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Of all the early 1960s novels made famous by later movie adaptations (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and One Flew Over the Cuckoos's Nest come to mind), A Clockwork Orange is perhaps the one most able to stand on its own. Irrespective of Stanley Kubrick's unforgettable cinematic version (and Malcolm McDowell's star turn as Alex), Anthony Burgess' achievement in this book cannot be overstated.

A dystopian nightmare of frightening plausibility, it explores the nature of free will through the experiences of its protagonist Alex, a juvenile delinquent who is maneuvered into undergoing aversion therapy that in effect forces him to be "good." A number of characters opine that such conditioning severs a man from choice, eliminating his humanity. "Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness?" asks one. "Is a man who choses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?" One need not believe in a God to understand the philosophical stakes implied by those questions.

Burgess does a great job of stacking the deck to make the point. Alex is undeniably despicable. By age 15 (his age at the start of the book) he has committed numerous acts of "ultra-violence" that has left at least two people dead, participated in a brutal gang-rape, molested a pair of 10-year-old girls and perpetrated numerous acts of theft and gratuitous vandalism that have terrorized his community. He is clearly a cancer on society and society has a reasonable rationale for taking him out of circulation through incarceration (or perhaps, at the extreme, execution). But does it have a right to remove his free will? That is the uncomfortable question Burgess asks.


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Clockwork Orange is the second dystopian novel Burgess published in 1962. The other, The Wanting Seed, lacks Clockwork Orange's tight structure, consistent theme and anything close to Alex as a dramatic center, something made even more unforgettable by Alex' first-person narration in an idiosyncratic Slavic/English polyglot slang. The only two book-length first-person in-character narrations I can compare it to in 20th century English language literature for sheer end-to-end brilliance are Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

The book also exposes the generational rift emerging in British society in the late 50s and early 60s. If one watches some of the "kitchen sink dramas" being made around that same time by directors like Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, also dating from 1962, is an excellent example), one can see the utter befuddlement of the older generations, still clinging to king-and-country traditions, when faced with the aggressive, cynical attitudes of the young, particularly the young of the lower classes. Gangs like Alex's "droogs" had their real-life counterparts in the Teddy Boys and the early Mods.

Clockwork Orange can also be seen as an indictment of the kind of secular, scientifically planned societies then in vogue, which Burgess exposes as breeding cynicism by weakening traditional checks on amoral behavior such as religion and parental authority, setting the stage for authoritarianism (a cultural/political cycle that he explores more overtly in The Wanting Seed).

A Clockwork Orange is a bravura achievement as a philosophical meditation and also a hell of an entertaining read. What more can one ask