Study Guide

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess in Cultural Studies

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Heard of the Stanley Kubrick movie? It's based on Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange, set in a near future where fifteen-year-old Alex and his gang spend alternately chill at the local milk bar (read: milk + drugs) and commit acts of extreme violence. This is typical fun times for Alex until he's busted by the cops, but he's offered the chance to get out of jail by signing up for a new kind of rehab called the Ludovico technique.

Heard of Pavlov's dog? That was a real-life experiment where Pavlov rang a bell and then offered food, so his dogs eventually would start to slobber at the sound of ringing. Sounds appealing, right? The same idea is behind Alex's anti-crime therapy: he is drugged and forced to watch videos of extreme violence, and the drugs make him feel queasy about the images. So he's cured of his violent ways, but is that the ideal? Burgess argues that morality should stem from free will, not brainwashing.

Though the world that Burgess presents is futuristic in some ways, it reflects the cultural zeitgeist of Britain in the early 1960s. This was a time of rivalry between "Mods" and "Rockers" (echoed in the gang warfare in the novel); of cultural expansion in coffee bars (resembling Burgess's milk bars); and of the rise of television—prevalent in the book in a way that predicts the role that the tube was to take on in real life.

Most of all, the Ludovico technique evokes current debates about criminal reform. The novel is therefore relevant to cultural theorists as it engages a whole array of issues of this time and explores the ethical questions that they pose.

Another culturally significant aspect of the novel is the role of classical music, which is key in the Ludovico method in particular: Alex formerly loved his Beethovens and Mozarts, but those tunes are poisoned for him because they're synced up with violent images. As it turns out, some folks are quick to abuse this, with Alex being exploited by a political group that sees him as a way to criticize the government (by kicking up a fuss over the harm done to this troubled boy). Their agenda is phony though, as they're happy to drive Alex to suicide if it helps their cause, locking him in a room and blasting Beethoven through the walls. Jumping from the window, Alex is only hurt; still, it's enough to make the government undo the procedure. The story ends with Alex imagining himself as father to a teenage son who—here's the catch—will be the same as he was at that age. The novel therefore doesn't offer any magic solution, depicting violence as a cycle.

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