A Clockwork Orange – Literary Response Essay
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Nadine Gordimer, South African writer and Nobel Prize winner, said that penetrating fiction doesn’t give answers, it invites questions. This quote is accurately reflected in Anthony Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Orange, in which many questions and moral values are explored. Burgess strongly believed that humans’ ability of choice is the only factor distinguishing us between animals or machines. The two most predominant recurring themes of and questions relating to the novel involve ‘good vs evil’, and ‘fate and free will’.
The novel begins with the words: “what’s it going to be then, eh? ”, through which Burgess poses a literal question that ultimately leads to choice, and is always asked before determining one’s fate. This question introduces all three parts of the novel, as well as the final chapter. The repetition emphasises the symmetrical and symbolic structure of the book. It also echoes one of the aforementioned explored themes: fate and free will. The novel concludes with Alex finally deciding ‘what it’s going to be’, by him consciously deciding to discard his previous violent and ‘evil’ habits.
Society and religion recur frequently in A Clockwork Orange, and each hold similar views and opinions concerning choice and good vs. evil. In Part 1, Chapter 4, Alex wonders why ‘evil’ is analysed and goodness is not only universally strived for, but accepted as the norm: “They don’t go into the cause of goodness, so why of the other shop? Badness is of the self, the one, the you or me on our oddy knockies and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty.
But the not-self cannot have the bad, meaning they of the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self. ” Here, Alex refers to society and authority as the ‘not-self’. He believes that people are born ‘evil’, and suggests that conditioning human-kind to be ‘good’ removes individualism. The passage concludes with Alex saying, “I do what I do because I like to do”, which is almost animalistic in the sense that his action depends solely on desire, impulse and instinct.
In Part 2, Chapter 3, the questioning of fate and free will is asked yet again, from the perspective of Christianity. The chaplain refers to the Reclamation Treatment – a physiologically imposed behavioural modification that would render the incapability of performing ‘evil deeds’ – which Alex is to undergo. He asks Alex if God wants 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? It is interesting that the questioning of free will is articulated by the novel’s religious figure, and that this time, it does not come from Alex himself, but is rather asked of him.
The chaplain wonders if good acts are morally valueless if performed without free will, and if forced benevolence is in fact more evil than sin itself. Although he rhetorically directs this to Alex, he is essentially asking the reader’s opinion, because it is indicated in previous chapters that Alex disagrees with the conditioning of ‘goodness’.
The question is left open-ended and unresolved for the reader to interpret. Thus, rather than being didactic, ‘penetrating fiction’ does solicit more questions than it answers. It allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, rather than enforcing a particular point of view. In A Clockwork Orange, this is true in a number of ways (as demonstrated), but most powerfully in terms of the constantly revisited themes; good vs. evil, and fate and free will.