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The protagonist of Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange is 15-year-old Alex, a lover of Beethoven and a juvenile delinquent, who, along with his gang of 'droogs' - Pete, Georgie and Dim - is a menace to society, having a penchant for robbery, rape, and 'the old ultra-violence'. When during an attempted robbery he commits the ultimate crime of murder, Alex becomes prisoner 6655321 at state jail number 84F, sentenced to 14 years. However, when Alex volunteers to undergo the experimental 'Ludovico Technique'1 in order to reduce his sentence, he is unaware of the consequences that are to follow.
One of the most striking elements of A Clockwork Orange is the language used by the author. The narrator of the tale is Alex himself, who speaks in the 'Nadsat' slang of his contemporaries, a dialect borrowing heavily from the Russian language. While first-time readers often find this confusing, Burgess' use of Nadsat throughout the novel highlights for the reader one of the most important concepts of the novel - the generation divide between the old and the young. This is clearly shown when Alex is visited by the Discharge Officer. During questioning as to what he will do when released, the following dialogue ensues:
'Oh, I shall go home. Back to my pee and em.'
'Your - ?' He didn't get Nadsat-talk at all, so I said:
'To my parents in the dear old flatblock.'
While a gripping narrative in its own right, A Clockwork Orange poses many ethical questions to the reader. It is through the character of the prison chaplain that Burgess raises the question of free will, when he says:
When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.
We are made aware that Alex's violent actions are of his own choice. He commits violence because it gives him pleasure, as does his beloved music until the Ludovico Technique takes away his ability to appreciate either of these. The novel questions whether the forcible suppression of free will is effective in preventing crime, or if it is in itself unethical. The concept of manipulation is also inherent in the novel; just as Alex manipulates the victims of his crimes, so is he ultimately exploited at the hands of those whom he trusts.
British v American Editions
There is a significant inconsistency between the British and American editions of A Clockwork Orange. Burgess' contract with the publishers of the American version was on the condition that the final chapter of the book was cut, and this continues to be the case with the majority of American copies today. This however was the edition used by Stanley Kubrick when making his controversial film of the book in 1971, and as a result the film ends with the penultimate chapter. It has been suggested by some critics that Kubrick's conclusion was more successful than that originally intended by Burgess himself, with the argument that the latter was contrived and unrealistic. However, it is also possible to view the final chapter of A Clockwork Orange as an epiphany on the part of Alex, therefore deepening the reader's perception of the novel and its issues.