The topic of my essay is the undercurrent of politics that flows through the novel A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. As some people would be supportive of political views rising throughout the novel, and some against, I feel that it is in the artist’s freedom to do whatever they wish with their art, whether it be written, visual, musical, or film. To say that art should or should not contain a certain element is rather fascist, and I am, with examples from selected sources, going to argue the right of the author (Burgess) to include political perspectives and themes in his work. “the key issue here is freedom of choice” (Mathews p.37).
I will first compare Burgess’ book to Stanly Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel regarding the presentation of the police. In the novel, the police are made out to be horrible, vicious people. Alex is said to be “tortured by the police” (Burgess p.121). The police who beat him and leave him in the “outskirts of this village” (Burgess p.121) are a former foe of Alex’s named Pete and a former ally named Dim. This shows that the police have had to get rougher to combat rough criminals. This is comparable to the real world as it is seen that police gradually need to get tougher on crime because crime gets tougher itself. An example of this is that police in America have had to resort to guns and S.W.A.T. teams to fight crime, while in Britain, police still are armed with billy clubs. Unfortunately, the message is lost in the movie as it seems more like dumb luck that Alex gets caught by two officers who happen to be old allies of his, now enemies who want revenge.
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The idea that vicious people are being recruited to become police is quite inaccurate. Still, if we identify symbolism and metaphors, we see that the nasty people who become cops in the novel are just a symbol of the growing brutality of the police in the real world who have to fight the growing brutality of criminals. Though this is a sociopolitical part of the novel, the message is fictitious and surreal enough to be art still and not propaganda. The second topic I would like to argue is the use of the treatment to turn Alex good, “Is an evil human being with free speech preferable to a good zombie without it?” (Morris p.66). The use of incarceration as a method of crime control is becoming a larger and larger concern in modern times. The use of extreme mental conditioning in Burgess’ novel could be considered a prediction of sorts regarding the future of crime control. The idea of reorientation that Burgess puts forward attracts much controversy and criticism from the book’s characters, just as all people react when governmental institutions take a giant step in any direction.
“He has no choice, has he?” (Burgess p.99): A question asked by one of the members of Alex’s audience, to which a reply is “We are not concerned with motive, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime-” (Burgess p.99). Just like many people remain wary of prison as crime control, people will also criticize forced reform. Burgess’ idea of reform comes with a schematic and arguments from both sides. To say that his book was a means of political influence is inaccurate, for if he were trying to force a political opinion on anyone, the situations in the novel would be very one-sided, which they are not. It is a completely unbiased delivery of his ideas. Another topic I’d like to tackle is the treatment procedures in the novel. They are in no way, or at least very little in resemblance to any political propaganda. Alex had a “cap stuck on my (his) gulliver and I (he) could viddy all wires running away from it” (Burgess p.81). There was also a “dentist’s chair” and all sorts of other medical goodies.
The imagery of this setting brings to mind many of the horror movies produced around the middle of the 20’th century, main films such as Frankenstein and Bride of the Monster, where a human specimen is strapped in a chair in a room surrounded by all sorts of meters and machines. When placed beside the very political works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, Burgess’ work seems more cartoonish and sci-fi than any means of political influence. Alex is considered to be a “victim of the modern age” (Burgess p.120). In the class discussions of the book, there were some comments stating opposition to the story’s villain becoming the subject of pity. It was argued that Burgess was trying to alter one’s view of criminals in society, which I will prove untrue. Some people have an idea that Burgess was making predictions of what the future (now present time) would be like, and in present time society’s villains are in many ways subjects of pity. One example of this is America’s extermination of extreme offenders, i.e. murderers.
We prefer that we use the most humane strategies of capital punishment, so rather than hanging, shooting, crucifying, or getting together and beating offenders to death with bats, we use kinder methods such as lethal injection. There is also the massive amounts of money spent to keep prisoners warm, fed, and entertained, which is a larger amount per day than I spend on rent for myself per month. In some ways, convicts live better lives than the common people. This is not an argument over our judicial system but over the point being made that Burgess is only writing a book to provoke thought rather than creating propaganda to alter people’s views. If this was a prediction, then it was a very accurate one, and to say that it was a means of changing our minds about criminals is ridiculous, as I am certain that our current laws were in no way influenced by a piece of art such as A Clockwork Orange.
As Richard Mathews puts it, “A Clockwork Orange forces us to examine politics, media, and morality” (p.43). Burgess is not trying to influence our positions in society, politics, or the law but simply stimulate our minds. Our hero or antihero of the story goes through a very radical chain of events, which, as I have stated above, are contradictory to the situation and mood that we most commonly expect to coincide with a criminal. The book itself does not question the reader but forces the reader to question themselves and their surroundings. It is not a book of questions and answers but a book of situations that, when read, encourage the reader to create their own questions and answers. A book that asks questions is in no way a piece of propaganda, but a piece of innovative and very brilliant art if it can produce so many questions in the reader’s mind.
A final subject I wish to explore is Russian phonetics and original Burgess catchphrases in the novel. It uses words and sayings such as “boohoohooing” that aren’t part of our everyday language. The temptation I had to use words like “slooshy” or “gulliver” after reading this novel was peculiar and showed me the power of aural or written media to influence the thinking of observers. The message is very plain, subtle, and sneaky. It adds color to the mood of the novel. It shows the influence art and media have on people, particularly regarding language and linguistics, which are small parts of a massive array of influences that we encounter every day.
- Burgess, Anthony: A Clockwork Orange
- Heinemann 1962, Pinguin Books Canada Ltd. 2801 John Street, Markham Ontario
- Mathews, Richard: The Clockwork Universe of Anthony Burgess
- The Borgo Press, San Bernardo, California
- Morris, Robert K.: The Consolations of Ambiguity
- University of Missouri