My wonderful friend Marc – he was always Leroy, but Marc in college, which is when I knew him, so he’s still Marc to me – caught up on the old blogeroo and wrote to me yesterday about Clockwork Orange, wondering if he should give it another try. He read it when he was 18 and thought Burgess was saying man is basically evil and got depressed and hasn’t looked at it since. I think a lot of people, if they get past the invented language, probably feel the same way. So here’s my take on it, along with some context as to how I got here.
Clockwork Orange was the last novel that I had my novel/short story students read; the first was Frankenstein. Both were suggestions from the Eldest. In between, we read Heart of Darkness, Death Comes to the Archbishop, and Go Tell It on the Mountain. One of the things I wanted the students to see was that this question, is man basically good or basically evil, is one that writers wrestle with 9 times out of 10 in good fiction. And over the course of the course, we saw them go back and forth. Shelley, a romantic and clearly listening pretty closely to all those arguments between her husband and Lord Byron, says man is good, and life just screws him up. Conrad, obviously from the title, believes that man is pretty bad, but also that man has choices. Cather is almost all about free will; I think, from Archbishop, that she probably thinks some men are better than others naturally; we also read her short story, Paul’s Case, and she’s definitely very interested in how much character/personality people are born with. Baldwin is primarily interested in choices and consequences, as well as the sins of the fathers being replayed ad infinitum – an acceptance that man is basically sort of screwed but that he also has some power over his destiny.
Then we get to Burgess. The interesting thing is that his original final chapter – 21, which is significant – was cut from the American version of the book. That’s the one all of us read when we were young, because the restored chapter wasn’t available until the late 80s. It’s also the one Kubrick read. That last chapter completely changes the effect of the book. It’s about Alex putting away childish things at the ripe age of 18, longing for a family, and starting to tap into the regret that he gets a teeny twang of in the scene where he kills the old lady with the cats – he wonders, just for a second, who will feed all those damn cats now that the old broad is dead.
But you don’t now that scene is coming when you pick up the book for the first time. The students were completely mixed in their reaction to the book. Most of them – esp. males and the younger ones – loved it, at least in part because of the violence. A couple, notedly one woman probably in her mid-30s, hated it, mainly because of the violence. And that, of course misses the point, but it’s ok to miss the point if it’s a book that you remember, because they’ll still think about it and at some point, I hope, dip back into it.
I think because the movie is close to the book, superficially, people remember it as glorifying violence more than it does. I don’t think either version does, but the movie considerably and somewhat oddly softens the book’s effect. In the book, a series of 4 crimes, each more violent than the last, culminates in the horrendous scene at “Home.” The first incident, in which an old man is humiliated but only lightly beaten, includes ripping up of rare books and a love letter. Alex’s violence to the books and to the written word, his complete disregard for tradition and knowledge, and his preference for songs like “You Blister My Paint” are a pretty concise comment on the aimlessness and stupidity of teenagers in a consumer society that encourages the public to be as aimless and stupid as possible.
Reading the book with your eyes open – and I have to again say what a wonderful, ripping and quick read it is, and that there’s not one excess word in the entire thing – you see again and again that the violence that Alex and his gang choose are a pretty logical alternative to the anesthetized reality that most of the adults live in – at least they’re feeling something. More importantly, and both versions have a character say it, is the fact that the state is basically using the teenage gangs as deterrents to people going out, engaging with society, and actually trying to change anything. Everyone stays behind locked doors, listening to state-sponsored propaganda via TV and radio, toiling in miserable jobs during the day, and once again locking down at night. And though Burgess was critiquing the Soviet system at the time, he didn’t limit himself to it. Hmmmm…….households where both parents work overtime in order to pay the mortgage, where they come home exhausted at the end of the day with just enough energy to watch Deal or No Deal. The more things change…..etc.
Back to the book’s impact: another giant difference beteween it and movie is the ages. The close-up of Malcolm MacDowell that begins the movie, one eye circled in black, in the uplit lowered head shot that Kubrick loved (remember The Shining and the suicide scene in Full Metal Jacket) is so iconic that it’s hard to think of Alex in any other way. But he’s only 15 in the book – a beautifully executed revelation by Burgess . The third scene of the movie opens the fight with fellow thug Billy Boy and his gang by artistically ripping the clothes off of a very sexy 20-year-old woman. In the book, Alex interrupts his rivals preparing to gang rape a 10 year old, who runs screaming naked through the streets. The very funny sex scene in the movie between Alex and the two young women he picks up at the record shop is completely consensual, sped up like a Keystone Cops reel as the William Tell overture tootles along in the background. In the book, Alex picks up 2 10-year-olds, then drugs and rapes them in turn. It’s horrifying, and yet it’s also clear, as it isn’t in the movie, that this is a book about children – completely misguided, obviously, and in Alex’s case, frighteningly amoral. But aren’t most children amoral? You have to be taught certain things; sharing and being kind to people don’t come naturally to any but the gentlest souls. The vacuum that Alex has been raised in gets filled, naturally, with abhorrent behavior.
Once Alex is arrested and throughout the rest of the book, the inhumanity and violence of the state is shown to be the true horror. What’s so brilliant is that Burgess gives us a protagonist so vile that it’s hard to feel anything but triumph as Alex screams in agony during his treatment. Who’s loving violence now? We are; we have decided that Alex deserves to be horribly violated. As punishment for his crimes, it’s OK. As immoral and awful as violence is, all of us, in the right context, can get into it. What we watch, and what many of us cheer, is no worse or less sickening than any of Alex’s acts; it’s just about who struck first.
In the restored chapter, Alex looks back and realizes he has wasted years of his life: “By the time he was my age, Mozart had written x amount of symphonies.” He no longer participates, just watches, and finds himself bored. He wants a child, but doesn’t expect, or give any indication that he wants, the cycle to end. But he’s only 18. My students were almost equally divided on whether there was any hope for him, but in my book, you never give up.
One of the great things about A Clockwork Orange is that it’s impossible to spoil. The plot is but one element in an extraordinary narrative that grapples with the issue of free will more valiantly and speedily than anything else that comes to mind. So, yeah, Marc. Give it another shot.