66 pages 2 hours read

Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1962

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1962, during the height of Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the West, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange reflects the anxieties and paranoia of the era. It is a dystopian novel about a roving gang of teenagers who instill fear in and inflict violence on the populace. The novel is known for its invented language, called Nadsat, which is an amalgam of Russian-influenced slang and Cockney dialect. The protagonist, the gleefully sadistic Alex, is sent to Staja, or the State Jail after a violent spree. While there, Alex volunteers for an experimental treatment method that leaves him stripped of free will. The novel received mixed reviews upon its release.

Along with his writing career, Burgess was an accomplished musician—this perhaps explains protagonist Alex’s attachment to classical music despite his barbaric tendencies—and composed more than 250 original scores. He was nominated for several prestigious awards during his lifetime, including the Booker Prize in 1980 (for Earthly Powers), and he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. A Clockwork Orange remains his best-known novel, likely due to Stanley Kubrik’s successful (if controversial) 1971 film adaptation. Burgess himself was ambivalent about the book, especially due to the way Kubrik glorified its hyperviolence, and mused that A Clockwork Orange “refuses to be erased” (v). Similarly, Alex is an indelible character, perpetrator and victim, whose voice also “refuses to be erased.”

This guide refers to the 1991 reprint of the 1988 American edition, published by Ballantine Books; this was the first American edition to restore the previously omitted final (and infamous) 21st chapter. This edition also retains British spelling but uses standard American punctuation.

Content Warning: The novel contains scenes of graphic violence, including sexual assault and rape. There are also depictions of illicit drug use, potentially offensive religious material, and expressions of suicidal ideation and attempted suicide.

Plot Summary

The reader is introduced to the protagonist and antihero, Alex, along with his merry band of “droogs,” or loyal companions. They are in the Korova Milkbar, drinking drug-spiked milk and deciding what acts of criminal violence they will commit that evening. Georgie, Pete, and Dim follow Alex’s lead, and the gang casually assaults an elderly man coming out of the library before moving on to a more planned affair. They rob a convenience store, brutally beating the owner and sexually assaulting his wife—but not before securing an alibi with some older women drinking at their local pub. Alex and his droogs ply them with drinks; when the police come asking questions, the women vouch for them. Still unsatisfied, Alex and his crew steal a car and drive to the outskirts of the city. They come upon a cottage—a sign reading “HOME” hangs on the garden gate—and trick their way into the house. Inside, they find a man who is working on a manuscript entitled A Clockwork Orange. Alex rips his confusing manuscript to shreds, then savagely attacks the man. The group then takes turns holding him down and forcing him to watch as they rape his wife, one by one.

Their violent energies mostly quelled, they dump the car into the river and vandalize the train compartment on their way back to the city. They return to the milkbar. A woman spontaneously bursts into a beautiful aria, one of Alex’s favorites, but his droog Dim interrupts her singing with vulgar sounds. This infuriates Alex—he adores classical music with a zealous passion—and he punches Dim. This causes some consternation among the group, but Alex confidently reasserts his authority. They head off for their respective homes after planning to regroup the next night. Alex falls asleep listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto.

The next morning, Alex skips school; he is exhausted by the previous night’s activities. He is visited by his Post-Corrective Officer (Alex has been in trouble many times before), P.R. Deltoid, who warns him to curb his criminal activities. Alex does his best to be polite, albeit in a vaguely threatening manner, and after Deltoid leaves, he visits his local music store. While there, he picks up two young girls, around ten years old, and brings them back to his apartment. He injects himself with drugs, puts on his new record—Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—and rapes the girls. After he allows them to leave, he falls into a deep sleep.

He is late to meet his gang, so they wait outside his building for him. Alex is suspicious, and rightfully so: Georgie is angling for a coup. They fight and Alex comes out the victor. He wants to be diplomatic so he agrees to follow Georgie’s plan for the night. Georgie wants to rob a wealthy, elderly lady’s house; he is tired of small-time thievery. The home invasion goes terribly wrong. Alex believes he has been set up, and his droogs run off and leave him behind to be arrested. Later, he discovers that the old lady died, so he is charged with murder.

Part 2 begins with Alex behind bars, where he wrangled his way into the chaplain’s good graces. He plays the music at the prison’s religious services, and he learns to appreciate the Bible for its violence and sex. He approaches the chaplain about volunteering for an experimental treatment that he heard about, Ludovico’s Technique. This treatment will get an inmate out of prison in virtually no time. While the chaplain expresses concern, Alex is chosen for treatment after an incident in which another inmate is killed.

Dr. Brodsky’s treatment consists of injecting Alex with experimental drugs, strapping him to a chair with his eyelids held open by clamps, and forcing him to watch scenes of unimaginable violence. As Alex watches, the drugs make him ill and inflict physical pain. Once he endures enough sessions, he is conditioned in such a way that even thinking about violence makes him physically sick. Dr. Brodsky’s treatment is deemed a success, and Alex is released from the facility.

Part 3 reveals a lost and confused Alex who has been left defenseless: If he is attacked, the violence committed against him makes him too sick to respond. He shows up at his parent’s apartment—they were not informed of his release—and finds his room rented out to a tenant. It is clear that his parents do not want him back home; they, along with everyone Alex encounters, do not believe that he is truly reformed. Even though Alex has become the poster boy for criminal reform, those who know him well are wary. Because of this, he has no place to go and becomes overwhelmed by self-pity. He decides his only option is to attempt suicide. He knows he cannot do so violently—he would become too ill to finish the job—so he visits the library to research other alternatives.

While there, the elderly man that he attacked at the beginning of the book recognizes Alex, and he and his friends attack him. Alex cannot defend himself, so he curls up into a ball and takes the beating until the police arrive. Shockingly, the police officers who arrive are Dim, his one-time droog, and a member of a rival gang, Billyboy. They, too, do not believe in Alex’s reformation, and Dim still wants revenge for all the times Alex tormented. They take him to the outskirts of the city and savagely beat him. Again, Alex is too incapacitated to fight back.

When Dim and Billyboy take their leave, Alex stumbles up to a cottage. It is the same “HOME” where Alex committed another of his crimes. The writer, F. Alexander, takes Alex in, though his motives are not entirely pure: He is an anti-Government activist who believes that Alex’s plight will serve his cause. He and his friends lock Alex in an apartment until they can execute their attack on the Government, torturing him with the loud, classical music that now makes him egregiously ill. Alex cannot take this agony, and he leaps from the window.

He awakens in the hospital, severely injured but intact—in more ways than one. During his coma, the doctors successfully reversed the effects of Dr. Brodsky’s Ludovico’s Technique. He asks to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and dreams again of the lovely violence he will commit.

The final chapter, however, has Alex rethinking his future. He has grown tired of the violence and bored by petty thievery. He has an actual job now, so he earns enough money to keep him satisfied. He has a new group of droogs, but he smells the same whiff of betrayal hovering over one of them and decides to leave them to their violent amusements. Wandering into a tea shop, he runs into Pete, a member of his old gang. Pete, surprisingly, is married; he has dropped the teenage slang that Alex still uses and plans to spend the evening playing board games at a friend’s house. This encounter leads Alex to contemplate having his own wife and his own son. He decides that the time has come to grow up. Still, in the penultimate line of the book, he implores his audience to not forget his gloriously violent, gleefully amoral, younger self.