A Clockwork Orange Preview

Posted: July 30, 2017 in Uncategorized

I thought it might be a good idea to preview this novel a bit because if you haven’t encountered it before, it’s likely to be a strange and disturbing experience.

Published in 1962, A Clockwork Orange is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century (Wikipedia points out that Time Magazine named it among the top 100). A short, violent, dystopic novel, A Clockwork Orange makes Hunger Games look like a romp in the playground. Of course, this novel, written by Anthony Burgess, was not meant for teenagers as was Suzanne Collins’ novel. Although, you should note, that Alex, the main character is only 15 when the novel begins. Try to keep that in mind as you read of his exploits.

This novel, set in the near future, poses at least two problems to the modern American reader.

First, and most obviously, it is a first-person narrative in which the storyteller uses an invented slang known as Nadsat. This slang, which is a combination misapplied of Russian and English terms, can pose problems for the casual reader. You are going to have to learn some new words, some of which will seem entirely invented—like “droog” (friend) and “litso” (face)—and some of which will look like English words but be used in ways that are strange to us—as in “horrorshow” (great) or “rabbit” (work). There may be a glossary in your book translating these, and I’ve also included a link on our webpage to aNadsat dictionary.[1]The slang take some getting used to, but once you’ve mastered it, you may find yourself thinking and govoreeting in Nadset.[2]

A more difficult obstacle than the language, for some, may be the “ultra-violence.” Though this may be less of an issue for us in these Game of ThronesThe Walking Dead days, the violence in this novel may still be shocking, especially to those of you who, say, have avoided some of the newer, more violent media. There’s nothing supernatural here, just some awful behavior. The teenager who narrates this novel gleefully steals, mugs, assaults, and rapes. Some of these scenes may be difficult to get through or make you wonder why I’ve assigned this book.

Why have I assigned this book? Obviously, I could have chosen many others. But this book, I think is an apt Omega to the Alpha of Mrs. Dalloway. Whereas that novel aestheticizes–that is, makes beautiful–the world of the Post-Enlightenment, Post-War, Post-God era, A Clockwork Orange takes a dimmer view (in this sense, not unlike that of GOT or TWD, which it probably inspired to some degree).

It is a nightmare version of both the Enlightenment and Romantic notions of freedom, self-direction, and “doing as one likes.” It raises the question that no one else seems to. If modern culture frees us to “follow our bliss,” to pursue our passions, what if we have a passion for violence and destruction? We are forced to ask ourselves, after all this talk of progress, have we really advanced?

And that’s a question that’s unavoidable given the history of the twentieth century, which includes two World Wars in which nearly 140 million people may have been killed.[3] Read that number again. One hundred forty million people killed in two wars, wars which included the Holocaust against the Jews and the explosion of two atom bombs on Japanese soil. And it wasn’t just WW I and II. By 1962, Stalin and Mao had also mounted death tolls in the tens of millions. And there was the slaughter and deportation of about one million Armenians from Turkey in the twenties, and I could probably go on and add more to the death toll if I had time, but what would be the point? The century that preceded the current one was soaked in blood, gas chambers, killing fields and extraordinary acts of human depravity.

Can anyone wonder then, that someone would write a novel like A Clockwork Orange? Indeed, maybe someone had to write this novel and maybe we need to read it, to remind us of what we are up against, that the greatest threat to civilization and progress is from within, not without, and who can doubt, in a time of roving bands of teenagers playing “knockout,” that Burgess’s novel is not far from reality?

P.S. Please make sure to read the author’s essay on the novel, which I believe is included as a preface to your edition. But read it after finishing the novel.


[1] I’m not entirely sure, BTW, why Burgess chose Russian, but I suspect it has to do with the immense influence and world dominance of the Soviet Union. A Clockwork Orange is written near the height of the Cold War.

[2]Obviously, you can figure out a lot of the words simply by context.

[3] I’m basing these numbers off of Wikipedia stats, which suggest the number of killed n WWII may have been as high as 80 million (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties#Total_deadand 37 million in World War I. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties).

 

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