Oct/Nov 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

Anthony Burgess's Alex as Everyman

Review by Matthew Wade Thomas

A Clockwork Orange.
Anthony Burgess.
W. W. Norton & Company. 1962. 192 pp.
ISBN 0-434-09800-0.

In A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess's main character Alex can be viewed as everyman representing humanity at the most basic level and driven throughout the story by forces that can be explained by the principles of biology.

Burgess addresses many issues in A Clockwork Orange, focusing primarily on the elimination of individual choice, and yet Alex's actions can be understood beyond the author's original intent. Alex's transformation from thug to aspiring father may be the result of choice based on his mature realization that violence is boring and his energy better spent, but there are deeper impulses driving him to make that choice: these impulses can be understood to be biological. Even though Alex's repugnant actions and narcissistic personality make him unsympathetic and a difficult character to connect with, he is a natural man driven to fulfill the biological imperatives to survive and reproduce, and despite his reprehensible behavior, he is thoroughly representative of the human species in this respect. And the forces that drive Alex on this biological journey cannot be ignored or overshadowed by criminal conduct, theological discussions of the perfectibility of man versus his inherited brokenness, or the morality involved in the nullification of free choice.

Introduced at age 15, Alex is antisocial, violent, and remorseless, and yet in a 1972 interview ("Clockwork Marmalade") in The Listener, Burgess called Alex "an exemplar of humanity." His actions are shaped by environment, economic status, culture, family, and psychology, like everyone, and the novel acts as a laboratory to observe this one young man overcoming these influences to exercise free will and follow a growth curve to maturity. These surface factors mold the way Alex goes about fulfilling the two fundamental goals of survival and reproduction, which underlie all human behavior. And while environmental and psychological factors vary dramatically in their combination and effect, altering behavior at the personal level, the biological objectives are the same.

Alex's aptitude for survival is challenged throughout the novel and constitutes a central part of the story. He goes through a series of changes in his life, each one requiring him to adapt and develop new survival strategies. Initially, he is seen mastering the tactics of small gang warfare, excelling with his weapon of choice, the razor, and exhibiting cunning and deceptive wiles beyond his years that serve him well in his criminal endeavors. Alex clearly demonstrates his expertise at survival on the street in dangerous conditions.

After a disastrous misstep—he commits an accidental murder and is sentenced to prison—Alex finds himself in a strikingly different environment. Still a teenager, he must adapt to these new and sobering surroundings and find a way to survive the long confinement. After two years in prison, Alex suffers an attack and realizes his safety in prison is tenuous, so he chooses a path he thinks will take him back to his old way of life and familiar turf he can negotiate. In doing so he is manipulating his environment to enhance his chances for survival, convinced that after submitting to the Reclamation Treatment or Ludovico's Technique and being released from prison, he will be home again and in control of his circumstances.

Once out of prison, Alex finds he is utterly incapable of functioning in his former world. The Treatment has robbed him of the violent techniques for survival at which he was so adept, and being unable to take up his old ways, he is required to develop another set of survival skills, which he is unable to do. Alex has become a biological organism who cannot adapt, and like so many other organisms without the necessary competencies to survive, he faces his own mortality. In Alex's world of predator or prey, he has become prey.

Alex also finds he can no longer listen to classical music, a devastating development which makes his life dreadful and unbearable for much different reasons. As a lover of beauty, Alex appreciates and respects the power, elegance and artistry of classical music, and even though he exploits it to feed his baser tendencies, his absorption with music connects him to everyman not just at the species level, but at the soul level. Alex's loss of music defiles his humanness and makes him mechanistic and lifeless—a true "clockwork orange"—and he becomes a human biological entity stranded in a habitat within which he is incapable of functioning. This he cannot abide, as his suicide attempt attests. While in the hospital recovering from the failed suicide, the doctors deprogram Alex with deep hypnopedia (sleep-learning), and he is released seeing only a return to his former life. Smirking and gleeful, Alex is confident his predation prowess has returned, still not having grown beyond the survival mode his life is enmeshed in.

Here the American or Norton edition of the book ends, with Alex unable and unwilling to change. Without the last or 21st chapter, the American version presents a fundamentally different lead character from the original edition, changing the story so that Burgess's vision is lost. Alex is a dead-end, static character not on a journey of any kind. Without a dynamic protagonist capable of growth, the book loses its meaning and, more importantly, prevents a broader view of Alex. The American edition then becomes a fable and not a novel, a significant distinction Burgess alluded to with some dismay when reflecting on the two versions in A Clockwork Orange Resucked, written in 1986.

The original British or Heinemann edition, however, incorporates youthful alienation and undisciplined, unfocused energy into the motivation for Alex's behavior and displays him transforming the way Burgess envisioned. The entire structure of the book, in fact, (three sections of seven chapters each, totaling 21, the number of human maturity) is designed to symbolize Alex's maturation, and allows him to be seen taking the next step in his journey—toward reproduction.

As the crucial 21st chapter of the British edition begins, Alex is growing and moving in a radically different direction. Longing for fatherhood, he walks away from his new gang and the life they represent. As Alex wanders, pondering how his environment has once again changed and wondering how to navigate it, he encounters Pete a member of his old gang. Pete has moved into the reproductive phase that Alex is contemplating, and he becomes both guide and harbinger enabling Alex to accept that he is growing up and that he too can settle into a life of hearth and home and develop a decidedly less-demanding array of coping skills. This original British edition facilitates Alex choosing a fuller, adult life confirming him as a type of young people as they advance into adulthood—a passage that is primarily biological.

When explaining this stunning change of direction, Alex blames his former life on his youth, and describes himself as being like a wind-up toy, a machine, conceding he was not quite human during this time. With this shift in perception, the transition is complete. Alex muses he has been heading this way for some time, but nothing in his life foreshadows this dissociation (certainly nothing before the 21st chapter), and the break still seems abrupt and precipitous. However, he is responding to forces that shape species, and they drive him at a level so deep he cannot quite grasp what is happening. As an ordinary young man Alex goes through a conventional progression to fulfill the biological imperative to reproduce, and the process is natural and innate.

It is intriguing that Alex equates passage into this new stage of life with becoming fully human, because as the novel ends he broods about his future and connects it to the future of the world. Attempting to frame a bigger picture, he sees only through the lens of his own past and agonizes over the prospect that his son will not heed the lessons of his life, nor will his son's son, and so on through future generations. And despite Alex expressing little hope human behavior will improve in ages to come, it is possible it will, because the species will continue, with Alex himself contributing by reproducing and passing on his own unique genes. As humans develop and adapt, changes in behavior are likely, if not inevitable. And though the direction these behavioral changes take is uncertain, the potential for improvement remains, even a progressive shift in human nature itself.


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