A Clockwork Orange is almost a foreign-language work: it's not written in British, American, or standard English. Instead it features nadsat, a made up language incorporating elements of Cockney and Russian spoken by the "modern youth" in the book.
Figuring out what Alex means with each term is a feat in itself, and it takes a few chapters for even the most astute reader to get a firm grip on the language. Now, once you think you've crossed the language barrier, the tone will be easy to gauge. Alex is a matter-of-fact kind of narrator, although he does embellish some of the goings-on for dramatic effect (this shouldn't be surprising because nadsat employs a decent amount of onomatopoeia, or the use of words that sound like what they mean).
Much of the tone is irreverent and immature-sounding. We also detect considerable angst, not surprising given the subject matter being described. Interestingly enough, however, the tone Alex uses when describing violence might be described as almost detached. He matter-of-factly recounts exactly what punches he throws and just how much blood oozes out from his victims' orifices.
One of the brilliant things about A Clockwork Orange is that it has its feet in four different genres: dystopian novel, coming-of-age story, horror flick, and political satire.
From the top: it's a dystopian novel because it takes place in the future, and everything is dark, eerie, violent, and headed down a dismal and non-utopian path. It's a coming-of-age story because of the trials and transformation Alex endures. The horror aspect of the work is pretty evident: check out all the beating, teeth-plucking, eye-gouging, mugging, and raping that occurs. The satiric aspect comes through in the novel's political commentary. Finally, amidst all that debate about moral choice, free will, personal freedom, and behavioral modification, Burgess conveys a real anti-totalitarian message in this novel.
As Anthony Burgess writes in the introduction (entitled "A Clockwork Orange Resucked," hee hee) the title refers to a person who "has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State."
In other words it stands for the "application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism oozing with juice and sweetness." So, basically, it refers to a person who is robotic behaviorally but one that is, in all other respects, human. The title is significant not only because Burgess references it about, oh, a dozen times throughout the book, but also because it sums up what threatens our protagonist-narrator.
The ending, or the twenty-first chapter of the book, provides closure to the book for some readers. In fact, this is the only chapter where our protagonist-narrator experiences growth, or more profoundly, personal transformation. In fact, we dare say that given his newfound discontent with violence and violent music, and interest in forging a family, Alex is all grown up.
Structurally, it balances out the other two parts of the book, each with seven chapters. Thematically, it comes full-circle, starting off with the same question and description combination as chapter one in part one of the book, but closing the loop with Alex rejecting the person he was at the commencement of his journey and looking forward to a new kind of life.
That would be the easy interpretation. In the US publication, this twenty-first chapter was left out of all published versions of A Clockwork Orange. What's even more interesting is that Stanley Kubrick's famous film adaptation of the book was modeled after the twenty-chapter version.
So: why is the twenty-first chapter even necessary?
Burgess hints at the answer to this, suggesting that politics or different regional aesthetics had something to do with leaving out the twenty-first chapter. Perhaps it's because the twentieth chapter, with evil prancing all over the page, is sexier. Perhaps the optimism of the twenty-first chapter is at odds with the rest of the work. Or maybe, it's that the twenty-first chapter isn't optimistic at all—perhaps the society that's forcing Alex to grow up and settle down is, in fact, just a more pervasive kind of Ludovico technique?
Considering that the novel was written in the 1960's, we're probably well past the dystopian futuristic setting Burgess envisioned for this work. Come to think of it, though, what constitutes the "heighth of fashion" in this work is still a bit more futuristic (read: bizarre) than what we've seen in our time, so maybe give another tack on another twenty years to imagine when that "future" ought to occur.
Ultraviolence, droogs, milk: put 'em all together and you have a pretty grim tale on your hands (depending, of course, on whether or not you can get your hands on the infamous twenty-first chapter of the book).
What can be equally challenging is all that nadsat: the insider lingo that Alex and his crew use to communicate. If you can stay with it, though, eventually you'll start to viddy what's what, especially if you use context clues to catch the drift.
And, as always brothers, if you rely on Shmoop to help figure out what these vecks are up to, you won't be skorry.
Burgess' clever and unique style owes much to his use of nadsat, which has its fair share of onomatopoeia to clue us in on what is being said (those of us who aren't experts in Russian, at least).
For instance, the very second sentence of Chapter 1 shows just how clever the text as a whole can be:
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. (1.1.2).
From the context, we may reliably infer that "droog" must mean "friend" or "companion;" Dim "being really dim" is suitably cute; and "flip dark chill winter bastard though dry" sounds like some free-association wordplay on what a "winter evening" ought to feel like.
Known as "cancers" in nadsat, cigarettes are what the characters puff on when they need to appear cool or nonchalant (in the case of the "modern youth"), when they are being philosophical or anxious (in the case of the prison chaplain and Rex, the cop driving Dim and Billyboy's getaway squad car), or just delinquent (the ten-year-old girls Alex rapes, all the kids at the bars, as well as Alex's entourage). What is interesting is how Burgess calls them "cancers," obviously to incite the negative connotation.
The sign hanging on the gate of the country cottage where F. Alexander and wife reside also has real significance. In part one, Alex and co. stumble upon the cottage seeking a violent, fun time. Their actions directly threaten all positive connections of a "home." In part three, as Alex stumbles upon the same country cottage after he being left out to die by Dim and Billyboy, "home" comes to symbolize a place of refuge, solace, and a meeting of minds (between Alex and F. Alexander) against the Government.
In nadsat, breasts are called "groodies." All the girls and women (other than the ten-year-olds) have them. They seem to make the boys wild with desire. Well, at least this is true for Alex, since he's the only source we have, and he does talk incessantly about them hanging out of every woman's shirt, and their pink nipples waving hello at him, he is thereby caused to have the urge to do the old in-out-in-out. So, they very obviously symbolize femininity and sexuality; and, in Alex's case, a rape-to-come.
Everyone at the Korova Milkbar drinks milk. Alex drinks milk with almost every meal. Yet, none of the adults seem to be drinking it. Hmm… Could this mean that the milk-drinking teenagers are bunch of babies? You bet. Here associated with the naïve and immature, milk is the substance for infants – unsophisticated and helpless. For the "modern youth" that nurse on the stuff laced with hallucinogens, the explanation is that they are young people who have chosen to add poison to their otherwise innocent slates, making them the evil youth that they are.
From the text, we infer that these are hallucinogens added to the milk – a popular drink for the modern youth. Symbolizing evil, these are the poisons the kids choose to be exposed to. While under the influence of these poisons, the youth act out violently and brutally as urchins.
Alex revels in his descriptions of the red, hot blood that oozes or gushes or pours out from his victims. To him, blood is beauty; he experiences aesthetic joy from the blood he sheds. Considering Alex's violent tendencies, and insofar as Alex delights in destruction, blood also comes to symbolize vitality and energy.
Alex identifies with the night and all things associated with it. According to him, so do the other "modern youth," since they rule the streets at night. Night and darkness represent a sort of security and privacy that Alex and other modern youth crave. Perhaps because they can't be seen or found as easily; perhaps because it heightens the feeling of anonymity. Either way, as a setting, it certainly enables crime.
Alex contrasts night and darkness with day and lightness. Day and lightness are for the "starry folks." Patrol cars are more abundant on the streets and security is ensured. There is nowhere to hide where sun and light are present, as in the case of the holding cell and interrogation room. Alex feels extremely exposed and vulnerable in the day and in lightness. These are not his elements.
The Classical composers represent all that is ideal to and sacred for Alex, as these composers have created the highest and purest form of art, and therefore joy, for Alex. The fact that one or more of their compositions almost always accompanies Alex's perpetrating a certain crime – which he often commits for sheer aesthetics or sensory bliss – also bodes well for our interpretation.
The broken elevator in Alex's parents' Flatblock represents societal and moral demise. Indeed, it symbolizes everything that is wrong with the society that Alex lives in. The predictability of its lack of functionality suggests that the societal decay is nothing new and that it's here to stay for a long while.
We only get what Alex hands us, so we've got to be mindful of both the perspective and biases inherent to a first-person narrative.
The advantage to this is that we get extremely intimate with and engaged in Alex's life. After all, it's an "insider's view" we're seeing, albeit from only one lens. Despite all of the senseless brutality he inflicts upon others, for example, we come to like and forgive Alex, because we're stuck inside his head.
The disadvantage is, well—we have to spend a whole lot of time with Alex.
Ah, just kidding: Alex is an excellent (if thoroughly unlikable) character. The problem with the first-person narration is that we aren't privy to how others view our protagonist-narrator (except when it's obvious – like when P. R. Deltoid spits on Alex's face), and so we can't be exactly fair or just in our assessment of each situation.
Interestingly enough, this Basic Plot of Booker’s does not apply until Part Two of the book, meaning that Part One mostly provides background and buildup for the ordeal to come. Nonetheless, the "monster" has been anticipated in part one; for instance, when Alex reads from F. Alexander's loose manuscript entitled A Clockwork Orange. Most of part two has Alex set up to embody the highly feared "monster." In any case, it is definitely something that everyone (except the State, we suppose) fights against, and so is an appropriate "monster."
Beaten up by his former droogs and left to die, Alex wanders toward a house at the edge of a suburb. F. Alexander takes Alex into his home, feeds him, and gives him a place to rest and recuperate.
Of course, just when things are going well, complications are bound to arise. In this stage, just as Alex prepares to sign the confession/article F. Alexander has drafted for him as part of their shared subversive plans, F. Alexander realizes that he has unfinished business (personal, of course) with Alex. Thus, instead of executing the original plan (i.e., publish something that makes the Government look irredeemably evil), he comes up with a new plan.
The new plan by F. Alexander and his associates is the nightmare that Alex must confront. Unable to endure the pain of classical music as acquired through his associative learning treatment, Alex has no choice but to leap from a tall building to escape.
Alex doesn't die from the jump and instead enjoys a few weeks of being an invalid in bed. His nightmarish journey gains public attention, and the State's doctors work to restore him in an effort to please the public and gain votes for the upcoming election. A clockwork orange no more, Alex is turned back into the evil urchin that delights in violence. The icing on the cake is that F. Alexander has been jailed.
Alex and his entourage's crimes set the scene for the book. The raping and pillaging show just how heartlessly brutal and evil these teens are. We also get tuned in to just what a problem these "modern youth" like Alex and the gang can be to the State.
As a naturally aggressive alpha-male, Alex likes to assert his authority and leadership over his friends. But when Alex punches Dim for being "annoying," Dim and Georgie speak out against Alex's authority. A fight ensues and, voila, we have "conflict."
It gets complicated. Alex, rendered a bit insecure by Dim and Georgie's opposition to this authority, wants to show off a little bit, by playing "Big Man on Campus" at the cat-lady's mansion. Little does he know, though, that cats are his bad luck charm. The cat-lady – before she gets beaten to death by Alex, of course – calls the police.
And just as Alex is scrambling to get out of the mansion, he meets Dim, chain in hand. What goes around comes around, and Dim whacks Alex in the eye with his chain – payback style. Alex is temporarily blinded and therefore immobile, making him an easy capture for the police.
Never would we have thought that this droog would be thrown into jail. He definitely deserved it, though. And he definitely needs it. Of course, the killing of his cellmate, while uncalled for, doesn't really surprise us. As Alex himself notes, his new cellmate marked a kind of new beginning and hope for him – and that suggests "climax" to us.
What's it going to be then, eh? In other words, what will Alex do now that he's out of jail? Unable to even think of violence, how will he defend himself against the rest of the criminals on the street? These questions make this stage totally suspenseful.
With all the violence over with in this book, we're now onto "falling action." Alex is left to die in the snow; he stumbles upon a cottage in the country; the inhabitant of the cottage is a political dissident; he wants to incorporate Alex into his plans against the Government.
Seemingly immediate, this transformation Alex goes through is not necessarily instantaneous. A nice transition from violent, unthinking youth to calm, thoughtful adult (he turned eighteen not so long ago), Alex provides us with a nice conclusion to an otherwise unsettling story.
Alex wages violent crimes in both the city and the countryside of a futuristic English state.
Alex is imprisoned for his crimes, and forced to undergo behavioral therapy to be "cured" of his evil tendencies once and for all.
After many complications, Alex finds himself interested in leading a peaceful and "normal" life, even after the capacity for evil has been restored in him.
P. B. Shelley (1.1.26)
Henry VIII (1.1.26)
Berti Laski (1.1.10)
Elvis Presley (1.1.26)
Jonny Zhivago (1.3.3)
Friedrich Gitterfenster (1.3.3)
Geoffrey Plautus (1.3.26)
Mozart (1.3.28, 3.2.2, 3.2.6, 3.6.74, 3.7.52)
J. S. Bach (1.3.28, 2.1.9, 2.1.23)
Claudius Birdman (1.4.24)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1.4.24. 1.4.26, 1.4.34, 1.5.30, 1.6.14, 1.6.15, 1.7.15, 2.2.11, 2.6.3, 2.6.5, 2.6.19, 3.2.6, 3.5.13, 3.6.74, 3.6.76)
G. F. Handel (2.1.9, 2.2.11, 2.6.19)
Adrian Schweigselber (2.1.12)
Otto Skadelig (3.5.41)
Arthur Schoenberg (3.6.74)
Carl Orff (3.6.74)
Felix Mendelsohhn (3.7.52)