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A Clockwork Orange | Study Guide

Anthony Burgess

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A Clockwork Orange | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is Alex's answer to A Clockwork Orange's repeated question, "What's it going to be then, eh?" and how is the answer reflected in both the British and American editions?

If Part 3, Chapter 6 ends the novel, the answer is a return to the life that made Alex happy before his arrest: violence, theft, rape, and his beloved music, especially the "gorgeousness and yumyumyum" of Beethoven's Ninth. In other words, Alex will not have changed. Never, while he is conditioned against violence, does Alex express remorse for his actions. He shunts blame toward those he finds disloyal and speaks of how he has "suffered and suffered," but he never admits to wrongdoing. In this sense, Alex is surprisingly static for a protagonist and first-person narrator. Once the artificial repression of the conditioning is reversed, Alex is who he was on page 1 of the novel. However, if Chapter 7 ends the novel, then the answer to the question is that "[y]outh must go." Youth, Alex says in that chapter, is like "one of those malenky [little] toys" that, once wound up, bobble along bumping into things. "it cannot help what it is doing." Alex has just turned 18 and is ready to leave childhood and start a family—"a new like chapter beginning." In the interview with Alex that Burgess wrote years later, the now middle-aged protagonist confirms that simply being young is "nothing" and that growth is what matters.

In comparing the versions of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Part 3, Chapters 6 and 7, which Alex is the more convincing main character, given the whole novel?

Characterization, especially of main characters, occurs gradually as writers reveal a character's actions, thoughts, and words to readers and as readers see other characters interact with the main character. For the first 19 chapters of A Clockwork Orange, readers walk with Alex through his world, seeing everything through his eyes and learning to communicate in his dialect, nadsat. They come to know this self-centered, flamboyant, violent yet thoughtful and engaging teen. Readers see Alex's audacious nature repressed but not extinguished by aversion therapy. When Alex is "cured" in the American edition, readers see a return of the confident young criminal. Because his personality is consistent with his early character, and because his recovery is a terrible kind of justice, the Alex of Chapter 6 is convincing. It is easy to believe that he will return to bullying, stealing, and raping. Yet this means that Alex has changed very little. He has not grown or learned, as readers expect protagonists to do. On the other hand, Chapter 7 in the British edition presents an Alex who changes so suddenly and dramatically that readers are taken aback. (Alex is, too—he wonders if he's going "bezoomny [crazy].") His unexpected growth happens in only a few weeks, and readers can't point to events that give rise to it. Readers expect a protagonist to be dynamic, to mature in response to events. However, Alex's maturation in Chapter 7 is too quick and inexplicable for some readers to accept as organic and genuine.

In what way is Alex's story open or unfinished at the end of A Clockwork Orange, and how does this openness tie into the novel's themes?

Some novels tie up loose ends and end in a sense of restful conclusion (even if not always happily), but not A Clockwork Orange. The endings to the British and American editions have as much, if not more, suspense as resolution. In the American edition, Alex is "cured," and the State has bribed him with health care and a job to keep quiet about Ludovico's Treatment. Alex ignores the details of the State's deal. All he wants to do is listen to Beethoven and fantasize about his next violent actions. When Alex was at the treatment center, he made detailed plans for life after his release. He would find those who had betrayed him and punish them, especially Dim. He would steal enough cash to be comfortable. He would start a new gang. Most of all, this time he'd be "very careful not to get loveted [caught]." Getting caught again would not be "fair" after what he's gone through. Readers can assume that Alex's thoughts at the end of Chapter 6 are similar, yet given his violent intentions, there is every possibility that Alex will be caught, eventually, and returned to jail. In Chapter 7 (British edition), the open or unfinished ending is more positive. Alex has a job and no longer needs to steal. Violence has become blasé, and something new—the possibility of family—draws him to the future. That future would require a profound change in Alex. Something Burgess wrote about his infamous protagonist, decades after the novel's publication, helps readers understand the importance of the unfinished endings. Alex has always had the choice to be filled either with "sour" arrogance and violence or with "decent human sweetness." His deep enjoyment of great music is evidence that, as long as he has free will to choose, the "sweet" way is "always open." Even in the American ending, Alex can still choose it. Regardless, his possession of free will is the greatest happy ending there could be.

In what ways do the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, classical music, and the Ninth Symphony in particular serve as touchstones for Alex in A Clockwork Orange?

Alex measures people around him against the touchstones of classical music and of Beethoven's works in particular. Burgess wrote that he gave Alex this tendency because love of beauty is one of the "essential attributes" of humanity. Alex's devotion to Beethoven not only proves his humanity but allows him to judge other characters' humanity. In the bar, when Dim mocks the woman who sings an aria, Alex labels him a "drooling mannerless bastard" and hits him. Later he compares the pop music Sonietta and Marty like to "some sweet kid's drink." Part of Alex's "education" of the girls happen when he removes the new recording of the Ninth from its jacket so that both he and "Ludwig van" are naked in the girls' sight. Classical music also provides Alex with a touchstone during treatment. Alex objects to the use of the music as an "emotional heightener" as a "filthy unforgivable sin." When Drs. Brodsky and Branom ignore his pleas to stop playing the music, it confirms his opinion of them as "bratchnies [bastards]." Alex's appreciation of Beethoven's work, which he expresses in poetic and sensuous language, reminds him that he has choices in life and serves as a touchstone for his own decisions. He can choose violence and destruction, or he can, as he does in the British ending of the novel, choose to create. He thinks of Mozart, a composer of "heavenly music" by the time he was 18, and other composers who had created bodies of work at even earlier ages. By this standard, Alex, at 18, is behind—a thought that inspires a new vision of his future. "Youth must go," he decides, based on this touchstone. Even in the epilogue Burgess added in 1987, Alex, now middle-aged, uses classical music and Beethoven as touchstones. Youth, he complains, are not thoughtful; they make "shooms of lip-music prrrr" (rude mouth noises) to Beethoven and prefer music "like for little children" to complex classical music. Maturity has not altered the criteria by which Alex judges others.

Does Alex fit the definition of a hero or that of an antihero in A Clockwork Orange?

Literary heroes, traditionally, are idealists who defend the weak against the oppressor, even at risk to themselves. Their behavior is honorable by a culture's standards and upholds what is best and noblest in that culture. By this definition, Alex may be the novel's protagonist, but he is not its hero. He comes closer to the usual definition of antihero, an engaging if disturbing protagonist driven by dark urges and unconcerned about his culture's judgments of him. Heroes act for others; antiheroes often act for their own gain but may overturn unjust systems for the benefit of others as well. Readers are drawn to both heroes and antiheroes, and Alex is an engaging narrator. However, he may fall short even of the antihero model because he achieves nothing but a return to what is for him normal life. While Alex is enduring aversion therapy, the State, represented by the Minister of the Interior, becomes a clear enemy. Dr. Brodsky and his team carry out its sinister intentions. So, readers are primed to want the State to fall or at least be curbed, and F. Alexander and his confederates at first appear to be Alex's allies in striking back at the repressive State for the good of all. Not only do they fail, but the State prevails. Not only does Alex not strike back, he benefits from the State's retrenchment. In this sense, Alex is not a brooding but darkly impressive antihero. He is merely a puppet of the State, which suggests that the novel has no hero, anti- or otherwise, at all, unless it is the mere idea of free will.

What critique of drug use does Alex offer in A Clockwork Orange, and how does his critique contribute to the novel's themes?

With one foot, figuratively, in childhood and one in the violent city, Alex and his gang drink milk spiked "with knives in it" at the Milkbar to "sharpen ... up" for mayhem. This use of drugs is fine with Alex because it promotes bold action. But many youth drink milk laced with hallucinogens that allow them to spend time "admiring Bog [God] And All His Holy Angels And Saints" and spouting words they think profound but which are in fact nonsense. (One relates the curious message, for example, that "farfarculule gets rubadubdub.") To Alex, this kind of drug use is wasteful and "very cowardly." It is prone to "sap all the strength and goodness" out of a young man who is meant for action. Alex argues that people are not "put on this earth just to get in touch with God." Much later, after his conditioning, Alex tries the hallucinogen-spiked milk and feels transported to heaven, but there, statues of "Bog and the Angels and Saints" turn him away. There is no time to talk then, they seem to say. Life is happening. Yet when Alex emerges from the hallucination, he thinks that "death" is the "only answer to everything." He becomes passive under the drug's influence—a shadow of his bold, adventurous self. The passive person, even if he can exercise free will, hands it over to external forces. So, drugs that "sharpen" Alex's desire for choice—even violent choice—are okay, but those that blunt a person's will to act are not just bad but wicked and against "Bog."

What does the metaphor of the "clockwork orange" mean in A Clockwork Orange, and how does it develop the novel's central ideas about free will?

F. Alexander invents (in the novel, at least) the phrase "clockwork orange" to describe a condition of modern human experience. Modern trends toward standardization and efficiency, which benefit the government in power especially, "impose ... laws and conditions appropriate" to machines on people. People should be like plants, F. Alexander thinks, growing bountifully and producing sweet fruit, as God created them to do. So the sweetness of the orange is merged with the cold rigidity of the machine, and people become "piece[s] of clockwork orange," their free will perverted and curtailed. When Alex first reads F. Alexander's words, he shreds the manuscript and makes rude mouth noises. But the odd metaphor of the clockwork orange stays with him and burbles up through his memory when, during the demonstration of the aversion therapy's success, he cries out, "Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?" His will is no longer his own. Ludovico's Technique has shaped his will to the State's needs. Burgess has said, in writing about Alex, that his protagonist's name means "defender of men." Alex undergoes a process the repressive State might choose to impose on many in order to achieve an orderly society that runs, as the saying goes, "like clockwork." But without his ability to choose, Alex not only becomes, as F. Alexander describes him, "a little machine," but he loses the will to live at all.

How do the functions of Newspeak and doublethink in George Orwell's 1984 (1949), which influenced Burgess, and nadsat in A Clockwork Orange promote or hinder each novel's characters?

Nadsat and Newspeak (and its silent counterpart, doublethink) serve contrasting functions in their novels. Nadsat is part of Alex's identity. He speaks it, his gang members speak it, and other teens speak it. In fact, nadsat means "teen" or "teenage." Nadsat binds the subculture of teens and excludes others, especially adults in authority, from this subculture. It excludes readers at first, too, but as readers become fluent in nadsat, they become in a sense part of this subculture (and perhaps complicit in its excesses). Nadsat is definitely outside the control of State authorities. The prison chaplain and Governor and the Minister of the Interior in particular shun the defiantly rude dialect. Newspeak, in contrast, is designed to control what characters in 1984 can say and, eventually, what thoughts they can form. Nadsat has a wildly inventive streak; it borrows bits and pieces from other languages and from slang. It's a living, growing language. Newspeak is a language being slowly strangled as ambiguities are removed and possibility for expression is severely limited. Rather than contributing to characters' identity, its goal is to eradicate individual identity and, to borrow language from Burgess's The Clockwork Condition, to enforce "a zestless ticking of the human machine." And, he argues, it is a kind of conditioning, through "delimitation of language," similar to Ludovico's Technique, which delimits emotional responses. Alex's use of nadsat helps him express his spirited nature and binds him to "youth," but readers of the British edition note that it, too, limits his options. When Alex runs into Pete and his wife ("impossible impossible," Alex thinks) at the tea shop, not only has Pete stopped using nadsat, but Georgina laughs at it. It's not how grown-ups talk. When Pete gets a job, marries, and enters the adult world, he turns away from nadsat. As Part 3, Chapter 7 ends, Alex is still using it robustly, however, closing with the phrase "and all that cal [shit]."

How do the conditioning methods in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), which influenced Burgess's writing, and that in A Clockwork Orange both abridge free will?

In Brave New World and in A Clockwork Orange, authoritarian governments use conditioning to control citizens. In Burgess's novel, the repressive State experiments with this control, and the experiment backfires, forcing a retreat from Ludovico's Technique. In Huxley's novel, the World State has successfully forced conditioning on most of the population. Using "hypnopaedic conditioning," infants and children are stripped even of the desire to dream of stepping out of State-ordained roles, while adults are kept content (for the most part) by State-supplied soma, a drug that induces pleasant relaxation. (Hypno, in "hypnopaedic," and som, in "soma," both mean sleep, suggesting that humans, when awake and alert, resist external control.) The State also placates citizens with abundant material possessions and lots of sex. The inducements of conditioning, in other words, are mild and neutral or pleasant and desirable. Many characters in Brave New World, such as Lenina Crowne, accept the State's decisions for their lives. Some, however, like Bernard Marx, resist, dissatisfied despite their conditioning. Burgess writes, in The Clockwork Condition, that resistance is difficult: "It is easier to be told," he says, what to do than to face the near-constant pressure to choose, choose, choose. Yet the burden of choice is what makes people human rather than programmed machines. Ludovico's Technique, by contrast, is anything but pleasant or neutral. To use B.F. Skinner's language, the World State uses "non-aversive inducements" to control citizens, while the State in A Clockwork Orange experiments with "aversive inducements" whose cruel administration and devastating long-term effects readers experience through Alex's narration. Cruel or pleasant in methodology, both repressive authorities use conditioning for the same reason. They aim to control humans, with their individualistic desires, emotional natures, and mixed motivations, for the benefit of the State.

How do both Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and A Clockwork Orange critique the influence of pop culture and extol the effects of high culture on human development?

In A Clockwork Orange, one of Alex's distinctive traits is his profound love of classical music. Listening to the music sends him into ecstatic raptures that he describes in his most poetic voice. It evokes startling images: "a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal" and tympani rolls that "crunched like candy thunder." Alex despises pop music and those—especially other teens—who like it. He thinks everyone should love his choice of music and hits Dim for mocking a bit of classical song. Even in the faux interview between Alex and a young reporter, which Burgess wrote in 1987, Alex, now middle-aged, complains that shallow youth do not appreciate "Ludwig van and his like." For Burgess, a composer, Alex's love of classical music is evidence that he is not regenerate but capable of "decent human sweetness." Classical music nurtures Alex's maturation; the nadsat [teenage] culture that rejects it is stuck in childish behaviors. Similarly, in Brave New World, culture is carefully engineered to curb thought and direct desire toward the goals of the World State. Higher castes are conditioned to remember that they "can't consume" enough when they "sit still" to read books; the Bible, poetry, and works of literature are "forbidden books," and classical music is off limits: "whisk, Requiem; whisk, Symphony," done away with, as is history except what the World Controllers write. Instead, people consume facile propaganda designed to infantilize their minds and stymie contemplation. "Feelies" encourage erotic play, unconnected to committed feelings of love. Music consists of simplistic, repetitious songs like the "First Solidarity Hymn" that inculcate correct social teachings or chants like "Orgy-porgy" that throb rhythmically as a prelude to sex. Only among the most elite and the savages does knowledge of high culture, so dangerous to a placated population, exist. John, raised outside the World State's control and taught to read using William Shakespeare's plays, is dangerous, for example, because of the value system he extracts from the plays, with their complex human interactions, ambiguous moral choices, and acceptance of the individual's point of view.

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