A Clockwork Orange | Study Guide

Anthony Burgess

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A Clockwork Orange | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Alex meets his gang at the Korova Milkbar to plan their winter evening. The Milkbar is a favorite hangout for Alex, Pete, Georgie, and Dim. There they can order milk spiked either with hallucinogens that send you to another world, or with stimulants that "sharpen you up" for violence. The boys have plenty of cash and do not need to rob anyone, but "money isn't everything." When they see three sexually available girls at the counter, Alex considers buying Dim a drink with a sedative so that he, Pete, and Georgie can leave with the girls but decides against this disloyal behavior. Nearby, a man babbles as he hallucinates. Alex comments that mind-altering drugs are "very cowardly" because they sap one's strength for action: "You were not put on this earth just to get in touch with God."

Out looking for "dirty" fun, the boys encounter a "prof type" carrying science books. Greeting him with false politeness, they destroy the books, claiming they contain "filth and nastiness." They attack the old man, pulling out his dentures and stomping on them, hitting his mouth until he bleeds "real beautiful," and tearing his clothes before they go through his pockets. It is just "the start of the evening." They head to a favorite bar, the Duke of New York, to establish alibis buying drinks for old women at the bar. They leave broke—an excuse to don masks and rob a drugstore. The manager, Slouse, heads for the phone and his gun, but Dim attacks him while Alex grabs his screaming wife. Alex beats her, tearing her clothes to expose her breasts. He considers raping her, but "that was for later on in the evening." They steal cash and cigarettes and return to the bar to make sure the old women will vouch for their presence. When the police show up, Alex feigns innocence, and the old women praise the boys' "kindness and generosity." Alex feels let down—so far, the evening as been too "easy."

Analysis

The novel's first chapter plunges readers into a disorienting world. In some modern city, in the not-too-distant future (at least from Alex's point of view, in the early 1960s), dandified teens attend school by day but roam the city by night, perpetrating nearly unchecked violence. The adults seem somewhat cowed by the teenaged gangs, avoiding the teens or currying their favor by covering for them.

Critics have noted that Alex's city has traits of Soviet communism—the emphasis on the "dignity of labour," the grim and gray feeling the city exudes, the cog-in-the-machine state-assigned jobs that wear the people down (see Part 1, Chapter 3). But Western consumerism and hedonism are also on display in Alex's city. Readers may find Alex's casual attitude toward the pain he causes others disturbing and the joy he takes in pain alarming, but both offer activity and purpose to directionless youth. Alex asks, "What's it going to be then, eh?" Characters answer this question variously: by drinking hallucinogen-dosed milk and babbling pseudo-profound thoughts, and by dancing and having sex and listening to music. Violence is Alex's answer, at least as the novel begins.

Yet even in this first chapter, Alex reveals a personal ethic of sorts. Readers see it during the attack on the old man. When Dim laughs over a letter the man wrote to his "dearest dearest," pretending to wipe his bottom with it, Alex calls him off, saying, "Let it go, O my brothers." Alex approves of the other painful humiliations the gang visits on the man, but something about Dim's treatment of the letter goes "too far, like [Dim] always did." Readers also see something of Alex's personal ethic in his unwillingness to sedate Dim so that he, Pete, and Georgie can have sex with the girls at the Milkbar. Dim is none too bright, but he has his purposes; and Alex, as the gang's leader, takes responsibility for looking after him.

In addition to having to enter, suddenly and in the middle of the action, an unfamiliar and disturbing world in Chapter 1, readers must quickly adapt to Alex's use of nadsat, the dialect he and his gang speak. The teens' language bonds them as a group apart from and opposed to the adult world of work and responsibility. Burgess, a linguist with a lifelong fascination for languages real and invented, provides enough context that readers gradually grasp the meaning of Alex's narration, joining Alex's teen culture in a sense.

Alex is a highly problematic narrator. He is an arrogant and almost casual criminal—Part 1 of the novel is, Burgess wrote, "just sheer crime"—without any empathy for his victims. Yet he is also a dynamic and engaging storyteller to whom many readers feel drawn, though often with a touch of guilt for coming to like such a narrator.

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