A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess A Teen Stripped of Humanity
His name is Alex, and he leads a gang of thugs. Dressed in the height of fashion, their minds are filled with drugged drink, solipsism, and "ultra-violence". Sometimes they are the Nighthawks; sometimes they are those they prey upon them. They are, at minimum, a terror that menaces this hollow society.
Anthony Burgess brings together the graphic violence of Quentin Tarantino, the inky ambience of Joseph Conrad, and (bear with me here), the understated and even farcical humor of Damon Runyon. Unlike Tarantino, however, Burgess has thinly veiled the disturbingly violent escapades of Alex and his cohorts under a narrative written in a fictional slang. The slang itself is part of what creates an otherworldly ambience, seasons the text with whimsical humor, and brings the reader into an unsettling relationship with the graphic imposition of suffering which Alex and his gang have embraced as their daily bread-and-butter:
~~So that was old Dim's cue and he went grinning and going er er and a a a for this veck's dithering rot, crack crack, first left fistie then right, so that our dear old droog the red - red vino on tap and the same in all places, like it's put out by the same big firm - started to pour and spot the nice clean carpet and the bits of his book that I was still ripping away at, razrez razrez.~~
"What's it going to be then, eh?" is a question which, by my count, appears three times in the text. The question implies that Alex is indeed capable of choice, of becoming more than a victim himself of a habitual cycle of violence. Once at the beginning of the book, once in prison, and once at the end of the book among a new troop of gang member, the question surfaces, as if inviting Alex to value something more than the temporal. It is not until the element of choice is taken from Alex that he begins to change, at first assuming a passing interest in God while in prison, and then after being subjected to a government-imposed scheme to rid prisoners of violence through chemically- and visually-induced brainwashing.
Although I struggle with valuing any book so intently focused on violence, I find A Clockwork Orange a quirky piece of brilliance. The humor is subtle but well-placed in revealing Alex's adolescent qualities. Once incarcerated, he wisecracks about being "dressed in the height of prison fashion" and extols the value of reading the Bible, but mainly the part where the Jews beat each other up, drink plenty of wine, and sleep with each other's wives . . .
Yet despite his penchant for violence, it is hard to not humanize Alex. His smirking, if not comedic outlook on life is somewhat contagious, and he is not immune to the full range of human emotion. Once faced with the prospect of a government reform program which would eliminate his power of choice forever, he seems to encounter real fear, a nascent conceptualization of sin, and the prospect, according to the prison chaplain of being "beyond the reach of the power of prayer". Having come through the program and endured various measures of victimization and reform afterwards, however, he still carries a comforting resemblance to his original, whimsical self. Recovering in a hospital, he asks about his condition in his typical, humorous fashion, "But has anyone been doing anything with my gulliver? What I mean is, have they been playing around with inside like my brain?"
It is unlikely that many readers would naturally identify with Alex. But this is perhaps part of Burgess' brilliance. Despite Alex's immersion in the dregs of life (drugs, crime, violence, gangs, etc.), we begin to value his humanity as manifested in the freedom to make moral choices. Once stripped of this, we begin to see Alex as stripped of an inalienable right, as stripped of his own humanity. Perhaps then, the enduring value of A Clockwork Orange is its affirmation of moral choice as an inextricable component of humanity in us all. To be deprived of choice is to be deprived of being human, even if we remain physically alive.