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A Clockwork Orange | Study Guide

Anthony Burgess

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A Clockwork Orange | Context


Response to Behaviorism

Part 2 of the novel deals especially with Burgess's thoughts about American psychologist B.F. Skinner's ideas on behaviorism, thoughts Skinner developed in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). Behaviorists are not concerned with internal states of mind such as emotions. Instead, Skinner was interested in the psychology of the environment; that is, how people react to stimuli and how these reactions can be used to condition or change human behavior. Skinner's analysis of the environment focused on neutral, reinforcing, and punishing stimuli. Neutral stimuli have no effect on the likelihood that a human will repeat a behavior. Reinforcing stimuli, whether positive or negative, increase the likelihood of repetition. Punishing stimuli decrease the likelihood. By locating the drivers of human behavior outside the mind, Skinner was able to propose methods to control behavior that do not rely on swaying a person's moral thinking or on educating the person.

American and British Versions

The American version of A Clockwork Orange ends after Chapter 20, while the British version includes Chapter 21, which Burgess described during editing as an "epilogue." The publisher of the American edition claimed that Burgess absolutely wanted the shorter novel, and Burgess sometimes agreed with this version of events. But as years passed, Burgess more and more insisted that the British ending is the right ending, and in 1987 he wrote an additional epilogue that reinforced Chapter 21.

The American ending, critics have pointed out, is less optimistic, less redemptive. The damage the State has done to Alex is reversed, but his potential for violence remains. However, many critics and readers find this ending more realistic and in keeping with the novel as a whole. The British ending, on the other hand, offers the hope of redemption, which is key to Burgess's understanding of free will and human choice.

The Clockwork Condition

Anthony Burgess began a nonfiction book called The Clockwork Condition in 1973. He wrote only the first chapter before returning to work on a new novel and on television and movie projects, but the single chapter explains aspects of the composition and philosophy of A Clockwork Orange:

  • The name Alex has an "international character," as does Alex's city.
  • Alex is a "comic reduction" of Alexander the Great. Alex wants to be the conqueror but instead is imprisoned and stripped of his nature.
  • The name offers wordplay: lex is "law" in Latin and "word" or "book" in Greek. Alex is "a law (a lex) unto himself," until his control is stripped away. Also, while recovering in the hospital, Alex is "alexical"—without words.
  • The name means "defender of men."

Alex possesses, Burgess says, three human "essentials" in extreme quantities:

  • He "rejoices" in language and wordplay.
  • He loves "beauty," especially in music.
  • He is "aggressive." He takes what he wants and enjoys the act of taking.

Burgess calls Alex both a hero and an antihero. Because Alex is so extremely human, the State is not satisfied with merely punishing him. It must destroy his aggressive nature, ostensibly to protect society. The struggle over Alex's drives is the perennial conflict between the individual and the group. When the State "cures" Alex, it violates its "covenant with the citizen" by shutting Alex out of a "whole world of non-moral goodness" in the form of the music he can no longer enjoy. When the treatment is reversed, Alex can again enjoy music, but he can also enjoy aggression again. The "power of choice" is the point: It is better to be "bad of one's own free will" than to be compelled to be good, yet the choice to do good is always present. Alex develops a "distaste" as he matures for violence, and that "way has always been open."

Burgess claims to be optimistic about humanity's future, but he worries about the increasing necessity of "routine work" that offers "no zest or creativity." He interprets the doublethink concept "Freedom is slavery" (from George Orwell's 1984) to mean that choice can be so difficult and burdensome that people cede it to routine or to the State's dictates to be relieved of it. And he admits that some conformity is necessary and even desirable; friendship and collaboration require them. But people should be "frightened" when the State imposes "patterns of conformity." The best-intentioned institutions quickly become self-perpetuating and so must constantly be checked by thoughtful, skeptical individuals. Burgess fears that totalitarian states and democratic states alike have "far too much power." He notes that the "nightmare books" of the 20th century are not about "new Draculas and Frankensteins" but about state-imposed dystopias. Orwell's1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World are examples. The first represses individuals through "simple torture and brainwashing" and through control of language; the second placates individuals through conditioning and "scientifically composed contentment."

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