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A prolific writer, John Anthony Burgess Wilson (1917–1993)
didn’t publish his first novel until he was almost forty. Born and
raised in Manchester, England, Burgess spent most of his adult life
abroad in the army before teaching in Malaya with the British Colonial
Service. Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1960, Burgess began writing at
a frantic pace in the hope that the royalties from his books would support
his wife after he died. He wrote five novels that year alone. When
he later discovered that his condition had been misdiagnosed, Burgess
continued to write and publish novels at a rapid rate. Though he
wrote nearly forty novels, his most famous work is the dystopian
novella A Clockwork Orange (1962), which owes much of
its popularity to Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation. Burgess himself
thought that A Clockwork Orange was far from his
best work. In an interview, he dismissed the book as gimmicky and didactic,
and rued the idea that this book would survive while others that
he valued more were sure to pass into obscurity.
Burgess’s novels address fundamental issues of human nature and
morality, such as the existence of good and evil and the importance
of free will. Burgess was raised as a Catholic, and though he left
the church as a young man, he retained his admiration for its tenets
and doctrines. Although Burgess was interested in and influenced
by numerous religions, Catholicism exerted the greatest influence
on his moral views. His portrayal of human beings as inherently
predisposed toward violence, for example, reflects his acceptance
of the Catholic view that all human beings are tainted by original
Burgess was inspired to write A Clockwork Orange during
a visit to Leningrad in 1961. There, he observed the state-regulated, repressive
atmosphere of a nation that threatened to spread its dominion over
the world. At the time of his visit, the Soviet Union was ahead
of the United States in the space race, and communism was establishing
itself in countries as far-flung as Vietnam and Cuba. Burgess regarded
communism as a fundamentally flawed system, because it shifts moral
responsibility from the individual to the state while disregarding
the welfare of the individual. Burgess’s deeply internalized Catholic
notions of free will and original sin prevented him from accepting
a system that sacrifices individual freedom for the public good. A
Clockwork Orange may be seen in part as an attack on communism,
given the novel’s extremely negative portrayal of a government that
seeks to solve social problems by removing freedom of choice.
During his visit to Leningrad, Burgess encountered the stilyagi, gangs
of thuggish Russian teenagers. While Burgess was eating dinner at
a restaurant one night, a group of bizarrely dressed teenagers pounded
on the door. Burgess thought they were targeting him as a westerner,
but the boys stepped aside graciously when he left and then resumed
pounding. Burgess insists that he based nadsat—the invented
slang of his teenage hooligans in A Clockwork Orange—on
Russian for purely aesthetic reasons, but it seems likely that this startling
experience influenced his portrayal of Alex and his gang. Along
with English Teddy Boys, a youth culture of the 1950s and 1960s
associated with American rock music, the Russian gangs provided
a template for the hoodlums in A
However, A Clockwork Orange shouldn’t
be understood simply as a critique of the Soviet Union or of communism,
because the dystopian world of the novel draws just as much on elements
of English and American society that Burgess detested. In his own
estimation, Burgess had a tendency toward anarchy, and he felt that
the socialistic British welfare state was too willing to sacrifice
individual liberty in favor of social stability. He despised American
popular culture for fostering homogeneity, passivity, and apathy.
He regarded American law enforcement as hopelessly corrupt and violent,
referring to it as “an alternative criminal body.” Each of these targets
gets lampooned in A Clockwork Orange, but Burgess’s
most pointed satire is reserved for the psychological movement known
Popularized by Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner in the
1950s and 1960s, behaviorism concerned itself with the study of
human and animal behavior in response to stimuli. Through the application of
carefully controlled system of rewards and punishments—a process
referred to as conditioning—Skinner demonstrated that scientists
could alter the behavior of test subjects more effectively than had
previously been thought possible. (In one famous experiment, he
successfully trained laboratory pigeons to play ping pong.) To many
people, behaviorism seemed to offer an almost limitless potential
to control human behavior, and the movement had a profound effect
not only in academia, but on education, government, and criminal
rehabilitation as well. In A Clockwork Orange,
Burgess satirizes behaviorism with his portrayal of the fictional
Burgess was still a relatively unknown writer when he
published A Clockwork Orange in 1962, and the novel
was not an immediate success. To Burgess’s dismay, the American
version of the novel was published without the final chapter, in
which Alex grows up and renounces violence. Burgess strongly disapproved
of this decision, which he believed had distorted the novel into
a nasty tale of unredeemable evil. Ironically, it was the American
edition of the novel that became a cult classic among college students,
and it was also the edition that Stanley Kubrick used for his 1971
Stanley Kubrick’s film version of A Clockwork
Orange was both commercially successful and highly controversial,
catapulting Burgess to a much wider fame. Initially labeled with
an X rating and widely criticized for glorifying sex and violence,
the film was blamed for several incidents of copycat violence, including
one notorious British case in which a group of men, in imitation
of the film, gang-raped a woman while singing “Singing in the Rain.”
Despite the scandal, however, Burgess remained an eminent literary
personality from then on. Regarded as both an artistic luminary
and an eccentric crank, Burgess made several television appearances
and served as a visiting professor at universities throughout America
and England. He continued writing and composing music—like his protagonist
Alex, Burgess loved classical music and considered it his first
vocation—until his death in 1993.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Clockwork Orange!