It’s kind of amazing that I only made it through 20 pages of Carrie yet finished the entire book of A Clockwork Orange. In my defense, it helped that Anthony Burgess basically created his own vocabulary, so by the time I learned how to translate that vocabulary, I was already a significant way through a very short novel and figured I might as well finish. Plus, although A Clockwork Orange deals with some very heavy topics (gang rape, violence, brainwashing, gangs in general), the writing in it doesn’t feel quite as…crass…as Stephen King, which somehow makes it a little easier to swallow. The power of the pen, right?
There’s a lot that I could say about this book, but I really just want to talk about the last chapter.
For good reason, the final chapter has had an interesting journey. When Burgess brought it to the United States, his American publishers thought the final chapter was a sellout – that it was bland and didn’t make the book scintillating enough. And so they took it out here in America, even though it remained in the book everywhere else in the world.
The basic gist of the final chapter is this: After many years of rampant violence, complete lawlessness, and a stint with government brainwashing, the protagonist Alex goes into a restaurant and decides to just…give it all up. It seems like such a letdown after 20 chapters of horrendous violence and disrespect for human life, but yet it intrigues me, and I think that was Burgess’s point.
According to Burgess, A Clockwork Orange comes with a moral lesson: “the fundamental importance of moral choice.” (Pg. x) For this reason, he meant the book to end this way, and he wanted readers to grapple with the aesthetic and moral value of the final chapter. Even though a lot of people don’t like the final chapter.
Here’s my take on it: What bothers me is not the idea that people can change (I think that’s a very good idea), but rather that violence to the level taken in this book is shrugged aside as a normal part of growing up. To go so far as to say that people can do absolutely horrendous things one day and just walk away from them the next day, with no consequences externally or internally, seems to me to show a highly flawed understanding of human nature.
Here is how Alex describes his transformation from youth into adulthood:
Perhaps I was getting too old for the sort of jeezny I had been leading, brothers. I was eighteen now, just gone….Yes, yes, yes, there it was. Youth must go, ah yes. But youth is only being in a way like it might be an animal. No, it is not just like being an animal so much as being like one of these malenky toys you viddy [see] being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties [goes], like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of these malenky machines….When I had my son I would explain all that to him when he was starry enough to like understand. But then I knew he would not understand or would not want to understand at all and would do all the veshches I had done, yes perhaps even killing some poor starry forella [old woman] surrounded with mewing kots [cats] and koshkas, and I would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers. And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round, like some bolshy gigantic like chelloveck, like old Bog [God] Himself…turning and turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his gigantic rookers. [emphasis added] (Pg. 189-191)
Since it’s kind of hard to read, basically what it’s saying is that Alex is coming to the realization that youth is like being a wind-up toy. You get wound up and you start going, but you have no control over where you go or what you do, even if that means killing other people. Alex realizes he will tell this to his son someday, but he likely will not be able to stop his son from doing the same things he did, nor will his son be able to stop his son either, and so it will go, on and on, for the rest of time.
Burgess’s explanation for this chapter is thus:
[In the twenty-first chapter], my young thuggish protagonist grows up. He grows bored with violence and recognises that human energy is better expended on creation than destruction. Senseless violence is a prerogative of youth, which has much energy but little talent for the constructive. Its dynamism has to find an outlet in smashing telephone kiosks, derailing trains, stealing cars and smashing them and, of course, in the much more satisfactory activity of destroying human beings. There comes a time, however, when violence is seen as juvenile and boring. It is the repartee of the stupid and ignorant….It is with a kind of shame that this growing youth looks back on his devastating past. He wants a different kind of future. (Pg. vii)
To me, there is a flaw in Burgess’s reasoning. If one has no control over childhood, what magical switch flips when he turns 18 and suddenly “gets bored” with violence and now has perfect control over his actions? Sure, kids and teenagers make lots of mistakes as they age, but would we really call intentional murder or vandalism “mistakes”? And if parents have absolutely no control over their children, then how are we not already living in a completely lawless society, and what, other than childbirth, is the point of parents?
Perhaps this was Burgess’s goal all along – to make us question the importance of moral agency and choice. He’s already said as much. But I still wonder if A Clockwork Orange hasn’t also somehow missed the point of its own lesson?
What were your thoughts on A Clockwork Orange?