By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, made into film by Stanley Kubrick, is often acclaimed as one of the most powerful dystopian perspectives. But that gleeful line, about “the old ultra-violence”, which is perhaps the most famous, can be a bit off-putting. But what is this ultra-violence that is an integral part of this dystopian work?
We all understand that counterculture is an important part of culture. But does some of it have to be so violent? Does it have to be ultra-violent?
What Burgess is saying in this novel, about punishment and free will, only works because Alex, the protagonist, isn’t just into horseplay and juvenile hijinks. He’s into ultra-violence—complete with rape and sadism and murder—and we need to be fully aware of that before we can begin to understand and assess how the State—specifically, the institution of the prison—deals with him.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Originally, A Clockwork Orange is in three sections of seven chapters each. The novel is set in the then near-future in 1960s London. The first seven chapters show Alex as a teenager, hanging out with his friends and meeting girls. Alex is the leader of a gang of four hoodlums in identical creepy costumes, who engage in destructive rampages.
The gang beats an elderly homeless man. Then they interrupt a rival gang as they’re about to rape a young woman. They gleefully attack the other gang, leaving them beaten and bloodied. Alex’s gang invade the home of a wealthy writer, where they tie him up and force him to watch as they gang-rape his wife. Then, Alex asserts dominance over the others in his gang through physical violence; and finally, Alex talks his way into the home of a female art collector, who resists when he tries to rape her.
Here’s how Alex describes what happens, using Nadsat, the hybrid Anglo-Russian language Burgess invented for this novel,
So then I creeched, ‘You filthy old soomka,’ and upped with the little malenky like silver statue and cracked her a fine fair tolchock on the Gulliver and that shut her up real horror-show and lovely.
Learn more about dystopian crime prevention.
The Ludovico Technique
Alex is taken into police custody, where he remains insolent in the face of extensive police brutality. Finally, though, the police chief comes in and Alex realizes the woman he attacked has died in hospital. He has graduated from mindless violence to murder.
The second part details Alex’s time in prison, setting up the central moral problem of the story. In Alex’s first two years in prison, he becomes a serious reader of the Bible. Little does the chaplain realize that Alex imagines himself torturing Christ. As a result of this supposedly good behavior, Alex is chosen to test a new medical treatment for prisoners.
The so-called Ludovico Technique is designed to render him incapable of violence through negative behavioral conditioning. Alex’s eyes are held open with clamps to watch scenes of horrifying violence while he is treated with drugs that induce extreme nausea, all the while listening to music by his favorite composer, whom he calls simply Ludwig van.
By the end of this treatment, Alex has an automatic response of extreme nausea not only when he thinks about sex or violence, but also whenever he hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The prison doctor explains how the behavioral conditioning works, and then asks if there are any questions.
“Choice,” says the prison chaplain.
He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.
A Clockwork Orange?
The doctor’s response is, “These are subtleties. We are not concerned with motive, with the higher ethics.” The doctor is only interested in cutting down crime, not in the mental health of a juvenile offender.
And after a short discussion about the benefits of cutting down the prison population, of keeping the community safe, Alex speaks up.
Me, me, me. How about me? Where do I come into all this? Am I like just some animal or dog? And that started them off govoreeting real loud and throwing slovos at me. So I creeched louder still, creeching, Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?
In his reconditioned state, Alex is now, in a sense, a mechanized being. But the conversation is cut short when someone stands up and says, “The point is, the cure works.”
Learn more about the fear of the other in dystopian storytelling.
Alexander’s Revenge on Alex
The third part follows Alex back out into the world in his new debilitated state. The movie marks this shift with Alex’s famous ironic line in voice-over, “And the very next day your friend and humble narrator was a free man.” Free of the prison, bound by his own conditioning.
Alex meets most of the people he had wronged, now helpless as they return to him the violence that he has dealt them. The most extensive scene of revenge is at the hands of F. Alexander, the writer whose wife Alex had raped.
This is a very complex scene. Even in the initial attack in the novel, Mr. Alexander is writing a novel called A Clockwork Orange when Alex and his crew arrive. Alex rips apart Mr. Alexander’s work in progress, titled identically to the very novel in which he appears. There are lots of ways to read that, as you might imagine.
The Final Act?
And Mr. Alexander can be read as in some sense a creator of young hoodlum Alex. Certainly, Alexander’s revenge on Alex aligns him with the State, as the writer uses Beethoven to torture Alex until he tries to kill himself.
This eventually leads Alex to the hospital where he is finally deprogrammed, left free to make his own choices, and to listen to his beloved Beethoven. Chapter 20 ends with Alex listening to:
The glorious Ninth of Ludwig van. Oh, it was gorgeoisty and yumyumyum. When it came to the Scherzo I could viddy myself very clear running and running on like very light and mysterious nogas, carving the whole litso of the creeching world with my cut-throat britva. And there was the slow movement and the lovely last singing movement still to come. I was cured all right.
This is where the American novel and the film end.
Common Questions About Ultra-violence in A Clockwork Orange
Alex, in A Clockwork Orange, is into ultra-violence—complete with rape and sadism and murder.
Alex is chosen for the Ludovico Technique designed to render him incapable of violence. By the end of this, Alex has an automatic response of extreme nausea at the thought of sex or violence.
Alex protests that his conditioning has reduced him to being a mechanized being, a clockwork orange, who has no free will or choice in the matter of his own behavior.