Sara's Reviews > A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
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Jan 10, 13

bookshelves: psychological-horror, 20th-century-fiction
Read in December, 2008

A Clockwork Orange is not a morality play, but it bears enough of a resemblance to one that it seems worthwhile to consider it, provisionally, in those terms. The morality play is a medieval form of drama that utilized allegory to instruct its audience on moral questions. The protagonist in a morality play usually represented humanity as a whole, or a portion of humanity (upper classes, clerics, etc.). All of the characters with whom the protagonist came into contact were equally symbolic figures, often personifications of abstract qualities, virtues or vices. A morality play was supposed to serve as a kind of ethical tool; a set of points on which to meditate for one's own moral good.

First, while not a stand-in for all of mankind, Alex is certainly more representational than he is idiosyncratic. In Burgess' pseudo-communist, authoritarian and lawless future (present? alternate universe?), Alex symbolizes autonomous and unguided male adolescence. We discover that Alex, though self-appointed leader of his small gang of friends/thugs, is not a rare creature in this brave new world. For one thing, bands of violent male gangs ("the teaming up was mostly by fours or fives," we are told) roam all over the city after dark and, for another, a couple of Alex's own gang members covet his power as leader as much as he revels in it. The only thing that sets Alex apart for the reader is that he is our narrator...and that he has a pristine sense of aesthetics, albeit one intimately woven into his appreciation for violence.

The other characters who populate Burgess' novel also seem symbolic and not literal. Our Humble Narrator interacts with types more than with distinct personalities - old drunks, young girls, maniacal prison doctors, disgruntled intellectuals - and with abstract concepts more than with people - authority, obedience, revenge, pain. Few of these characters actually come across as individuals and, accordingly, many of them do not have names but are simply referred to via a relevant characteristic (a physical feature, age, and so forth), for example, "young ptitsas" or "starry prof type". Most characters in the book are interchangeable with any other characters of their type and Burgess (via Alex), in fact, treats them this way. The old man whom Alex and his droogs harass at the novel's outset might be any old man. In fact, once the Ludovico Technique foils Alex's will to destruction, this former victim, along with a host of other irate old people, assault Alex at the public library. The individual victim's anger becomes the group's communal anger, his vengeance becomes their vengeance and, conceptually, they symbolize the weak and helpless seeking vengeance on the cruel and strong.

The most potent characters in the novel (and the ones most likely to bear actual names) are the figures of authority. Yet they are still representational. From prison guards to the Minister of the Inferior Interior, authority is symbolized by relatively flat characters who primarily serve to represent normalizing forces of a repressive society. They pursue the imposition of order at all costs, including the elevation of one-time hooligans to law enforcement officers. Authority, in A Clockwork Orange, exhibits no altruism or interest in ethical subtleties, but instead is bent on perpetuating its own power and enforcing capitulation with that aim. Tellingly, even the would-be revolutionaries, who at first seem so sympathetic to Alex's plight, seek merely to employ him as an instrument in their own quest with no regard for his own wellbeing. And therein is a central theme to A Clockwork Orange in its capacity as a sort of inverted morality play - the narrow margin between the just and the wicked. As hoodlums become authority figures, perpetrators become victims (and likewise victims become perpetrators) with alarming ease.

Then comes the ending. I read the complete version; the one with 21 chapters; the one that was not truncated by the American publishing industry and then preserved forever in film my the esteemed Mr. Kubrick. Without this ending, A Clockwork Orange feels like a bleak, but daring meditation on violence. With the ending, it feels considerably less daring, no longer bleak, and it really takes on this "morality play" aspect I've been toying with. [SPOILER WARNING] In Chapter 21, Alex-as-unguided-youth finds guidance within himself that he did not find in the state's medical manipulation of him. He grows spiritually tired of violence, realizes he's growing up, and decides he wants to stop beating up people and have a child. So the violence in this young man does fizzle as he discovers a desire to release productive rather than destructive energies. After this revelation, characters remain stand-ins for larger groups or ideas and do not grow into people: "But first of all, brothers, there was this veshch of finding some devotchka or other who would be a mother to this son." It is completely irrelevant to Alex who he finds to mother his child, because who would "everyman" want? "[S]ome devotcha or other," naturally.

And what do we learn here? A morality play does not mean supplying a moral, as in a fable, where the lesson you're supposed to have learned is spelled out. Rather the morality play presents a set of situations where abstract concepts interact in personified forms and questions arise regarding the rightness, wrongness, or consequences of a given act. As with a morality play, one gets the feeling that Anthony Burgess wants us to use the piece as an object for consideration more than he seeks to entertain or necessarily enlighten us. We are not supposed to identify emotionally with anyone in this story, but to react mentally to the substance of the story. At least I'm hoping that's the case, because the final resemblance of A Clockwork Orange to a morality play is that it feels so aloof and distant and (ironically for such a violent book) bloodless. It feels didactic.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Leo (new) - rated it 4 stars

Leo Huang First, I just want to say that I really liked your analysis. It seemed long at first, it's actually quite concise.

I had the impression that the flat and anonymous characters were natural, considering the character of Alex. The people he interacts with are, in his view, only as important as he can understand their function (as opposed to any other sympathetic understanding).

As for how much of a "moral play" this is... I wouldn't say that I had that impression, since it's mostly stories with some sort of consequence "assigning" that offend me.

(side note: reading your review alone would have made me thought that you gave more stars!)


Sara Thanks for your comment! I like your perspective about how Alex would perceive the people around him - as tools or means to his ends, certainly not empathetically. That's a good point and definitely makes the narrative seem more naturalistic to the extent it represents his mental outlook.

I tried to use "morality play" in a very narrow sense - not to talk about any work that purports to have a moral (or assigns moral value to acts), but specifically to talk about the medieval dramatic form that encourages in the reader/viewer removed intellectualizing of situations whose outcome could have moral implications. That very specific thing is what the book reminded me of. But, as I started the review saying, Clockwork Orange is *not* a morality play...it just reminded me of one and I thought comparing them might bring out something about the novel. In any event, that's completely fair if you don't see it. It's certainly a subjective review and I am obsessed with medieval lit/art, so I'm likely to see it everywhere.

I might have given it more stars - it gave me a lot to think about, but I just didn't really *like* it. I guess the stars represent my aesthetic/emotional response, not my intellectual response. If I'm honest with myself there was probably a bit of me being contrary too, since it's a "classic" and I didn't love it.


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