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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Clockwork Orange!