A Clockwork Orange: 50 years later

Posted on May 2, 2012

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I just finished Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. It was released in the US a few years before I was born and I just got around to reading it. Partly because I had heard the movie was so violent and disturbing. What I found in the novel was not as bad as portrayed by “the media”. But as I finished the book I took pause. FIrst off, yes, it is violent. But compared to books like The Hunger Games, Everything is Illuminated, and Stieg Larsson’s Lizbet Salander novels, I find the violence in the book much more toned down. What I mean, it’s the acts of violence themselves that Burgess wanted to portray, not the intimate, gory details. Knowing what I know of Kubrick (I’ve seen 2001 and his adaptation of The Shining) I’m sure he went the opposite way to intensify the violence and make it more personal. Which, compared to what I’ve seen today is again, a 180 degree about face. (Take for example The Hunger Games in which the movie tones down a lot of what happens in the book).

Now about the novel. The edition I have has an author’s forward. In it Burgess discusses how he wrote the book in 3 parts of 7 chapters each. There’s part I, the aggressive, violent youth; part II the “reformed youth” and part III, the human youth. What Burgess discusses in the forward is how when it was released in the US the publisher didn’t like the last chapter. Despite Burgess’ arguments it was still omitted. In that vein, while Kubrick filmed in London, he used the US edition without the last chapter.

So I read the book as if I were reading the original US edition/Kubrick version. I reached the end of Part III, chapter 6 and put the book down for a few days. In the back of my mind there was something that felt incomplete. In short, what was the resolution? Did the Humble Narrator, now having choice once again, pursue his ultra violence? Or now, after being “cured” of his violence, did he follow the Charles and follow the path of humanity?

I resumed the last chapter yesterday and can see where Burgess was upset that the last chapter was omitted. Does all life end this way? Of course not. Some people do mature. Some do choose the path of civility. Others, however, do not.  But what Burgess was getting at is that without the choice to do good or do evil we cease to be human. To me it didn’t really matter that Alex chose to follow the path of humanity and civility and to have a family. What mattered to me was that he chose. That, to me, is why the book seemed incomplete with only 20 chapters. That is why Europeans who had read the UK version seemed confused with the Kubrick movie.

Next up: I’m revisiting 1984. I read it, in 1983 coincidentally, and feel today’s times merit another look.

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