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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
More than anything, Burgess believed that “the freedom
to choose is the big human attribute,” meaning that the presence
of moral choice ultimately distinguishes human beings from machines
or lower animals. This belief provides the central argument of A Clockwork
Orange, where Alex asserts his free will by choosing a course
of wickedness, only to be subsequently robbed of his self-determination
by the government. In making Alex—a criminal guilty of violence,
rape, and theft—the hero of the novel, Burgess argues that humanity
must, at all costs, insist that individuals be allowed to make their
own moral choices, even if that freedom results in depravity. When
the State removes Alex’s power to choose his own moral course of
action, Alex becomes nothing more than a thing. A human being’s
legitimacy as a moral agent is predicated on the notion that good
and evil exist as separate, equally valid choices. Without evil
as a valid option, the choice to be good becomes nothing more than
an empty, meaningless gesture.
The novel’s treatment of this theme includes, but is not
limited to, the presentation of a Christian conception of morality.
The chaplain, the novel’s clearest advocate for Christian morals,
addresses the dangers of Alex’s “Reclamation Treatment” when he
tells Alex that “goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot
choose he ceases to be a man.” F. Alexander echoes this sentiment,
albeit from a different philosophical standpoint, when he tells
Alex that the treatment has “turned [him] into something other a
human being. [He has] no power of choice any longer.” Burgess’s
novel ultimately supports this conception of morality as a matter
of choice and determination and argues that good behavior is meaningless
if one does not actively choose goodness.
Just as A Clockwork Orange champions
free will, it deplores the institution of government, which systematically
seeks to suppress the individual in favor of the collective, or
the state. Alex articulates this notion when he contends, in Part
One, Chapter 4, that modern history is the story of individuals
fighting against large, repressive government “machines.” As we
see in A Clockwork Orange, the State is prepared
to employ any means necessary to ensure its survival. Using technological
innovation, mass-market culture, and the threat of violence, among
other strategies, the State seeks to control Alex and his fellow
citizens, who are least dangerous when they are most predictable.
The State also does not tolerate dissent. Once technology helps
to clear its prisons by making hardened criminals harmless, the
State begins incarcerating dissidents, like F. Alexander, who aim
to rouse public opinion against it and thus threaten its stability.
Burgess saw apathy and neutrality as two of the greatest
sins of postwar England, and these qualities abound in A
Clockwork Orange. Burgess satirizes them heavily, especially
in his depiction of Alex’s parents. Fearful of going outside and
content to be lulled to sleep by a worldcast program, Alex’s parents
exemplify what Burgess saw as the essentially torpid nature of middle-class
citizens. Conversely, Burgess makes Alex, whose proactive dedication
to the pursuit of pleasure causes great suffering, the hero of his
novel. Alex himself seems disgusted by neutrality, which he sees
as a function of “thingness,” or inhumanity.
Coined by Burgess in an interview, this phrase reflects
Burgess’s understanding of the world as a set of fundamental and
coequal oppositions of forces. A Clockwork Orange abounds
with dualities: good versus evil, commitment versus neutrality,
man versus machine, man versus government, youth versus maturity,
and intellect versus intuition, to name some of the most prominent
ones. The important aspect of this theme is that, while one element
of a given duality may be preferable to the other—such as good over
evil—each force is equally essential in explaining the dynamics
of the world. To know one of the opposing forces is to implicitly
know the other. The notion of duality comes into play in A
Clockwork Orange particularly during the debate over good
and evil, where Alex at one point debunks the validity of a political
institution that does not account for individual evil as a naturally
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Clockwork Orange!