A Clockwork Orange: Theme Analysis

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Dystopia: A Future Nightmare

A dystopia is a utopia turned on its head, a nightmarish society wracked by violent crime, disease, or controlled by a totalitarian government. Dystopian novels depict a society sometime in the future in which things have gone horribly awry. Their purpose is to examine current societal problems and predict how they might become greater dangers in the future. A Clockwork Orange is a classic of dystopian fiction. Written in 1962, it explores the idea, popular among psychologists at that time, of using psychological conditioning to eradicate crime. In the novel,set sometime in the future, people live in constant fear of violent crime, locked into their homes watching the blue screen of the government-approved worldcast. The youth culture is violent, oversexed, and slavishly obsessed with the latest fashion. A sinister method of behavior control becomes a solution to antisocial behavior.

Other novels that fall into the category of dystopian fiction include Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Each of these works features a population under government thought-control. In Huxley’s novel, the government controls people’s actions by keeping them drugged and using subliminal hypnosis or hypnopaedia. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, people’s every move is watched by their government, which calls itself “Big Brother.” And in Fahrenheit 451, books are outlawed and burned by the government.

The Importance of Free Will

A Clockwork Orange is the story of what happens when a person has his or her free will taken away. Alex is a dangerous and ruthless criminal, and the idea of treating him so that he is no longer able to commit crime seems like a reasonable one. At the time of Burgess’s writing, operant conditioning was an exciting new idea, presented by Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner as a “technology of behavior” that could be used to solve many societal problems, including warfare, crime, and overpopulation. Burgess’s novel warns against the use of such technology. In his view, a person who has been conditioned to behave a certain way loses the God-given right to free will and becomes something like a machine, something as unnatural as a clockwork orange. It is true that after his treatment, the formerly monstrous Alex appears “good” to the outward eye. However, since he is not capable of moral choice, his “goodness” is hollow and insincere. He is like a robot or wind-up toy who functions as the State desires. Now powerless to defend himself, he becomes vulnerable to being victimized and exploited by others, including the government. No matter how wicked a criminal may be, even more sinister is a government that can take away the free will of its citizens. The message of the book is that thought or behavior control, even when used ostensibly for a good purpose (e.g., eradicating crime) is fundamentally wrong, and dangerous.

 The Attraction of Evil

Readers of A Clockwork Orange may be sickened by Alex’s description of red red krovvy (blood) flowing “beautiful,” by his unrepentant attraction to the depraved. However, the depiction of demonic teens in Kubrick’s movie version of the novel spawned many copycat crimes, proving that there really is something about ultraviolence that appeals to people. Burgess explained it as follows: “Unfortunately there is so much original sin us all that we find evil rather attractive. To devastate is easier and more spectacular than to create. We like to have the pants scared off us by visions of cosmic destruction.” A Clockwork Orange presents the attraction to evil as a natural part of being human. Alex does evil simply because he likes to. To him, violence is as gorgeous as a symphony. While his violence cannot be condoned, perhaps the point is that violence and evil must be recognized as a natural part of humanity—just as natural as good. It will never be eradicated, as long as free will exists, simply because deep down, humans find it attractive.

 

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