A clockwork orange is the central metaphor of the novel. Taken from the Cockney expression “queer as a clockwork orange,” this image denotes something truly bizarre. Incidentally, as Burgess was also aware, orang is Malay for “man,” so “a clockwork orange” literally can be taken to mean a clockwork, or mechanized, human being.
In the novel, Burgess used the image of a clockwork orange to stand for, as he put it, “the application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism oozing with juice and sweetness”; in other words, the changing of a being capable of choice and change into an unthinking, mechanical entity by the removal of its free will. Through the experience of Alex, who undergoes psychological conditioning at the hands of the state, the book explores what would happen if an all-powerful government were to take control over human minds. Deprived of their self-determination, the citizens of this state would become like clockwork oranges, natural on the outside but with the souls and hearts of machines.
It is not by accident that drugged milk is the preferred drink of Alex and his droogies. Milk is the drink of babies, and their preference for it indicates that they are still in an infantile state. Milk is also symbolic of innocence, and milk with drugs stands for innocence corrupted, as are the youth in the novel.
Classical music appears as a motif throughout the novel. The work most frequently alluded to is Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9, the fourth movement of which is “Ode to Joy.” Music is Alex’s one passion, aside from violence. Alex finds that the bliss of music is “better than any synthemesc Bog or God,” suggesting that for him, music is the only connection with heavenly grace. It is the one thing that makes him a human instead of an animal or machine. During Alex’s conditioning, the ability to enjoy music is taken from him, providing just one more example of how attempts at behavior control make a person less human, and more of a machine.
Burgess was a composer, and he approached the composition of his novels as he did his music. His novels Napoleon Symphony (1974) and Mozart and the Wolf Gang (1991) are modeled after musical compositions. The structure of A Clockwork Orange has the ternary form of an operatic aria, meaning that it consists of three parts, with the first and last part being essentially similar and the middle part markedly different. Part 1 and Part 3 of A Clockwork Orange are essentially mirror images of each other, as Alex revisits in turn each of the places he visited in Part 1, this time as a victim rather than victimizer. Each part of the novel has seven chapters, creating a symmetry in form and length typical of musical compositions. On a textual level, there are also to be found many elements of repetition that echo the effect of a musical composition—as in such bits as razrez razrez and Joy joy joy, and the repetition of the question “What’s it going to be?” at the beginning of each section.