A Clockwork Orange
Themes, Motifs, & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Inviolability of Free Will
More than anything, Burgess believed that “the freedom to choose is the big human attribute,” meaning that the presence of moral choice ultimately distinguishes human beings from machines or lower animals. This belief provides the central argument of A Clockwork Orange, where Alex asserts his free will by choosing a course of wickedness, only to be subsequently robbed of his self-determination by the government. In making Alex—a criminal guilty of violence, rape, and theft—the hero of the novel, Burgess argues that humanity must, at all costs, insist that individuals be allowed to make their own moral choices, even if that freedom results in depravity. When the State removes Alex’s power to choose his own moral course of action, Alex becomes nothing more than a thing. A human being’s legitimacy as a moral agent is predicated on the notion that good and evil exist as separate, equally valid choices. Without evil as a valid option, the choice to be good becomes nothing more than an empty, meaningless gesture.
The novel’s treatment of this theme includes, but is not limited to, the presentation of a Christian conception of morality. The chaplain, the novel’s clearest advocate for Christian morals, addresses the dangers of Alex’s “Reclamation Treatment” when he tells Alex that “goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” F. Alexander echoes this sentiment, albeit from a different philosophical standpoint, when he tells Alex that the treatment has “turned [him] into something other a human being. [He has] no power of choice any longer.” Burgess’s novel ultimately supports this conception of morality as a matter of choice and determination and argues that good behavior is meaningless if one does not actively choose goodness.
The Inherent Evil of Government
Just as A Clockwork Orange champions free will, it deplores the institution of government, which systematically seeks to suppress the individual in favor of the collective, or the state. Alex articulates this notion when he contends, in Part One, Chapter 4, that modern history is the story of individuals fighting against large, repressive government “machines.” As we see in A Clockwork Orange, the State is prepared to employ any means necessary to ensure its survival. Using technological innovation, mass-market culture, and the threat of violence, among other strategies, the State seeks to control Alex and his fellow citizens, who are least dangerous when they are most predictable. The State also does not tolerate dissent. Once technology helps to clear its prisons by making hardened criminals harmless, the State begins incarcerating dissidents, like F. Alexander, who aim to rouse public opinion against it and thus threaten its stability.
The Necessity of Commitment in Life
Burgess saw apathy and neutrality as two of the greatest sins of postwar England, and these qualities abound in A Clockwork Orange. Burgess satirizes them heavily, especially in his depiction of Alex’s parents. Fearful of going outside and content to be lulled to sleep by a worldcast program, Alex’s parents exemplify what Burgess saw as the essentially torpid nature of middle-class citizens. Conversely, Burgess makes Alex, whose proactive dedication to the pursuit of pleasure causes great suffering, the hero of his novel. Alex himself seems disgusted by neutrality, which he sees as a function of “thingness,” or inhumanity.
“Duality as the Ultimate Reality”
Coined by Burgess in an interview, this phrase reflects Burgess’s understanding of the world as a set of fundamental and coequal oppositions of forces. A Clockwork Orange abounds with dualities: good versus evil, commitment versus neutrality, man versus machine, man versus government, youth versus maturity, and intellect versus intuition, to name some of the most prominent ones. The important aspect of this theme is that, while one element of a given duality may be preferable to the other—such as good over evil—each force is equally essential in explaining the dynamics of the world. To know one of the opposing forces is to implicitly know the other. The notion of duality comes into play in A Clockwork Orange particularly during the debate over good and evil, where Alex at one point debunks the validity of a political institution that does not account for individual evil as a naturally occurring phenomenon.
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.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
As a substance that primarily nourishes young animals, milk symbolizes the immaturity and passivity of the people who habitually drink it at the Korova Milkbar. Their drinking of milk suggests the infantilization and subsequent helplessness of the State’s citizens. By virtue of its whiteness and homogenization, milk also symbolizes uniformity among the teenagers who drink it. The fact that the milk is laced with drugs is ironic, suggesting that these youths are less wholesome and innocent than adults, not more.
Drencrom, Vellocet, and Synthemesc
Referred to generically as hallucinogens in this study guide, these three drugs symbolize neutrality, or “thingness.” The people in the novel who use them become inhuman while experiencing the effects of them, receding from the reality around them.
Images of Darkness, Night, and the Moon
These things are associated with Alex’s domain, and thus represent peace and security to him. The chaplain, who is garbed in black and defends Alex against the State, might also fall into this category of objects. Darkness represents the privacy and solitude necessary for an individual will to exist and make choices freely.
Images of Lightness and Day
Daytime and sunlight represent danger for Alex. In Part One, Alex notes that there are several more policemen—figures of repression—out patrolling during the day. The harsh lights of the police station interrogation room create a kind of artificial day, and the doctors, with their white jackets, continue the trend of brightness being associated with threat and menace. The only time the chaplain wears white is during an exchange with Alex, where the chaplain gets Alex to snitch on his fellow prisoners in order to further his own career ambitions. Lightness represents the demystification of the individual.
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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