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A Clockwork Orange | Study Guide

Anthony Burgess

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

A Clockwork Orange | Themes


Free Will

A Clockwork Orange is set in a dystopian world in which the State has great control over people's lives and wants to increase that control. Burgess, who was raised Catholic but later called himself a person "in whom religious faith has become shaky for forty years," grew up with an understanding of free will that rejected any kind of conditioning, even if achieved through strict religious teaching. People must be free to choose their beliefs and actions, good or evil. Understanding that people will, at various points in life and for various reasons, choose badly means that forgiveness and reform must always be options as well—chosen, again, freely. Such choice can become a burden, and institutions stand ready to take that burden from people, with or without their permission. So people must vigilantly guard their freedom to choose and accept the difficulty of choice. Burgess warns that it is "easier to be told" than to actively choose. Burgess admits, writing about what he calls the "clockwork condition," that he does not "trust politicians or statesmen" to guide people's free choices. Alex's odyssey through the State's prison system and behavioral treatment allows readers to consider how freely he is able to act and the ways in which the State and other cultural pressures abridge his will.


One cultural influence that threatens to abridge free will is the pressure to conform. Conformity has its place in human interactions; we must cooperate, share some goals, and agree on some values, or we will have difficulty achieving necessary objectives—building roads, educating children, meeting people's needs. Also, Burgess says, humans have a "gregarious makeup" that makes conformity easy. Even those who loudly reject certain kinds of conformity find one another and team up, conforming to each other. The danger comes when "patterns of conformity are imposed by the State," Burgess writes. States may impose such patterns, at least at first, in the hope of helping individuals, but they quickly become large, self-perpetuating entities whose goals overwhelm the desires of individuals. People become, to the State, "abstract statistics" more easily managed if they comply and conform. Alex faces intense pressure to conform—from his peers, from his worn-down working-class parents, from his post-corrective adviser and the chaplain, and from the doctors testing Ludovico's Technique on him. Depending on whether readers use the American edition ending or the British version, and how readers interpret either, the novel's final word on conformity differs.


Among other things, Alex's name means "defender of men," as Burgess has pointed out, and in one sense Alex becomes a representative of humanity under assault from institutional forces, particularly the State. Alex can play this role because, as Burgess writes about his protagonist, he is "perhaps over-endowed" with three "essential" human traits: an innate enjoyment of language, a love of beauty, and an "aggressive" nature (symbolic of Freud's concept of the id, the ego, and the superego, the first and the third of which are at play in Alex). These are, readers infer, driving forces of human achievement but also the causes of human dispute. Alex's experiences chronicle the struggle of an individual to maintain human identity regardless of the State's desires and demands. Other characters also help develop this theme. For example, Pee and Em seem more like gears in the State's machine than like humans as they trudge daily to their State-assigned jobs.

Treachery and Loyalty

Among the ideals that matter to Alex is loyalty, and one of the ideas the novel leaves unexplored is the problematic relationship between loyalty and free will. He tries to be loyal to Pete, Dim, and Georgie, in his smug 15-year-old way. In return, he expects them to be loyal, meaning they have to exercise self-discipline and restraint, even to the point of denying their own nature. Alex's expectations are naive, though his commitment to the ideal of loyalty may be admirable. Throughout the novel, groups and individuals act in ways that seem to Alex treacherous and disloyal. In some cases, readers are likely to agree with Alex's assessment, but the matter is rarely entirely clear because Alex often does not realize how his own behaviors either inspire loyalty or invite disloyalty. Also, as with most children, Alex refuses to acknowledge centers of loyalty other than himself, failing to consider the ways that characters are behaving in ways that are loyal to their own families, their community, or their employers. Readers must take the perspective of others, including, at the end of the novel, of the reformed Alex, as they examine the theme of loyalty in the novel.

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