Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Inviolability of Free Will
More than anything, Burgess believed that “the freedom to choose is the big human attribute,” meaning that the presence of moral choice ultimately distinguishes human beings from machines or lower animals. This belief provides the central argument of A Clockwork Orange, where Alex asserts his free will by choosing a course of wickedness, only to be subsequently robbed of his self-determination by the government. In making Alex—a criminal guilty of violence, rape, and theft—the hero of the novel, Burgess argues that humanity must, at all costs, insist that individuals be allowed to make their own moral choices, even if that freedom results in depravity. When the State removes Alex’s power to choose his own moral course of action, Alex becomes nothing more than a thing. A human being’s legitimacy as a moral agent is predicated on the notion that good and evil exist as separate, equally valid choices. Without evil as a valid option, the choice to be good becomes nothing more than an empty, meaningless gesture.
The novel’s treatment of this theme includes, but is not limited to, the presentation of a Christian conception of morality. The chaplain, the novel’s clearest advocate for Christian morals, addresses the dangers of Alex’s “Reclamation Treatment” when he tells Alex that “goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” F. Alexander echoes this sentiment, albeit from a different philosophical standpoint, when he tells Alex that the treatment has “turned [him] into something other a human being. [He has] no power of choice any longer.” Burgess’s novel ultimately supports this conception of morality as a matter of choice and determination and argues that good behavior is meaningless if one does not actively choose goodness.
The Inherent Evil of Government
Just as A Clockwork Orange champions free will, it deplores the institution of government, which systematically seeks to suppress the individual in favor of the collective, or the state. Alex articulates this notion when he contends, in Part One, Chapter 4, that modern history is the story of individuals fighting against large, repressive government “machines.” As we see in A Clockwork Orange, the State is prepared to employ any means necessary to ensure its survival. Using technological innovation, mass-market culture, and the threat of violence, among other strategies, the State seeks to control Alex and his fellow citizens, who are least dangerous when they are most predictable. The State also does not tolerate dissent. Once technology helps to clear its prisons by making hardened criminals harmless, the State begins incarcerating dissidents, like F. Alexander, who aim to rouse public opinion against it and thus threaten its stability.
The Necessity of Commitment in Life
Burgess saw apathy and neutrality as two of the greatest sins of postwar England, and these qualities abound in A Clockwork Orange. Burgess satirizes them heavily, especially in his depiction of Alex’s parents. Fearful of going outside and content to be lulled to sleep by a worldcast program, Alex’s parents exemplify what Burgess saw as the essentially torpid nature of middle-class citizens. Conversely, Burgess makes Alex, whose proactive dedication to the pursuit of pleasure causes great suffering, the hero of his novel. Alex himself seems disgusted by neutrality, which he sees as a function of “thingness,” or inhumanity.
“Duality as the Ultimate Reality”
Coined by Burgess in an interview, this phrase reflects Burgess’s understanding of the world as a set of fundamental and coequal oppositions of forces. A Clockwork Orange abounds with dualities: good versus evil, commitment versus neutrality, man versus machine, man versus government, youth versus maturity, and intellect versus intuition, to name some of the most prominent ones. The important aspect of this theme is that, while one element of a given duality may be preferable to the other—such as good over evil—each force is equally essential in explaining the dynamics of the world. To know one of the opposing forces is to implicitly know the other. The notion of duality comes into play in A Clockwork Orange particularly during the debate over good and evil, where Alex at one point debunks the validity of a political institution that does not account for individual evil as a naturally occurring phenomenon.
More main ideas from A Clockwork Orange
The Music of A Clockwork Orange:
‘Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my Gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. The flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.’
– Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962).
Alongside his literary work, Burgess wrote music across many genres and in many styles. His oeuvre includes symphonies, concertos, opera and musicals, chamber music including a great deal of work for solo piano, as well as a ballet suite, music for film, occasional pieces, songs and much more. He draws upon classical as well as jazz and popular music. Grounded in the tradition of tonality that spans the Baroque period through late 19th-century Romanticism and early 20th-century French Impressionism, Burgess’s music is strongly influenced by the works of Debussy and the English school of Elgar, Delius, Holst, Walton, and Vaughan Williams.
Works by real and imagined composers provide the soundtrack to fantasy, robbery and murder in A Clockwork Orange. Rather than a simple, and perhaps more obvious, soundtrack of pop music or rock and roll, long thought of by the establishment as a corrupting and immoral force among the developing teenage culture of the 1950s and 1960s, Burgess uses the work of Beethoven as a structural and aesthetic device. In choosing ‘the old Ludwig van’ as Alex’s music of choice, Burgess’s is presenting his anti-hero as cultured and intelligent. As Martin Amis notes in his introduction to the restored edition of A Clockwork Orange, Burgess’s choice of music in the novel betrays ‘the authorial insistence that the Beast would be susceptible to Beauty. At a stroke, and without sentimentality, Alex is decisively realigned. He has now been equipped with a soul, and even a suspicion of innocence’. When Ludovico’s Technique removes Alex’s love of music, it also removes his soul, something that Burgess highlights as an example of the moral degeneration of the state.
Burgess loved Beethoven’s music as much as Alex does. He wrote that, ‘I accepted the Beethoven symphony as a kind of musical ultimate, something that the composers of our own age could not aspire to […] His sonatas and symphonies were dramas, storm and stress, revelations of personal struggle and triumph. The Messiah from Bonn […] belonged to a world that was striving to make itself modern’. Burgess and his protagonist also share a loathing of popular music. When Alex enters a record shop in the novel, he looks at the ‘popdiscs’ and ‘teeny pop vesches’ with obvious disdain. Similarly, Burgess had no time for pop music, calling it ‘twanging nonsense’ and claiming that, ‘youth knows nothing about anything except a mass of clichés that for the most part, through the media of pop songs, are foisted on them by middle-aged entrepreneurs and exploiters who should know better’.
Burgess’s love of music does not only appear in A Clockwork Orange. Other novels are inspired by Burgess’s musical grounding. The Pianoplayers (1986) is inspired by Burgess’s father’s experiences playing the piano in pre-War Manchester; Earthly Powers (1980) describes the travails of a film composer; Byrne (1993), Burgess’s verse novel, tells the story of a hard-living Irish composer; and The Eve of St Venus (1964) started life as an operatic libretto. But it is Burgess’s love of Beethoven that gave him the most inspiration. Beethoven appears as a character in Mozart and the Wolfgang (1991) and in ‘Uncle Ludwig’, an unproduced film script about Beethoven’s relationship with his nephew. Perhaps most famously, the composer’s Eroica symphony provides the structure for Napoleon Symphony (1974), Burgess’s fictionalised life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Burgess’s dramatic version of this novel, Napoleon Rising, was broadcast for the first time by BBC Radio 3 in December 2012 and starred Toby Jones in the title role.