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A Clockwork Orange | Study Guide

Anthony Burgess

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Anthony Burgess's novella A Clockwork Orange.

A Clockwork Orange | Symbols


A Clockwork Orange, set in a tight, limited world, uses symbols—everyday objects and conditions in that world—to elaborate on the meaning of Alex's journey through the State's system.


Burgess describes his famous protagonist as possessing to a high degree the essential human trait of a love of beauty. For Alex, beauty is found in classical music and especially in the symphonic works of Ludwig van Beethoven, whose music bridges the classical and romantic periods. Alex also loves "the brown gorgeousness" of Bach and speaks poetically (even his language becomes beautiful when he talks about music) of other classical composers as well. Alex deplores the facile, repetitious pop music that other teens love, and ranks people based on their preferred music, considering his gang "less human than he," Burgess writes, "since they do not care much for music." Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony," and especially the final movement, which contains the solo and choral versions of "Ode to Joy," Friedrich von Schiller's poem celebrating the common humanity of all people, play important symbolic—and sometimes ironic—roles in the novel.


Settings in A Clockwork Orange often are either very dark—winter's nights, the enclosed clubs—or very bright, as in the blindingly white building where Alex undergoes treatment. Darkness is Alex's domain. Darkness covers his violent actions and hides him from their consequences. A schoolboy by day, Alex is a ruthless and fearless gang leader by night. Even in the prison, Alex's violent actions occur after lights-out. For Alex, even sex is linked with night: "a bit of in-out-in-out in the dark" is what he likes. Darkness, culturally, is associated with danger and uncertainty. Humans need to see their surroundings; they need light for survival. Good works are done in light, and light exposes evil. So Alex's preference for night is part of his love of violence, of fist-to-body fighting and pain. When he is in the light, especially bright, sterile light shined on him by the State, as during interrogation, he is vulnerable and even fearful.


Burgess's use of nadsat forces the reader to confront the novel's violence intellectually rather than viscerally, perhaps one of the most significant artistic differences between the novel and the film. The language also has rich symbolic significance. Nadsat is Alex's idiom, and it helps to create his world and draw readers into it. To be able to speak (or, in readers' case, hear) nadsat is to belong to and in Alex's world. His playful use of nadsat is one reason he is such a problematic narrator. Once readers become comfortable with the idiom, they are, in a sense, on Alex's side. They know "the dialect of the tribe," as Dr. Brodsky dismissively describes nadsat. Alex's tribe includes violent, hypersexual, and often drugged young people. Their use of nadsat symbolizes their belonging to this tribe, and when they cease to use it, as Pete does after he marries, they no longer belong. "He talks funny, doesn't he?" Pete's wife, Georgina, asks, surprised that Pete once talked that way, too. Nadsat opposes what Burgess calls "the delimitation of language" that George Orwell's 1984 explores. The State does not control or even fully understand nadsat, so Alex can use it to express "treasonous thoughts" impossible in 1984's dystopian world, where the State controls language to an extreme degree. Alex's frequent quotations from and references to the Bible remind readers of another tribal language, one that often conflicts with the value system demonstrated by the tribe's behavior, embodied by various members of the State.


Milk is the quintessential child's food and is associated with innocence, healthy growth, and comfort (as in a glass of warm milk before bed). Milk is the drink of choice for Alex and the teens who frequent the Korova Milkbar. Milk as the teens consume it, spiked with hallucinogens or stimulants, retains its symbolic connotations of innocence and purity, but becomes a far more complicated drink. Those who drink milk with hallucinogens become infantile—curled up fetally, withdrawn from reality, and spouting gibberish. Those who, like Alex, drink milk with stimulants are primed for the violence that belongs to primitive cultures and mindsets. When Alex and his gang go out looking for "dirty" fun, amped up on spiked milk, they do so on a school night. By day, they are still children, still the wards of their parents; by night, they make the streets their domain. They stand between a protracted immaturity and the adult world of obligatory work and responsibility. In that world, the novel's characters drink their milk in tea, another drink Alex loves. In the novel's final chapter (British version), tea, not milk, is what Alex craves as he thinks about his future.

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