A Clockwork Orange follows the life of Alex, a fifteen-year-old who enjoys random acts of violence, which including breaking and entry, assault and rape.
As the novel progresses, Alex’s luck runs out and he is caught by the authorities. After a fight with another cellmate, Alex is selected for a special treatment to rid him of his tendencies towards violence.
The novel takes a look at morality and whether it is better to be forced to be moral, or willingly choose to live a life of moral depravity.
The author, Anthony Burgess, poses the question of whether the state or the individual knows better. Should we sacrifice the autonomy of the individual if it results in a state which is more stable?
We see the effects the treatment has on Alex, as he is unable to enjoy life without the ability to enjoy violence.
Whenever he encounters violence after undergoing the treatment, he is violently sick and must suppress those feelings to remain in good health.
This torments him so much, that he decides to commit suicide rather than adapt to his newfound circumstances.
The novel poses a very important question about the role of free will in life. If we are restricted the ability to choose our own path, does that make us more like a robot than a human?
The ability to think and act upon those thoughts in whatever way you desire is a fundamental human trait. If we are denied that ability, can we really say that we are human?
A Clockwork Orange summary
Takeaway 1 – Freedom is never free
A Clockwork Orange is a cautionary tale about the excesses of the state and the individual. If the rule of law is allowed to diminish, then the state is more likely to take drastic action to restore, which could result in unsavoury practices being adopted.
Whether we realise it or not, we are walking a fine line between having the ability to express ourselves in any manner we desire or following the orders of a state which has no room for individual freedom.
The protagonist of the novel, Alex, feels the wrath of the state after committing too many crimes.
He is forced to undergo an experimental treatment which will cure him of his desire to commit crime.
While this might sound preferable to him running riot, he has no say in the matter and is coerced to undergoing the treatment. Sure, he gave up some freedoms when he committed crime, but does that consent the state to treat him as a lab rat?
I don’t think it does. Crime is awful, especially ones such as murder and rape. Yet, if the state decides to impinge upon the right of an individual, even one who has committed a crime, aren’t they acting in a criminal manner.
The book exposes the line governments must walk in between upholding liberty and descending into tyranny.
The Origins of Totalitarianism are born in such environments.
Takeaway 2 – Is it better to be immoral or forced to be moral?
Alex is arrested after breaking into a house and assaulting an elderly woman. After he’s caught by the police, he realises the woman died following the break-in.
He’s sentenced to 14 years in prison, during which he is selected for an experimental behaviour modification program known as the Ludovico Technique.
Acceptance will see his sentence commuted, but it comes with a cost. His behaviour will be modified to discourage him for committing crime.
The notion of behavioural modification calls into question whether it is better to force someone to act in a certain manner or not. Is it better for someone to be immoral than forced to be moral?
It’s an important philosophical question. Alex’s free will is restricted in favour of the perceived benefits to society. Those in power believe themselves to be acting in the greater good.
This is similar to the thinking of figures in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, who thought a little shock was good for the economic system in places such as post-Soviet Russia.
Yet, the treatment is so brutal, it forces Alex to attempt suicide to escape from the torment he faces. The roles have reversed. The torment Alex unleashed on society is ow unleashed on him.
Is this preferable? Is it better for someone to be forced to be a good citizen at the expense of their wellbeing?
This is the fundamental question in the novel and one society deals with constantly. Do the rights of the individual supersede what is best for the rest of us?
Takeaway 3 – We often get to the right answer in the end
Towards the end of the novel, Alex becomes reacquainted with his old droog Pete who has reformed and is now married.
Following this chance encounter, Alex finds himself taking less and less pleasure in acts of senseless violence.
He muses that he would like to settle down and start his own family, reflecting that his previous actions were a result of his childhood immaturity.
From this passage, we see that Alex is not the mindless criminal the state portrays him as. He is capable of reasoned thought.
Throughout life we all make mistakes. It’s a part of being human. Granted, Alex made some big mistakes, but the point of the justice system is to try and rehabilitate people.
This is what the government scientists had in mind, but they tried to force their own vision onto Alex, instead of helping him to realise the wrongs he had done.
The majority of us in society are law-abiding people. We know right from wrong. If we stray down the wrong path, we’re likely to correct our course and get back on the right path.
Alex may have taken a while but his experiences caught up with him in the end. The same is true for all of us.
A Clockwork Orange Review
This A Clockwork Orange summary has looked at one of the most controversial and interesting novels of the 20th century.
I should be clear, this isn’t the easiest novel to read. The reason is due to the slang Burgess’ characters speak. One referred to as ‘Nadsat.’
It’s a mix of Slavic words and rhyming slang. An example is baboochka, which is derived from the Russian word for grandmother.
It takes a while to get used to the slang, but once you do the book is a fascinating read!
I didn’t know what to expect when I read it, but I was surprised by the depth of philosophical thought in the novel.
Burgess doesn’t shy away from the questions his novel poses. The chaplain in the prison, whom Alex visits regularly can be seen as the voice of the author as he questions the decisions the government scientists make.
The book is a ‘moral novel.’ One which looks at an aspect of human behaviour and asks whether the attempts to modify it are better or worse than the original acts.
It’s similar in some ways to Crime and Punishment, which also looks at human morality and the idea of what’s acceptable in society and what’s not.
Any book which forces me to think while reading, and after, is worth picking up!
Who should read A clockwork Orange?
A Clockwork Orange is one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve read. If you like entertaining fiction with a philosophical bent, this book is for you.
If you’ve seen the Stanley Kubrick film, reading the novel will help put it into perspective.
I think most readers will enjoy this book. Anyone younger than 14 probably shouldn’t read it, but over that age will throw up a lot of questions about life and the way society is structured.