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Dressed fashionably, with their pockets full of money,
Alex and his gang—Pete, Georgie, and Dim—sit at the Korova Milkbar,
drinking milk laced with stimulants and trying to figure out what
to do with the night. During this time, Alex tells us about the
nuances of their clothes, as well as those of the girls at the bar,
who wear badges that display the names of their sexual partners.
In addition to this, Alex voices his recent distaste for the other
“milk plus” cocktails served at the Korova. He observes the effects
of the hallucinogen-laced drinks on another patron of the bar, who
slumps in his seat with eyes glazed, talking nonsense. Alex finds
something cowardly and dishonest about this behavior.
As soon as his own drugs kick in, Alex leads his droogs,
or friends, into the streets. There they find an old man carrying
books home from the library. Sensing his fear, they toy with him
for a few moments before assaulting him. Only after ripping apart
his books, ripping out his false teeth, and ripping off his clothes
do they let him trudge away whimpering.
The droogs then go to a bar called the Duke of New York
to spend their money, so as to create an incentive to continue looting. There
are four old women there who warm up to the droogs after the boys
buy them several drinks and massive amounts of pub snacks. The boys
spend all their money this way, and leave the bar on very friendly
terms with the women.
Outside, the boys go to a corner store, put on their masks,
and proceed to steal the money from the register. During the robbery, they
severely beat the shopkeeper and his wife, both of whom, we later
learn, require hospitalization. In less than ten minutes the boys are
back at the Duke, buying the same ladies another round. This proves
useful, because when the police come to the Duke to ask questions,
the women provide alibis for the boys, who sneer at and taunt the
A Clockwork Orange is set in the near
future, most likely sometime in the early twenty-first century.
With this fictional society, Burgess depicts a totalitarian state
that incorporates elements of both Soviet-style communism and American
consumer capitalism. The possibility of such a world order seemed
entirely feasible in the early 1960s, when the United States and
the U.S.S.R. were establishing themselves as the world’s dominant
superpowers and Burgess was writing A Clockwork Orange.
Like most dystopian fiction, Burgess’s novella can be characterized
as a logical, if unlikely, extension of contemporary conditions,
rather than a purely speculative forecast of future ones. From the
names of businesses like the Korova Milkbar, as well as the droogs’
Russian-inflected slang, we witness the strong influence of Russian
culture. At the same time, the stultifying media culture and characters’
acquisitive materialism seems a direct condemnation of American
capitalist culture. Throughout the novel, the disparate sensibilities
of these two twentieth-century superpowers will generate considerable
Nadsat, the teenage slang that Alex and
his droogs speak, represents a pastiche of languages: a mixture
of Russian, Cockney English, childish slang, and Burgess’s own coinages.
The use of nadsat initially makes understanding A
Clockwork Orange quite difficult and turns the opening
pages of the novella into a highly disorienting experience. The
unfamiliar language distracts and distances us from the incredibly
harsh and violent events that Alex recounts in his narrative. Alex
uses nadsat liberally, and effectively, when he
describes things associated with violence. In Alex’s hands—or rookers,
as he calls them—blood becomes “krovvy,” to hit becomes
“tolchock,” and rape becomes “ultra-violence.”
Even the word good becomes sinister in nadsat:
drawn from the Russian world for good, kharasho,
the nasdat translation of the word is “horrorshow.”
Burgess holds no love for youth and youth culture, which
he has described in interviews as essentially conformist, conventional,
passive, and smug. With the description of the scene at the Korova Milkbar,
Burgess satirizes many salient characteristics of teen culture,
from their pop music (“You Blister My Paint”) to their shared fashion
sense (boys uniformed in big-shouldered jackets, cravats, tights
with crotch inserts, and boots; girls uniformed in motley wigs with
makeup and accessories that assert their promiscuity). In mocking
the trappings of youth culture, Burgess undercuts that culture’s
self-satisfiction and ostensible rebelliousness. We are continually
reminded that, although these children are incredibly violent and
destructive, they are nevertheless children. After the boys rob the
corner store, for example, they return to the Duke of New York and
the arms of the older women, who protect them maternally. This reminder
of the droogs’ essential juvenility will become especially significant
in the final chapter, when Alex reflects on the connection between
violence and immaturity.
As Alex and his droogs thwart the police with the help
of the older women, Alex can’t help being disappointed by the lack
of a real, substantive cause worth fighting for. In the face of
what he sees as an essentially banal culture, Alex values a sense
of commitment and purpose. In a similar vein, he disparages the
hallucinogens sold at the Korova Milkbar because they cause the
Korova’s patrons to become dull and apathetic. The importance of
purpose and intent was also one of Burgess’s central concerns, as
he believed that indifference and moral neutrality were pervasive
in postwar Britain.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Clockwork Orange!