Alex, age 15, is the anti-hero and the protagonist of the story. Staying with his parents he is your average school going teenager by day and he is the leader of a notorious gang by night. The gang is his three close ‘droogs’ (friends); Georgie, Dim the dim and Pete.
Their regular nights would start with a round of “milk” at the Korova Milkbar. . Alex says that the milk has ‘knives’ (drugs) in it that would sharpen you up and leave you feeling ‘horrorshow’ (good). After which, they would ‘buy’ an alibi in advance for the crimes they were about to commit.
The setting that Burgess created for this story was bleak and dreary. Where there was no law and order and due to a shortage of policeman the city streets were unsafe especially at night. People were forced to stay in doors for their own safety or preferred to mind their own business.
The gang would terrorise innocent passerby with chains, knives and blades. Harassing the educated crowd, breaking into homes and stores and raping women. Their acts of violence was mostly fueled by their intense hatred for what they felt were the ‘elite’, which were mainly the educated and the bourgeois. The sight of blood spilling out of their victims made them feel powerful and liberated. They lacked any apathy or respect for their victims and were brutal and merciless in their ways. They would beat them bloody, but just enough to ensure their victims were left living. Until one day, out of spite Alex makes a terrible mistake.
Eventually at some point in the story, he gets captured and is sentenced to 14 years. Within some years of his imprisonment, he is given the offer to enroll in a treatment called the Ludovico’s Technique which will guarantee his release after just two weeks and ensure that he never returns to State Prison again. Alex sprang to his chance of freedom and became the first to enroll. And in less than a fortnight he regretted it, he begged to be sent back to State Prison to finish his remaining sentence.
“One vesch (thing) I did not like, though, was when they put like clips on the skin of my forehead, so that I could not shut my glazzies (eyes) no matter how I tried.”
The speech in the story is what makes this book memorable. Anthony Burgess invented a futuristic slang called Nasdat (Russian for teen) that was spoken and understood only by the teens in his story. The writer was obsessed with the language of the street so much that he had even started to work on a dictionary for it. Burgess learnt basic Russian during a working holiday in Leningrad in 1961 which inspired him. Initially I found the conversations annoying and hard to keep up with, until I found an online Dictionary that helped me up to at least 60 pages after which, I was pretty much used to the writing style. It was definitely time consuming though and often interrupted the flow of the story.
This book is a dark satire mixed with fashion, music, drugs and juvenile violence. But the most original message behind the book is the moral concerns it raises:
“It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? Deep and hard questions, little 6655321.”
The so-called realignment that Alex undergoes poses an interesting point, that morality should be a choice and that even doing good should not be imposed on anyone. That evil exists so that man can have the power to choose good over evil. And when he looses his power to choose he ceases to be human, he becomes a lifeless clockwork orange. (derived from the old English simile ‘queer as a clockwork orange’).
“If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange—meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil.”
Critics say that the ultra-violence in this book was inspired by a brutal incident that occurred with the Burgess’s first wife 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.