As you will see in a little bit, dear reader, Max Stirner’s words ring quite true, for this one novel at least. (And perhaps with reality, too?)
First published in 1962 – and written in just three weeks(!), according to the author – the story takes place in an English city from the near future. The narrator and protagonist is Alex, a fifteen-year-old leader of a gang. Through his eyes, we get led into the first part of the book, and namely into a milk bar called the ‘Korova’ – one of the first examples of the specific Anglo-Russian slang in the book. There, Alex is sitting with his friends and members of his gang among three young girls and an elderly man who seems to be rambling drunkenly. Alex feels ready to leave the bar, and as he yells to his friends to get out, he slaps the man. It’s only the beginning, and you might not take much notice of it – but this action is the poisonous bud of the horrors that are about to blossom.
Only a few lines further down Alex makes his plans clear. He and his friends are looking for a small joke for the night.
They run into a man dressed like a teacher and start messing with him, taking his books and tearing them apart, then grabbing him and tearing his teeth out and punching him – and the first chapter ends with them stealing from a “sweets and cancers” shop and beating up the staff. They then beat up a beggar and come across a rival gang which they engage in a fight with. They steal a car and go joyriding (driving it with no aim other than the sheer pleasure of it), getting into a fight or two on their way before arriving at a cottage. Alex’s friends beat up the writer who lives there while Alex rapes his wife. (Curiously enough, said writer is working on a script titled “A Clockwork Orange”, which Alex tears to pieces.) The next day, after skipping school, he rapes two more girls and then takes a nap as if nothing has happened. After a challenge for his leadership, he slashes Dim’s hand and fights with Georgie, and they head for the burglary of an wealthy elderly woman’s home. When he returns to his friends, having knocked her unconscious, Alex gets beaten by Dim as revenge and left for the police to find.
The second part of the book tells about Alex’s fourteen years in prison. Two of them fly by, and he picks up a job. He has not changed much, reading parts of the Bible only to enjoy the violence in them and beating up a cellmate to death. That action of his is what leads him to undergo a behavioural modification, the Ludovico technique, and gets freed from the rest of his sentence. The Ludovico technique itself is not entirely to blame, although it is quite gruesome and involves watching films full of violence while taking drugs that induce nausea at the sight of said violence. Simply thinking of violence starts to make him feel ill. While this takes away his right to have free will, it also leaves him a free man, and he leaves prison.
In the third part, Alex returns home, only to find his parents have left a lodger live in his room. He wanders the streets, homeless, and revenge from those he has wronged in part one befalls him – first a beating at the hands of the old scholar, then one at his ex-friend Dim and the ex-leader of the rival gang, and finally he arrives at the door of the writer he once brutalised. The writer does not recognise Alex at first, but the main character later reveals he had been the leader of the gang that raped his wife and beat him up, and gets locked up in a bedroom on a higher floor by the writer and his friends, the classical music he now hates spilling from the lower floor. He gets driven nearly insane by the music and tries to end his life with a jump from the window.
When he comes to, Alex is in a hospital, being approached by the trio, from whose apartment he tried to spring to his death. His words and actions hint at his violence having returned, as well as various tests. Alex gets many photos taken of him and is finally left all alone with his favourite music, Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, thinking, “I was cured alright.”
The American version of the book – much like Stanley Kubrick’s film – ends here, on a disturbing, pessimistic note. But the British version continues the story a little more, adding to it in its own way – Alex has new friends, and while getting ready for going out with them, he runs into Pete, who has gotten better and has a wife. Alex starts to think about a new life, one without a violence where he has a normal life and a wife and children – a beam of hope for a man whose youth has been wasted away on violence.
The novel explores a few more things. Throughout the story, the gap between young and elderly people is made starker and starker, with young people using different clothes (Alex and his droogs are dressed in white), and their own slang, Nadsat, to exclude outsiders, in a fit of youthful riot. Adults grow afraid of younger people and grow anxious around them, the younger taking refusal as a challenge to their egos. And it makes sense: the revolt of the young is against old age, for it is contemptuous.
And not just that. As adults have been scared away from their position of power, younger people have now reached out to it and act as though they are older. The girls Alex rapes all dress and put on make-up, which shows their desire for maturity.
Youth is wild. But, after it, maturity sets in, slowly but surely. Though, is everyone’s youth this wild? And if so, how do we find our way back to peace in such wild years as those when we feel indestructible?
Last, but not least, I want to pay attention to the title of the book. After reading about the novel on a thousand sites, I have found one that describes it best – and that’s none other site than the one dedicated to Anthony Burgess:
“The title of the novel, A Clockwork Orange, derived from, Burgess claimed, ‘ a phrase which I heard many years ago and so fell in love with, I wanted to use it [as] the title of the book. But the phrase itself I did not make up. The phrase “as queer as a clockwork orange” is good old East London slang and it didn’t seem necessary to explain it. Now, obviously, I have to give it an extra meaning. I’ve implied an extra dimension. I’ve implied a junction of the organic, the lively, the sweet — in other words, life, the orange — and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined. I’ve brought them together in a kind of oxymoron’. Like many of Burgess’s proclamations, this origin of ‘clockwork orange’ is rather hard to back up. It is not recorded in any dictionaries of London slang, and some linguists believe that the phrase originated in Liverpool. It is apparent that there are no recorded citations of the phrase before the novel was published in 1962, and the only authority for its usage is Burgess himself. It is possible that Burgess is misremembering the genuine Cockney phrase ‘All Lombard Street to a china orange’, or that he simply made it up.”
While the violence in Alex’s deeds and thoughts might be horrendous, even more so when seen in the film, the book remains a magnificent masterpiece, not just to me, but, I’m sure, to many more – as well as a true gem in the crown of dystopian literature.