Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is far from a pleasant novel, the dystopian black comedy takes aim at authority, youth subculture and stereotypes of maturity through a violent and satirical lens. Burgess’ 1962 novella is an experiment in subverting morals and conformity, and how much of that a reader is willing to stomach. Critics have decried ‘A Clockwork Orange’ as “building a cult of violence”, while Burgess claimed excessive violence has been a feature of literature since Shakespeare, and was excessive in the novel to show the “absurdity” of it. Some critics agreed and have pointed towards the hypocrisy between the reaction towards the novel and the film, and the muted acceptance of equally violent works by canonical writers like ‘Titus Andronicus’ and ‘King Lear’.
But is the idea of an “ultra-violent” plot really that experimental? Burgess claimed Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation was “boring in places” and ignored the morals of the book with its “lack” of violence. But Burgess, like audiences, enjoyed Kubrick visualization of his aesthetics, so it can be argued that in order for the “beauty of words” to be unearthed in visual form, it must be in the source material. While the novel contains no beauty in the actions of Alex or those who reform him, the way in which Burgess manipulates phrases such as “like two curtains of blood” in order to present a violent action as aesthetic, is to reduce the impact of Alex’s actions. This stems from the basic form of what ‘aesthetic’ is (“perception of the beautiful”), Pope claims it to be ‘tasteful, refined and discriminating’, which is definitely true of ‘A Clockwork Orange’.
These morals Burgess aims to subvert counters Montgomery’s argument about the value of a text. Montgomery argues that in order for a novel to hold enough weight to be considered valued it must “give the reader an insight into the dilemmas of moral and ethical choice”. This is a something Burgess creates in Act Two, with “Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?”. The Lodovico Technique the government creates removes Alex of his choice to commit his acts of violence or to conform to the societal expectations, creating that moral dilemma a novel needs. Questions about whether torture is a legitimate method of reform are raised by Burgess, with the aim to comment on society’s double standards regarding violence. Burgess comments on the brutality on the British legal system of the time (the death penalty was not outlawed completely until the late 60s) and the culture of fear surrounding hooliganism and teenage delinquency, Burgess replicates the culture war of the Mods versus the Rockers with Alex’s ‘droogs’ against the police. This creates a ‘worthy’ dilemma for the readers to explore, helping to make the novel valuable.
This ‘value’ created extends to the style of language Burgess uses. Burgess blends English and Russian to create ‘Nadsat’, a comment on how the slang used by the youth of Britain at the time left many confused and left behind, something Burgess knew would happen if he used contemporary language; indeed, older characters in the novel express confusion at Alex’s language, Dr.’s Brodsky and Branom claim Nadsat to be a form of “subliminal” manipulation from the Soviet’s, showing the disconnect between the novels generations. Comparisons therefore could be drawn from Orwell’s ‘1984′ and it’s ‘Newspeak’. Both are similar in their freedom from traditional English but differentiate in their goal. Orwell stated his purpose of Newspeak was to demonstrate how thought can “corrupt language” and that “language can also corrupt thought”, showing Newspeak to be a form of control from above; limiting expression and freedom. However, unlike Orwell, Burgess allows his fictional language to be expressive and free from control, a way for Alex and his ‘droogs’ to escape from the control of the totalitarian state. ‘Nadsat’ borrows heavily from puns and Cockney rhyming slang, adding words like ‘Charlie’, a pun to describe a chaplain, to common usage, this creates a positive image of events to be shown; which is how Alex sees his violent actions, and this is how they are presented to the reader. This freedom from traditional English techniques allows a debate of Alex’s morals to develop, exploring the reasons for his actions and the aesthetic description of it.
The tone Burgess attacks ‘A Clockwork Orange’’s moral dilemmas also finds conflict with Montgomery. By abandoning traditional constructs, Burgess can adopt any tone he wishes to approach the moral conflict permeating the novel; choosing a satirical route, a parody of sorts of other dystopian fiction of the 20th Century – which took a serious, analytical look at the reasons for and impact of violence, authority and class. Burgess is considerably less serious about his comments on liberalism and socialism, choosing to draw inspiration from his contemporaries, rather than redefine the genre.
Montgomery’s criticisms finds conflict with this style of writing. Montgomery calls for the author to show ‘attention’ to their work and to have ‘took care’ in creating their work, for it to be valued. It could therefore be argued Burgess’ novel falls short of being valued, because of his lack of attention towards it, and his lack of professionalism, by failing to provide his novel with a deeper and more thoughtful meaning. Burgess’ wrote ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to be an instant reflection of 50s and 60s Britain, playing with contemporary and timeless themes, in order to shock at the time, and for the novel to remain relevant, I find this to be true and to have no bearing on the novels worth. I would argue that ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is largely a reactionary novel, playing with language and tone in order to present ways in which seemingly serious constructs and subject-matters can be played with. It is, however, clear that this idea went miles over people’s heads, failing to grasp this tone resulted in the outrage surrounding it, its subsequent ridicule and abandonment until Kubrick’s adaptation. The satirical nature of the novel therefore lessens the impact of the acts of violence, allowing the language surrounding to take centre stage. This was possibly lost within the field of hyperserious dystopian fiction, dripping with social commentary.
While the tone of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ shows Burgess’ methods in developing aesthetical language and its relationship with the reader. He shows little ‘command’ over it, something Montgomery calls for. Montgomery’s criticism finds conflict with Burgess’ because Burgess wilfully hands over control of the novel’s language to Alex, and to Dr. Brodsky and Branom, who themselves impose themselves on Alex. This is because of the first person perspective of the novel and the disconnect Burgess places between himself and Alex and the world he lived. The control over the language the doctors possess is as a result over their control of Alex, the doctors remove the veil of beauty Alex sees around violence, refusing to go into any detail over what Dim and Billyboy do to him in part three, possibly out of shame, but mostly horror.
Finally, questions remain over whether ‘A Clockwork Orange’ should be considered canonical, especially when considering the “ultraviolent” content. To be canonical a novel has to have had a lasting impact on its genre or literature. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ could be almost immediately discounted from this approach to the canon. This, as mentioned, was never Burgess’ approach when creating the novel. To find some form of canonicity within the novel, we have to look deeper, bringing us back to the aesthetical style of the language. By wrapping the content around repetition such as “crack crack crack” or phrases like “curtains of blood” Burgess attempts to subvert traditional language, and force the novels way into the canon. Critic Joel Black’s comments on murder would add weight to Burgess’ novel, Black claims “(if) any human act evokes the aesthetic experience of the sublime, certainly it is the act of murder” linking to Clockwork Orange this shows Alex’s acts themselves to be a canvas, Burgess’ language providing the colour.
So, therefore, in conclusion we can see how the aesthetical language of A Clockwork Orange is used to distract away from and hide the violent actions of the novel. It is designed to provide literary value to the novel as well a way for Burgess to explore individualism and liberty through abandoning English, through Nadsat. We can see how Burgess’ approach finds conflict with critics such as Montgomery, while also finding the support from others such as Pope and Black.