Study Guide

Alex in A Clockwork Orange

By Anthony Burgess

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Alex The Criminally Insane Poet

We're going to let Alex's words speak for themselves (because hey—if you're reading A Clockwork Orange you're going to be hearing a whole lot from ol' Alex):

And, my brothers, it was real satisfaction to me to waltz--left two three, right two three--and carve left cheeky and right cheeky, so that like two curtains of blood seemed to pour out at the same time, one on either side of his fat filthy oily snout in the winter starlight. Down this blood poured in like red curtains. (1.2.8)

We know; we know. Alex isn't the easiest person in the world to understand. (And this is one of the more coherent passages in the novel.) But let's look at what we can get from Alex's description of cutting his buddy's cheeks.

  • He's violent—this is a passage about him cutting the cheeks of a member of his own gang.
  • He likes violence—it's a "real satisfaction to [him]."
  • He speaks of it in aesthetic terms: not only is he "waltz[ing]" as he "carve[s]" but he likens the blood to "two curtains [...] in the winter starlight."
  • He's self-satisfied—did you notice that he uses the description "curtains" twice? This is a guy who likes the sound of his own voice.

Yup: Alex isn't the most likable character. In fact, he's despicable—carving up his friend's cheeks is just the tip of the iceberg. Alex is a murderer and a rapist. Alex believes that evil is the natural state for all human beings: in choosing to be evil, he is choosing to be human. He's also, paradoxically, cool: he dresses in the "heighth of fashion," hangs out in the most popular bars, and speaks in nadsat – a stylized dialectic to which only the coolest "modern youth" are privy. In other words, he's both evil and intriguing.

And, not surprisingly, he's put away in jail for his crimes. Two years after being incarcerated, however, Alex is given the option to enroll in something called the Ludovico technique: a brainwashing program that forces Alex to have a strong physical aversion to the sight of violence.

Alex The Reformed Cypher

Here's Alex's take on the outcome of the Ludovico technique. (Don't worry—we'll translate.)

Now I knew that I'd have to be real skorry and get my cut-throat britva out before this horrible killing sickness whooshed up and turned the like joy of battle into feeling I was going to snuff it. But, O brothers, as my rooker reached for the britva in my inside carman I got this like picture in my mind's glazzy of this insulting chelloveck howling for mercy with the red red krovvy all streaming out of his rot, and hot after this picture the sickness and dryness and pains were rushing to overtake, and I viddied that I'd have to change the way I felt about this rotten veck very very skorry indeed… (2.7.6)

So: here Alex has completed the Ludovico technique and is demonstrating its efficacy. A large man approaches Alex and starts taunting him, pinching his nose, etc. Alex's natural instinct is to attack him with a knife ("get my cut-throat britva out") but before he can start slicing and dicing, he's overwhelmed with images of the man in pain. These images of pain and violence make Alex incredibly ill ("the sickness and dryness and pains were rushing to overtake").

This, of course, is already problematic. Alex's free will has been decimated. But let's look at another change in Alex, this one at the linguistic level.

Before, Alex's descriptions of blood were poetic ("curtains in the winter starlight"). After the Ludovico technique, they're decidedly more pedestrian: "the red red krovvy all streaming out of his rot." Burgess is demonstrating something clever here: by robbing Alex of his free will, the Ludovico technique is sapping the poetic language from his mind.

Sure—there's nothing good about waxing poetic about violence. But it is, however, poetic: it's evidence of life and enthusiasm and joie de vivre. The Ludovico technique takes all of that away.

Ultimately, Alex is cured from being cured: the Ludovico technique is reversed. He goes back to being bloodthirsty and amoral. And that's the way the book least in the version published in America. (And the version immortalized by Stanley Kubrick in his film version.)

Alex The...Family Man?

But the version published in England gives Alex a more insidious ending. In a last chapter, we see Alex up to his usual business: hanging out with his buddies and drinking drug-laced milk, looking for mischief. But something's changed:

But what was the matter with me these days was that I didn't like care much. It was like something soft getting into me and I could not pony why. What I wanted these days I did not know. (3.7.32)

First things first: check out the language used in this passage. It's almost totally comprehensible: Alex isn't speaking in the thick dialect he used before. It's also less poetic—he's apathetic and doesn't seem to have the energy for linguistic play. So what's happened? Has the Ludovico technique stuck?

Nope: something larger. Alex sees that he's not young anymore, that it's time (according to a 1962 life calendar) to settle down, get married, and have kids. By the end of this last chapter, Alex has decided to domesticate himself and to take leave of his life of crime.

We'll leave you with the same questions Burgess' novel does. Is this a good thing—has Alex grown up and seen to folly of his ways? Or are the pressures of society (get married, settle down, make babies) simply acting as a larger, more pervasive Ludovico technique?

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