulants and trying to figure out what to do with the night. During this time, Alex tells us about the nuances of their clothes, as well as those of the girls at the bar, who wear badges that display the names of their sexual partners. In addition to this, Alex voices his recent distaste for the other “milk plus” cocktails served at the Korova. He observes the effects of the hallucinogen-laced drinks on another patron of the bar, who slumps in his seat with eyes glazed, talking nonsense. Alex finds something cowardly and dishonest about this behavior.
As soon as his own drugs kick in, Alex leads his droogs, or friends, into the streets. There they find an old man carrying books home from the library. Sensing his fear, they toy with him for a few moments before assaulting him. Only after ripping apart his books, ripping out his false teeth, and ripping off his clothes do they let him trudge away whimpering.
The droogs then go to a bar called the Duke of New York to spend their money, so as to create an incentive to continue looting. There are four old women there who warm up to the droogs after the boys buy them several drinks and massive amounts of pub snacks. The boys spend all their money this way, and leave the bar on very friendly terms with the women.
Outside, the boys go to a corner store, put on their masks, and proceed to steal the money from the register. During the robbery, they severely beat the shopkeeper and his wife, both of whom, we later learn, require hospitalization. In less than ten minutes the boys are back at the Duke, buying the same ladies another round. This proves useful, because when the police come to the Duke to ask questions, the women provide alibis for the boys, who sneer at and taunt the helpless officers.
A Clockwork Orange is set in the near future, most likely sometime in the early twenty-first century. With this fictional society, Burgess depicts a totalitarian state that incorporates elements of both Soviet-style communism and American consumer capitalism. The possibility of such a world order seemed entirely feasible in the early 1960s, when the United States and the U.S.S.R. were establishing themselves as the world’s dominant superpowers and Burgess was writing A Clockwork Orange. Like most dystopian fiction, Burgess’s novella can be characterized as a logical, if unlikely, extension of contemporary conditions, rather than a purely speculative forecast of future ones. From the names of businesses like the Korova Milkbar, as well as the droogs’ Russian-inflected slang, we witness the strong influence of Russian culture. At the same time, the stultifying media culture and characters’ acquisitive materialism seems a direct condemnation of American capitalist culture. Throughout the novel, the disparate sensibilities of these two twentieth-century superpowers will generate considerable friction.
Nadsat, the teenage slang that Alex and his droogs speak, represents a pastiche of languages: a mixture of Russian, Cockney English, childish slang, and Burgess’s own coinages. The use of nadsat initially makes understanding A Clockwork Orange quite difficult and turns the opening pages of the novella into a highly disorienting experience. The unfamiliar language distracts and distances us from the incredibly harsh and violent events that Alex recounts in his narrative. Alex uses nadsat liberally, and effectively, when he describes things associated with violence. In Alex’s hands—or rookers, as he calls them—blood becomes “krovvy,” to hit becomes “tolchock,” and rape becomes “ultra-violence.” Even the word good becomes sinister in nadsat: drawn from the Russian world for good, kharasho, the nasdat translation of the word is “horrorshow.”
Burgess holds no love for youth and youth culture, which he has described in interviews as essentially conformist, conventional, passive, and smug. With the description of the scene at the Korova Milkbar, Burgess satirizes many salient characteristics of teen culture, from their pop music (“You Blister My Paint”) to their shared fashion sense (boys uniformed in big-shouldered jackets, cravats, tights with crotch inserts, and boots; girls uniformed in motley wigs with makeup and accessories that assert their promiscuity). In mocking the trappings of youth culture, Burgess undercuts that culture’s self-satisfiction and ostensible rebelliousness. We are continually reminded that, although these children are incredibly violent and destructive, they are nevertheless children. After the boys rob the corner store, for example, they return to the Duke of New York and the arms of the older women, who protect them maternally. This reminder of the droogs’ essential juvenility will become especially significant in the final chapter, when Alex reflects on the connection between violence and immaturity.
As Alex and his droogs thwart the police with the help of the older women, Alex can’t help being disappointed by the lack of a real, substantive cause worth fighting for. In the face of what he sees as an essentially banal culture, Alex values a sense of commitment and purpose. In a similar vein, he disparages the hallucinogens sold at the Korova Milkbar because they cause the Korova’s patrons to become dull and apathetic. The importance of purpose and intent was also one of Burgess’s central concerns, as he believed that indifference and moral neutrality were pervasive in postwar Britain.
by ThatGenericUsername, November 29, 2012
Just wanted to say thank you for the post of the Nasdat dictionary. The language of the story was a bit overwhelming at some points, though this helped me pull through. I'd also like to mention the explanations under the "Important Quotes" were a very interesting read. If anyone reads this comment, I'd recommend them a read for a potential boost in the understanding of the subliminal contexts of Burgess's story.
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