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A Clockwork Orange | Study Guide

Anthony Burgess

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A Clockwork Orange | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Part 1, Chapter 1 of A Clockwork Orange, what details suggest that Alex has a personal ethical code, despite his violent ways?

Alex's actions in Part 1 are generally violent. However, he is disappointed when he gets away without a hard fight or when his "jests" are too easily carried out. That is part of his personal ethic. The harm he does to others should cost him something—effort, blood, risk. Alex also demonstrates loyalty. Readers see this when he decides not to feed Dim a spiked drink so that he and the others can have sex with the girls at the Milkbar. Alex accepts that Dim requires looking after, lamenting, "The things we did for old Dim." Alex also seems to have limits on the harm he is willing to inflict on others. When the gang roughs up the old man coming from the library, Alex enjoys crushing the man's dentures and hitting him until he bleeds. But when Dim mockingly reads the man's personal letter and pretends to wipe his rear with it, Alex stops him. Something about intruding on the man's private world bothers Alex, and this boundary sets him apart from the gang.

How do the description of the masks in Part 1, Chapter 1 of A Clockwork Orange and the epigraph that precedes the novel introduce themes of conformity and free will?

The boys don masks before robbing Slouse's store and when attacking F. Alexander and his wife later. These masks represent various aspects of culture, popular (or "low") and classical (or "high"). Pete wears a mask of Elvis Presley (contemporary music). Dim's mask is "Peebee," short for Percy Bysshe Shelley (literature, poetry, Romanticism). Georgie wears a mask of Henry VIII (history, political power). Alex's mask is of Benjamin Disraeli, twice prime minister of Britain during Victoria's reign and a well-known dandy, meaning he was fastidious about his clothing. Disraeli was a noted imperialist, an appropriate choice to represent the power of the State and Alex's own aggressive drives. The masks disguise Alex and the gang effectively, but they also suggest the forces of culture and history that can either confine or expand human existence and against which Alex struggles throughout the novel in his quest for free will. The epigraph from A Winter's Tale adds another cultural voice. Epigraphs can presage the themes of books they precede. In this case, the cultural voice carries the weight of one of England's foremost writers, William Shakespeare. The shepherd in the poem describes young men as sex-obsessed, violent, and disrespectful of "the ancientry"—their elders. The description certainly fits Alex, whose own violent action results in his authority over his parents and elevates his standing with other youth, or so he thinks. The novel explores whether Alex's understanding is naive or realistic.

Whom does Alex address as his audience in A Clockwork Orange, and how does he describe himself?

Alex speaks directly to readers he calls "my brothers" and sometimes, especially later in the novel, "little brothers." Occasionally, he uses the nadsat word for "brother," bratty, but the word he does not use to address his readers is droog, or friend. His address is often formal—"O my brothers." Who are these brothers? Readers must infer an answer, based on their assumptions about Alex's purpose in telling his story. The brothers may be other youth, in which case the British ending would suggest that the story is a cautionary tale, while the American ending might imply that the story is a call to action—violent action. Alex is something of a braggart; perhaps he tells his story to boast of what he has done and endured, in which case he may want his "brothers" to admire him. Alex refers to himself as the story's "humble Narrator" and "your handsome young Narrator," drawing attention repeatedly to his point of view—the only point of view offered in the novel, and a narrow one, since Alex does not always grasp what other characters, especially the adults, in the novel mean by what they say.

In what ways do the crimes in A Clockwork Orange, Part 1, Chapter 2, contrast the grim setting and result in Alex's nonchalance about the bloody scenes he leaves behind?

Against the dearth of creative output and the dreary city life the novel depicts, the frequent mentions of red blood and the vivid horror of the crimes the gang commits stand out painfully. Throughout the chapter, readers note the ambiguity of the victims' fates. Did the drunk, whom the gang kicked till he vomited up first beer and then blood, die? What about the writer, beaten bloody, or his traumatized wife? Alex does not know or seem to care. He is only 15, nearly a child—still drinking "innocent" milk and having his mother cook for him, as readers see in Chapter 3. The long-term consequences of his actions seem either not to occur or not to matter to him, perhaps because they do not impinge on him or perhaps because mortality is not a subject of interest to someone so young. Alex commits violence for the joy he feels in the moment. After each act, he seems curiously let down, plunged again into the grey dystopian setting whenever he is deprived of the "red curtains" of blood he finds so thrilling.

What do the lines Alex reads from the writer's manuscript in Part 1, Chapter 2 of A Clockwork Orange suggest about the writer and his concerns?

Alex reads the lines in a "very high type preaching goloss [voice]." The lines speak of humans as "capable of sweetness," of knowing God intimately and growing naturally, and of a State that attempts to enforce "laws and conditions" of the kind that rightly govern machines on humans. The writer intends to "raise my swordpen" against such a State, likely alluding to the adage that the "pen is mightier than the sword." The lines suggest that the writer is thoughtful and optimistic that he can be of use, if not prevail, against a totalitarian State. They suggest that he is a religious man and a humanist. He is also somewhat verbose, and Alex laughs about the flowery diction before shredding up the sheets of paper while the writer, nearly "bezoomny [mad]" with rage, tries to stop him. Readers meet the writer later in the novel and learn much more about him, but the lines Alex reads, and the title of his manuscript, prepare readers now for the kind of man who will be Alex's victim, ally, and enemy in turn.

Why, for Alex, is his near-ecstatic response to music fundamentally different from the response to hallucinogens he criticizes in others in A Clockwork Orange, Part 1?

In the first three chapters of the novel, Alex mocks people who drink milk laced with drugs that plunge them into hallucinations. He listens in Chapter 1 as a drugged man spouts words he no doubt thinks are profound, and he comments that escape into this state is "very cowardly." The drugs "sap all the strength" of people, who "were not put on earth," in Alex's opinion, "just to get in touch with God." In Chapter 3, when the gang returns to the Milkbar, Alex approves when Dim stamps cruelly on the foot of the hallucinating man, who can't even respond to the assault, "being now all above the body." Yet Alex's judgments of people seeking escape in drugs seem somewhat hypocritical when readers see him escape into his own addiction: classical music. When the woman in the Milkbar breaks into the aria, Alex feels as if "malenky [little] lizards" are crawling over his skin and imagines that "some great bird" has suddenly flown into the room. Later, alone in his room, he gives himself over completely to music; poetic words pour out of him as he experiences "bliss and heaven." He hears "trumpets threewise silverflamed" and imagines "silvery wine flowing in a spaceship." The woodwinds strike him as "worms of like platinum," and he cries out in wonder. The source may be different—music rather than chemicals—and Alex may believe that he is superior to those seeking temporary ecstasy in drugs; but his florid, wild words while under the influence of music seem almost hallucinatory.

How does the description of Alex's flatblock, in Part 1, Chapter 3 of A Clockwork Orange, contribute to readers' understanding of the novel's dystopian setting?

Burgess wrote the novel during the Cold War and was sharply aware that competing political ideologies, namely communism and capitalism, were struggling for primacy. The mural on Alex's parents' building is an echo of the Soviet exaltation of the worker. The "good old municipal painting," as Alex calls it, depicts men and women "stern in the dignity of labour," working at their machines entirely nude, as if to let nothing separate them from their tools. Yet the building itself is a testimony to the State's failure to bring the benefits of dignified labor to the people. The flatblock is dirty, a young man is bleeding in the gutter, and the elevator has been vandalized and does not work. Alex's parents' flat is small and plain, and their food is sparse and unappealing—"tinned spongemeat" and "innocent" milk, which seems almost "wicked" to Alex in its unadulterated state. Alex's room, too, bears symbols of the State's attempt to control citizens' lives: banners from each corrective school he's attended. Yet signs of creative insurgence persist. Vandals have added mocking, obscene touches to the mural, emphasizing a worker's sexuality. Alex's glorious music floods the flat, obscuring for him its utilitarian character in "thick thick toffee gold and silver."

How does Alex's claim in A Clockwork Orange, Part 1, Chapter 4, that the "self" is created by God and "is his great pride and radosty [joy]" critique Ludovico's Technique?

Alex does not yet know about Ludovico's Technique, the radical conditioning treatment described in Part 2 of the novel. Yet Alex's musings on good and evil in Part 1, Chapter 4 prepare readers to critique the technique. Deltoid's frustration with delinquent youth, who have everything they need but still act destructively, and the various articles Alex has read on what is wrong with youth focus on why youth, or any people, choose evil. Why not study "the cause of goodness"? It is as logical a focus, he thinks. Ludovico's Technique attempts to do just that, yet by removing choice, the technique removes the "self," the "oddy knocky" that is a God-created individual. If God is the creator, if God has joy in his creation, then Alex is who he is—a lover of violence—by divine decision. The State, on the other hand, is the "not-self." It isn't a creation of God and restricts "the bad" to repress the self under the State's needs and ends. This is exactly what happens to Alex during treatment. His "self" is violated and repressed for the State's benefit, and the process nearly kills him.

How does Alex's comparison of day and night in Part 1, Chapter 4 of A Clockwork Orange help readers understand how night and darkness function symbolically in the novel?

For Alex, day is "very different" from night. Day is the world of the "boorjoyce" (bourgeois), the workers doing the will of the State, from what he can tell. The examples readers see of the novel's day-dwellers include Alex's worn-down parents, whose jobs bore and tire them and who fear their own son, and Deltoid, who is "very weary" from working with the likes of "little Alex." The teachers in Alex's corrective schools and the shopkeepers he victimizes—their lives seem hopeless and pointless. Alex and his "droogs [friends]" and "all the rest of the nadsat [teens]," on the other hand, inhabit the night, when the day-dwellers "lurked" indoors to drink and watch State-made TV shows. Thus, the teens and those that have survived their teen years are divided into different societies. Daytime symbolizes the adult world of work and obligation and cooperation. Only by shrouding these realities of life in night's darkness can the hedonistic nadsat continue in their denial that this is their future, unless, as Alex prefers, they are murdered or die in a "final chorus in twisted metal and smashed glass."

In A Clockwork Orange, how are the cats belonging to the old woman Alex kills symbolic of the novel's messages about individuality and violence?

Like Alex and his friends, the cats are drinking milk when the gang first arrives. When they ring the door, Alex envisions the old woman with "a big fat pussycat under each arm," much like the weapons he and his gang carry, and she threatens him with the beasts. When Alex breaks in, he notices that the house smells close and musty from the cats and he can see them everywhere, marking their territory like the boys have been doing on the streets. Not only does Alex trip over one of the cat's saucers; he steps on another's tail, resulting in a thorough thrashing from the beasts reminiscent of the one his gang gave to Billyboy's. Cats, unlike dogs, are animals who are perceived to value solitude and individuality rather than the society of their peers. The are also mythologically associated with the home and domesticity as the sacred companions of Diana or Artemis, the moon goddess. However, these particular cats are being forced to live tightly in close quarters, thus mimicking the contemporary urban life of their human owner. The over-domestication of the cats at the hands of their owner reflects the control the State has over the owner and her fellow citizens, and the violence of the cats reflects the attitude of Alex and his "droogs."

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