Revisiting Literary Characters: Alex (A Clockwork Orange)

A Clockwork Orange: a story about rape, youth and ‘ultra-violence’. While for many of us the phrases ‘youth’ and ‘violence’ are two very unrelated issues, for the book’s protagonist, Alex, these are two sides of the same coin. Alex is an embodiment of the turbulence of youth; his violence being a hyperbolic metaphorical of the inner turmoil many of us face on a day-to-day basis.

From the very first page of the novel, readers are met with Burgess’ fictional language ‘nasdat’ (the Russian prefix for ‘teen’ – coincidence? I think not), which Alex and his friends (‘droogs’) speak in. In writing in this fictional language, Burgess establishes Alex’s desire to break away from the ‘adult’ world which he so detests. Alex’s unconventional use of language, coupled with his rejection of social values in partaking in gang-warfare, rape and theft, means he is a youth anti-hero of a generation. In drinking drug-fuelled milk (humorously called ‘milkplus’) Burgess further highlights this corrupted generation; written at a time where youth violence, pregnancy and drug use was on the rise in Britain, in bringing together this youthful image of ‘milk’ with this debauched image of hallucinogenic drugs, Burgess symbolically represents the changing stereotypes of what it means to be young.

However, while Burgess does present as Alex not only as corrupt but proud of his corruption, he also raises questions of nature vs. nurture and forces readers to question whether a corrupt youth is worse than a corrupted authority. After being viscously beaten by an array of policemen, Alex’s statement of “hell and blast you all, if all you bastards are on the side of Good then I’m glad I belong to the other shop” is a poignant moment in the novel. Certainly, it can’t help but be felt that Alex’s admittance that “what I do I do because I like to do” and his honesty in admitting his evil somehow and paradoxically makes him morally superior to this police force who partake in violence in the name of ‘Good’. As Burgess states, “violence makes violence,” and just how much responsibility should be placed on Alex for his actions in a world where youth violence, poverty and a corrupt government are accepted norms is enough to make any philosopher’s brain explode.

It seems fitting that Burgess never honours Alex with a surname and, considering Alex’s parents rarely feature in the novel, this can be seen as a break away from yet more traditional values. Yet in the world of A Clockwork Orange, there is no aspect of life that the government feels they can’t impose upon. Alex undergoes ‘the Ludovico treatment’ – a personality correcting process which is reminiscent of the treatment homosexuals and transgender individuals had to endure throughout the 20th century. Alex is made to watch Nazi torture videos and is injected with drugs, which will supposedly ‘cure’ him on his mischievous ways. As much as A Clockwork Orange is a novel about youth, it is also a novel about free will and in the current climate of increasing levels of government access to our personal details; Burgess draws attention to ideas of a police state made famous by Orwell’s 1984.

While Alex is undeniably Machiavellian throughout the novel, his final reflection at the end of the novel that “all it was was that I was young” hammers in this idea that Alex’s journey is a hyperbolic representation of the inner-journeys many of us face throughout our youth. While most of us might not partake in the same criminal activity as Alex, the feelings of wanting to rip the world up and throw the world back at a society which we feel so isolated from are feelings common to us all.

Words by Juliette Rowsell

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