“1985”: Burgess’s Analysis of “A Clockwork Orange”


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

In 1978, Burgess wrote a novel called 1985. But it’s in three parts—a long essay, a novella, and an extremely evocative appendix. The first part is a commentary on Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four. More importantly, Burgess talks about his perspective of criminality and how that is presented in A Clockwork Orange. But the novel 1985 itself extends the ideas that are first explored in A Clockwork Orange.

Image showing a man assaulting another man.
The idea of violent criminality that Burgess introduced in A Clockwork Orange is extended in 1985. (Image: Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock)

Assessing A Clockwork Orange

Part 1, which is called “1984”, is an informally written and extremely insightful piece of literary criticism on Orwell—his biography, the historical contexts in which he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, and some musings about the issues Orwell raises in that novel, like the nature of freedom, free will, and government.

Burgess also provides an assessment of A Clockwork Orange. He says, “It is not, in my view, a very good novel—too didactic, too linguistically exhibitionist—but it sincerely presented my abhorrence of the view that some people were criminal and others not.” Burgess would get more disagreements with the first point than the second. A lot of people think this is, in fact, a very good novel, a brilliant and important novel.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of LiteratureWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Criminality: A Socially Constructed Idea

And one of the reasons it’s such a good novel, perhaps, is that it so clearly presents Burgess’s view about criminality as something that is socially constructed rather than innate. To those of us prone to utopian imaginings, this is a central question. Are humans born or are we made? It’s crucial to the question of how utopian or dystopian societies deal with those at the margins, whether they’re constructed as criminal or not.

After the preliminary literary criticism, which is about 100 pages in length, we get the novel, 1985. This is a dark novel, perhaps even darker than A Clockwork Orange or Nineteen Eighty-Four.

1985: The Beginning

It opens with the rather provocative line, “It was the week before Christmas, Monday midday, mild and muggy, and the muezzins of West London were yodeling about there being no God but Allah.”

You can see there’s going to be some linguistic dazzle although nothing as extensive as the argot of A Clockwork Orange. And London is clearly a site of religious tensions, since the narrative point of view thinks of Christmas while acknowledging the prevalence of a Muslim voice in the street. Our protagonist Bev Jones is heading home at lunchtime to check in on his 13-year-old daughter, who is home alone while his wife is in hospital.

Learn more about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

A Violent Society

The image shows young people fighting with each other.
In 1985, Burgess presents a darker, more violent world, where young thugs present a strong counterculture. (Image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Like a lot of kids her age, young Bessie is the victim of Yenethlia, a medicine prescribed to ease childbirth that had unexpected side effects. Actually, she’s a victim of a lot of things. On his way home, Bev is mugged by a group of seven teen hoodlums. The teachers are on strike so there’s no school. He stumbles home, tripping on the body of a nice young kid from his building who has been beaten and raped, presumably by these same hoodlums.

Bev tells the building’s janitor, not at all sure that he’ll pass the information along to authorities. He sits down for lunch only to see on television that the hospital where his wife is being treated has caught fire, but isn’t being tended since the firemen are on strike. Bev rushes to the hospital just in time to see his wife, horribly burned, being carted off to the Disposal of the Dead unit.

Learn more about Aldous Huxley and dystopian pleasure.

The Young Criminals

For the rest of the novella, poor Bev does his very best to avenge his wife’s death, in a society in which the state belongs to the workers, in which unions are all-powerful. He leaves the world of paychecks and unions, and becomes acquainted with the counterculture represented by the young thugs he feared and scorned on page one, as he learns that these hoodlums are actually teenagers who want to learn what their increasingly imbecilic state refuses to teach them.

These kids end up spelling out the lessons of A Clockwork Orange in a way Alex is too subtle to do. A young thug/philosopher called Tuss tells Bev about Camus,

A French-Algerian guy, a footballer, you may have heard of him. This guy kills a guy and then he knows he’s a human being. He’s done a thing there’s no reason for doing and he sees that that’s what makes him free. Men have to show they’re free by doing things like killing and chopping.

In a society as restricted by the rights of workers as 1985 London, criminality remains the only space of freedom these young people—and eventually Bev—can find.

In many ways, the novel 1985 lays out just as clearly what Burgess states in his long introductory essay:

I am committed to freedom of choice, which means that if I cannot choose to do evil neither can I choose to do good. It is better to have our streets infested with murderous young hoodlums than to deny individual freedom of choice.

Is it worth sacrificing security in favor of free will? It is a central concern of many—perhaps all—dystopian novels. They show us worlds in which a society has seemingly sacrificed too much—free will—in order to ensure security.

Common Questions about 1985 and Burgess’s Analysis of A Clockwork Orange

Q: What does Anthony Burgess say about A Clockwork Orange?

Anthony Burgess says this about A Clockwork Orange, “It is not, in my view, a very good novel—too didactic, too linguistically exhibitionist.”

Q: Apart from having the same author, what is common to A Clockwork Orange and 1985?

Both A Clockwork Orange and 1985 are dystopic works, with some level of linguistic complexity, though 1985 is not as complicated. Both novels are rather dark, perhaps 1985 is darker, as it investigates the origin of criminality and violence in the young.

Q: Why is London a site of religious tensions in the beginning of 1985?

London is a site of religious tensions in the beginning of 1985, since the narrative point of view thinks of Christmas while acknowledging the prevalence of a Muslim voice in the street.

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