A Clockwork Orange

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Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Sexual Aggression

Sex in A Clockwork Orange is not an expression of love or intimacy, but rather an exhibition of power and violence. The vast majority of sex scenes in the film are violent, including the attempted gang rape of the “weepy devotchka,” Alex’s rape of Mrs. Alexander, and the on-screen rape scene the doctors show Alex. Other less explicit scenes of sexual repression and aggression appear as well. For example, Deltoid, Alex’s probation officer, grabs Alex’s testicles. In A Clockwork Orange, most human relationships, including sexual ones, revolve around the question of control: who will control and who will be controlled. The minister of the interior sees Alex as a guinea pig for his experiment in law and order. Mr. Alexander sees Alex as an instrument he can use to bring down the minister of the interior and his party. Alex himself wields power not only over the victims of his crimes but also over his other gang members. Even the economy turns people into objects to be controlled or used. Alex’s mother goes to work in a factory, presumably functioning as just one piece of the machine. In this depersonalized world of users and used, sex ceases to be an act of intimacy and instead becomes an act of brutality and an assertion of power.

Music

A Clockwork Orange challenges traditional ideas about music’s fundamental function, and here music taps into what is most dominant in Alex’s nature: violence. Throughout the film, classical music moves Alex to a version of ecstasy, and he imagines hangings, bombings, and other acts of violence. However, music remains valuable as a signal of his freedom of choice. Alex lives violently, brutally, and without compassion, but what initially sets him apart from adults is that he has so much more vitality. While his weary mother trudges off to her factory job, Alex sleeps all day, then wakes up to have sex, take drugs, and perpetrate more violence—only because he wants to and because it is exciting. He also listens to music, which for him is an ecstatic and liberating experience that expresses both the brute and the rebel in him. When the doctors condition Alex’s body to become ill from his own violent impulses, they simultaneously condition his body to reject music. Though this is an unintentional result of the conditioning, it is symbolically significant. Music connects to Alex’s drives and desires, and stripping him of his ability to enjoy it is equivalent to stripping him of his humanity.

The role music plays in both the novel and the film of A Clockwork Orange is Burgess and Kubrick’s nod toward history. All governments, particularly totalitarian regimes, have used music to heighten their citizens’ patriotic fervor. For example, Adolf Hitler was moved by music and used it as a tool of state control. In Alex’s case, the elimination of music from his life is how this control manifests itself, and the consequences are just as dire.

Slang

Alex uses a slang spoken only by young people. Adults don’t understand the language, which highlights the emotional and ideological distance between the generations. Burgess invented the language for the novel and called it Nadsat,which is the Russian suffix for teen. Nadsat is a language that, like Alex himself and like youth more generally, overflows with energy. Sex, for instance, is called “the old in-out in-out.” In contrast, the language the adults speak is far drier and more predictable. Alex’s parents speak in clichés. The prison guards speak the language of law and order. The doctors speak in medical lingo. Only the youths’ language transcends these linguistic categories and barriers.

In Nadsat, high and low forms of language coexist. Street words, baby talk, and rhyming slang accompany grammar and syntax that sometimes follow formal Shakespearean English. The most dominant linguistic influences on Nadsat besides English are Russian and Slavic. Before Burgess wrote his novel, he spent time in Soviet Russia, where he witnessed youth gangs running wild, just like the ones he’d seen in England. He decided to create a language that incorporated both English and Russian, the two most powerful political languages in the world at that time. The fact that Alex, a completely apolitical youth, speaks it also makes it a language of rebellion. The youths who use the language don’t care about the politics that divided the world at the time that Burgess wrote his novel.