Study Guide

A Clockwork Orange Themes

By Anthony Burgess

  • Fate and Free Will

    A Clockwork Orange highlights the question of whether people are destined to their fate, or whether free will and external circumstances can influence people's outcomes. Alex believes that humans are born evil and need cultivation to avoid evil. F. Alexander believes that humans are born good, but are corrupted by society and culture. The Government believes that the stability of the State trumps the happiness of its citizens, and readily abolishes moral choice (a fundamental human trait) in the name of stability.

    In contrast to this, Alex fights vehemently against the notion that his freedom to choose should be compromised at all, as free will is what makes him human to begin with.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Do you believe that humans are born and destined to be evil, needing cultivation and societal pressures to become good? Or do you believe that we are basically born good, but are corrupted by our social environment? Justify your position with examples from the book.
    2. What are some fundamental characteristics of human beings? That is, what makes us different from machines, robots, or other animals? Do the characters in this book possess some of these traits?
    3. In what sense is evil part of Alex's nature and fate? Is the ability to perform evil deeds, freely and openly, an important part of being human?

    Chew on This

    A central part of being human is free will, the ability to choose among different options. While Alex has freedom of choice, he is as human as possible. When Alex is rendered unable to choose violence, thanks to Ludovico's Technique, Burgess sends the message that he no longer is human, but a mere clockwork orange.

    People are born innocent, only to be corrupted by society and its ills. Societal corruption, though, is neither necessary nor irreversible. Alex, the protagonist-narrator of A Clockwork Orange, is the perfect case in point.

  • Morality and Ethics

    The central message of A Clockwork Orange seems to be that the freedom to choose (good or evil) is fundamental to mankind. Indeed, this element of moral choice distinguishes humans from machines and robots.

    However, is moral depravity better than forced morality? Are evil and suffering (freely chosen and caused by people) better than a docile, peaceful state (engineered by the Government)? People like Alex, the prison chaplain, and F. Alexander seem to think so. The State is more interested in stability than any debate on morality and ethics, however.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Which is a more moral person: a kid who consistently but freely chooses to do evil deeds over good ones or a reformed criminal who has been brainwashed to choose only good deeds? Be ready to explain your reasoning and assumptions.
    2. Is moral depravity better than forced morality? Where does amorality figure in all of this? Which side of the debate does each major character in this book take?
    3. Do you believe in the adage, "what goes around comes around"? Does Alex get what is due to him?
    4. Do you consider F. Alexander to be a morally upright man? How about the Minister of the Interior – are his actions morally justified?

    Chew on This

    Behavior that is not chosen, but dictated or forced, is neither moral nor immoral, because the freedom to choose one's actions underlies the very concept of "morality."

    Alex is the ultimate poster-child for amorality, since he delights in violence for violence's sake.

  • Manipulation

    The Government in A Clockwork Orange will do anything to ensure its own survival—as well as the stability of the State. To that end, it employs questionable scientific techniques in order to manipulate its citizens into becoming moral exemplars. The manipulation technique used on Alex is, essentially, behavioral modification through associative learning.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. How many different kinds of manipulation can you name? In how many different ways does the Government manipulate its citizens in Alex's world? Through what means? For what purpose?
    2. What, in your view, is behavior modification? How is it done? Why is it done? How is it different from bribery, for example?
    3. Can advertising be seen as manipulation and as a behavior modification tool? Does the fact that advertising can cause behavioral changes bother you?
    4. Do you possess vices for which you wish you could undergo Ludovico's Technique? Would you do so if offered the chance?

    Chew on This

    Forcing Alex to undergo the Reclamation Treatment is just one out of the many ways the Government manipulates its citizens to ensure stability in the State.

    Alex is forced to endure Ludovico's Technique, which employs the principles of associative learning, whereby a person's behavior is modified through prolonged manipulation of her normal responses to select stimuli. In this day and age, Ludovico's Technique would be considered torture, or at least the unethical treatment of criminals.

  • Good vs. Evil

    The battle between good and evil gets complicated in A Clockwork Orange, because the novel really presents the battle between forced good and chosen evil. Who is better: someone incapable of doing evil, only good, or someone with the freedom to choose whatever path she wants, but opts do evil? Is a "clockwork orange" more interesting than the likes of Alex? Or is evil Alex more human than the clockwork doer of good deeds?

    We know this at least: Burgess sides with Alex.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. What are your thoughts on the following quote, which the prison chaplain says to Alex? "The question is whether such a technique can really make a man good. Goodness comes from within...

      Chew on This

      The prison chaplain says that personal choice is required for a person to be deemed "good." Per this view, a religious person who does not thoughtfully choose her actions, but blindly follows the words of her religion's instructions to do only good deeds cannot be seen as a "good" person.

      Despite all the talk surrounding the good vs. evil debate in A Clockwork Orange, Burgess has included precious few instances of true, freely chosen goodness in the book.

  • Power

    In A Clockwork Orange, the Government seeks to suppress individuals and individual choice in favor of the stability of the State, largely to ensure its own survival. Towards this end, the Government is prepared to do anything necessary, including distributing propaganda and censorship, employing morally questionable scientific techniques to "reform" criminals, and employing criminals as state patrol to threaten other citizens (and potential political dissidents).

    Questions About Power

    1. In what ways does the Government seek to control its citizens? Is it primarily physical, psychological, or emotional suppression?
    2. Why does the Government decrease the number of street patrol cars at night, when, arguably, the town most needs them? What ulterior motive must the Government have in choosing to do this?
    3. How does a majority culture of violent teens reflect upon its Government?
    4. Give specific examples of how the Government changes its policy against criminals from part one to part three of the book.

    Chew on This

    From its treatment of Alex, one can clearly gauge how the Government is willing to sacrifice the individual liberties of its constituents for the stability of the State.

    The Government is the chief antagonistic force against Alex in A Clockwork Orange, because of the differing views it espouses on the subjects of morality, personal liberty, and freedom of choice.

  • Transformation

    Burgess values transformation and has famously said that a book without a hint of "moral progress" or personal transformation has no point and is better left unwritten.

    Yeah: A Clockwork Orange is not better left unwritten.

    Despite all the crime Alex commits, at the end of the day, he grows up. The transformation Alex experiences in the novel is hard-earned and long overdue; it is also freely chosen and deeply personal for him.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. In what ways does Alex undergo personal and moral transformation from the beginning to the end of the book? How can you tell? Does the transformation manifest itself through his actions, or just his thoughts?
    2. Does Alex's transformation seem sudden or surprising to you? Is it fitting? Natural? Could A Clockwork Orange have done without the last chapter?
    3. Who and what are chiefly responsible for causing Alex to suddenly grow up? In what ways is his maturation like a religious awakening? In what senses is it hard-earned and long in coming?
    4. How does F. Alexander transform from part one to part three?

    Chew on This

    Alex's "transformation" in the last chapter is completely superficial and will not last, for he has come by it due to boredom with his current life and out of envy for Pete's "normal" life.

    The transformation F. Alexander has experienced might more appropriately be called degeneration. He goes from being an aspiring writer who loves his wife to a vengeful political dissident.

  • Violence

    Violence and instances of criminality are ubiquitous in A Clockwork Orange. In just a few chapters, Alex and his entourage have performed every trick in the criminal's book: doing drugs, mugging, robbing, gang fighting, grand theft auto, reckless driving, vandalism, arson, rape, and murder.

    What is more, there's also plenty of discussion of probation officers, juvenile delinquents, prison life, police brutality, and even a forced suicide.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Of all the acts of violence Alex and his gang perpetrate on their victims, which is/are the worst? What criteria do you use to assess this, the amount of perceived pain (whether it results in death or not), or something else?
    2. What role does violence or criminality play in this novel? Could the book have done without all that brutality?
    3. Alex commits crimes for the sheer joy of it. Do you think Dim and Georgie operate similarly? What motivates Dim to act violently? What motivates Georgie? Are either of them any different from Alex?
    4. How do you suppose the "modern youth" have become so violent? Is it due to lack of parenting, authority, sense of morality, or something else?

    Chew on This

    Alex commits crimes for the sheer joy of it; Dim is too dim to be thoughtful about his motivations; and Georgie commits crimes for monetary gain. Thus, Alex and Georgie are your typical criminals, while Dim is a mere victim of his circumstances.

    In his vivid descriptions of brutality in the work, Burgess uses violence not only to contrast the forces of good and evil, but also to cause readers to look within themselves at their own capacities for nastiness. Thus, the depictions of violence are indispensable to A Clockwork Orange.

  • Language and Communication

    Language, specifically nadsat, has an important several important functions in A Clockwork Orange. First, it works as a literary device that seeks to temporarily alienate the reader from the world of the protagonist-narrator. We are initially barred from making moral judgments of Alex & Co. because we aren't sure of what they are doing; we are shielded and removed from some of Alex's brutality against others.

    As we toil for the first several chapters learning to decipher the language, however, we build rapport with the violent teens, and even feel we understand them...because we've learned their language.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. By what chapter did you finally catch on to nadsat? Can you understand it now with relative ease? Did you notice a shift in your attitude towards Alex and/or towards his conduct once you clued into exactly what he was saying and doing?
    2. Did you find yourself liking Alex more or less before or after you were able to decipher nadsat for yourself?
    3. What roles does a made-up language like nadsat play in a violent novel like this one?
    4. Could A Clockwork Orange been as effective a book had it been written without nadsat? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The origins of nadsat betray the political message Burgess intends to convey through its usage – that Alex's Britain is not that far off from being a totalitarian state like Russia.

    Nadsat is indispensable to A Clockwork Orange as a literary device. Without it, readers would never have the opportunity to develop the requisite rapport with the protagonist to stick with him through the end.