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A Clockwork Orange: Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess

Burgess on A Clockwork Orange

With its prophetic mixture of drugs, music, fashion and juvenile violence, Burgess’s novel developed a countercultural following in the 1960s. Yet A Clockwork Orange did not reach a mass audience until Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation was released in January 1972. Later on, Burgess sought to distance himself from Kubrick’s ‘highly coloured and explicit’ film and expressed frustration that he would be remembered for this ‘very minor work’, when there were other novels that he valued more highly. Yet he never stopped writing about the book, giving interviews about it, defending it, sometimes disowning it. A Clockwork Orange continued to tick away in Burgess’s imagination until the end of his life.

Burgess began writing the novel in early 1961. He returned to England from colonial teaching posts in Malaya and Brunei in 1959 and noticed that England had changed while he had been abroad. A new youth culture was beginning to appear, with pop music, milk bars, drugs and Teddy Boy violence. Burgess was interested by this emergence of a world that had not existed in his own youth, and he anticipated the arrival of Mods and Rockers when he presented Alex and his droogs as a gang with a tribal fashion sense and a predilection for motiveless violence. This violence, so brutally rendered in the novel, could have been inspired by an incident from Burgess’s own experience. He claimed that the kernel for Alex’s brutal behaviour lay in an attack suffered by his first wife Llewela (Lynne) Jones. During the wartime blackout of 1944 London, Lynne was beaten up and robbed by a gang of American soldiers. A similar attack happens in the novel, when a writer’s wife is beaten and raped by Alex and his droogs.

Despite this, much of Burgess’s inspiration for the novel lay in literature. The dystopian writings of George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World Revisited), Diana and Meir Gillon (The Unsleep) and Yevgeny Zamyatin (We) all provide literary context for A Clockwork Orange. Burgess wrote of his fascination with ‘the ultimate totalitarian nightmare’ as well as ‘the dream of liberalism going mad’. This reading of other novels, coupled with Burgess’s response to the determinism of psychologists such as B.F. Skinner (who denied the importance of culture, environment and free will) provide the background to the book described by Time magazine as ‘that rare thing in English letters: a philosophical novel’. (Read the rest of this article here.)

The title

The title of the novel, A Clockwork Orange, derived from, Burgess claimed, ‘ a phrase which I heard many years ago and so fell in love with, I wanted to use it [as] the title of the book. But the phrase itself I did not make up. The phrase “as queer as a clockwork orange” is good old East London slang and it didn’t seem necessary to explain it. Now, obviously, I have to give it an extra meaning. I’ve implied an extra dimension. I’ve implied a junction of the organic, the lively, the sweet — in other words, life, the orange — and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined. I’ve brought them together in a kind of oxymoron’. (Source: The International Anthony Burgess Foundation)

The ending

An examination of Burgess’s typescript reveals that he was always uncertain about how the novel should end. At the end of Part 3, Chapter 6, he wrote: ‘Should we end here? An optional “epilogue” follows’. The final chapter of the book is redemptive, with Alex growing up and renouncing violence of his own accord. The penultimate chapter, which is used to conclude the American edition of the book and Kubrick’s film, has Alex returning to his life of crime with evident pleasure. (Source: The International Anthony Burgess Foundation)