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 sin.
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 AClockwork Orange.
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 as behaviorism.
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 Ludovico’s Technique.
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 film adaptation.
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.