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Anthony Burgess’ novella A Clockwork Orange has intrigued me for some time.  Although I have never seen the movie, I was already familiar (on a very high level) with the plot.  The book impressed me in a number of ways, though.  Given how well this book is known, this review **WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS**

This version had a forward by the author, explaining an important difference between the original American version (on which the movie was based) and the international version.  Essentially, the final chapter was left out of the American version, significantly reducing the growth of the protagonist, Alex (more on this later).

The first aspect of the book that surprised and impressed me was the use of slang.  The slang, an invention of Burgess, is used throughout by the main character and some of his cronies.  The inclusion is delicately and consistently handled.  Alex switches between the slang and normal speech as required by the situation.  The words, with a few exceptions, sound very much like the sort of slang fifteen year old hooligans would use.  I couldn’t help imagining the work that must have gone into the invention and execution of this language.

The philosophical discussion in the book is one of the key elements of this book.  Fundamentally, the book is about the importance of choice to morality.  After Alex’s vicious and horrifying crimes early in the book, he is subjected to a procedure to brainwash him – he is no longer able to chose to do evil.  And thus, unable to chose evil his good actions do not make him good.  Indeed he is no longer human.  He is a ‘clockwork orange’ – looking like a natural, valuable creation, but being no more than an automaton. This is a theme I’ve seen before, and important to the human experience.  Most notably (from my opinion) in the final chapter of the Wheel of Time.

Now to come back to the final chapter, which was included in the version I read.  Leading into the final chapter, Alex has been ‘cured’ of his brainwashing.  He is now capable and desirous of choosing to return to his former violent life.  Burgess notes correctly that ending the story here does not give Alex any growth.  He is at the same place he was at the start of the book.   This leaves an interesting circular story, but  with a dark overtone.  Burgess desired for his protagonist to change across the story, thus the inclusion of the final chapter, where Alex becomes disinterested in the life of violence he has led and turns his thoughts to the future – marriage and children.  The narrative falls short for me, though.  There is no real explanation to why he is no longer excited by violence.  Furthermore, his transformation was not tied into the rest of the story.  This would have been a natural enough, though would need a delicate touch to avoid suggestion that he was not being “forced” to change his ways.  It also seemed quite sudden, especially for someone whose life to this point has been driven by the desire for violence.

The book works well for what it is trying to achieve, and I think works equally well with or without the final chapter, though this of course impacts the feel of it.


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