A Clockwork Orange: Novel Summary: Part 2, Chapter 2
Alex’s new cellmate is quarrelsome and boastful, and nobody likes him. He tries to take Alex’s bed, but the other prisoners won’t allow it. Later that night, Alex wakes up to find the new prisoner lying in his bunk with him, saying dirty words and touching him. He lashes out, bloodying the man’s mouth. The other prisoners wake up and beat the man as well. The guards come and they stop, but after the guards leave, the new cellmate becomes boastful and sarcastic again, and they continue beating him. Alex goes last. First he punches him, and then trips him and kicks him hard in the head.
Alex dreams that he is playing in an orchestra with hundreds of other musicians, playing a whitish-pink bassoon that sprouts out of his belly. Playing it tickles him, so he laughs, causing the conductor (who looks like a cross between Beethoven and Handel) to come and scream in his face.
Alex realizes that the screaming is the prison buzzer, and awakens to find the new cellmate dead on the floor. The other cellmates blame Alex for kicking him too hard. “Traitors and liars,” Alex protests, denying any responsibility as usual. The prison goes into lockdown and the body is taken away. Guards visit Alex’s cell, and then the Head Warden, and then the Governor and some other important people, including a high-ranking official in a fancy suit who later turns out to be the Minister of the Interior, discuss what should be done with Alex. The Minister observes that “outmoded penological theories” have no effect in punishing common criminals. Adding ominously that prison space will soon be needed for political prisoners, he recommends that ordinary criminals like Alex should be dealt with on a “purely curative basis…. Kill the criminal reflex.” Alex is taken away.
Analysis of Part 2, Chapter 2
Once again, Alex has gone too far and killed someone. As one of the other prisoners says, he is too impetuous; he acts on instinct and impulse, without stopping to think of the consequences. Unrestrained impulse was what led to his last murder of the cat lady. Alex did not intend to kill either victim; he simply did not think, he only acted. As Alex’s strange dream indicates, all his actions stem from a desire to self-pleasure, to titillate his own emotions. He has no concept of being a part of a larger purpose, of working together, as in an orchestra, and of how is actions affect society as a whole. All he knows or cares about are his own needs and feelings, so he is startled to be screamed at and punished. Punishment seems unfair to Alex because he doesn’t acknowledge his own guilt. Alex is essentially a sociopath, driven by his impulses and desires without regard to others. Burgess suggests, however, that Alex has the ability to change; he’s just not mature enough to do so.
The Minister of the Interior has a solution for criminals like Alex. He believes that science can cure what he refers to as the “criminal reflex.” To him, criminal actions are not free choices so much as they are mindless instinctual reactions to stimuli. Through the Ludovico Technique of behavior modification, these behaviors can be conditioned out of a criminal, just as a rat’s behavior can be manipulated by scientists in a laboratory. Although this may sound like science fiction, it is not. At the time Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, the philosophy of radical behaviorism, led by Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner, was an exciting new idea. Skinner believed that a “technology of behavior,” involving the use of operant conditioning, could be used to solve many societal ills. Rather than punish behavior, Skinner argued, behavior must be “conditioned” through the application of reinforcement. The simple example is that of a rat pressing a lever. If the rat is given a treat when he presses the lever, he will learn to press it. If the rat is given an electric shock instead when he presses the lever, he will avoid repeating the behavior. The same idea can be applied to human beings. For instance, doctors at the time of Burgess’s writing were attempting to use operant conditioning to “cure” homosexuality through aversion therapy. Operant conditioning is used today in treating drug addiction and in other contexts, but remains controversial.
Burgess saw the dangerous potential in such conditioning methods, believing they took away a person’s free will and could be used as a tool for a repressive government. In A Clockwork Orange, the government does seem to have sinister intentions. The Minister’s statement that the jails will soon be needed for political prisoners suggests that the government is planning to crack down on dissent. Furthermore, there is the possibility that the Ludovico Technique could be used on political prisoners, taking away their ability to speak out against the government. Alex will likely be held up an example of the government’s effectiveness against crime, part of its public relations campaign. Far from being concerned about Alex’s soul or about the harm he can cause to others through his bad behavior, the government simply wants to control him and the rest of society.