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Home » 7th Season: 2019-2020 » 2019-2020 v.02 » The Multifaceted Moral Man: Morality and Free Will in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange

The Multifaceted Moral Man: Morality and Free Will in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange

By Lina Zhang, V Form

The Multifaceted Moral Man: Morality and Free Will in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange

“And what, brothers, I had to escape into sleep from then was the horrible and wrong feeling that it was better to get the hit than give it. If that veck had stayed I might even have like presented the other cheek” (Burgess).

Anthony Burgess’ most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange, debates the essence of morality and the role of free will in achieving the moral man. Through following the imprisonment and release of the novel’s antihero, Alex, the story exposes the flaws and consequences of three different understandings of morality and the importance of free will. Alex’s first significant improvement occurs under the influence of Ludovico’s Treatment, where he finds himself both unable to sin and find pleasure. He then receives a version of liberty by F. Alexander, only to realize that absolute freedom is hypocritical and can only be theoretical. Ultimately, Alex comes to a natural maturation and adopts a morality devoid of any outside influences or expectations. Through providing sharp contrasts between the ideals and realities of morality, Burgess expands on the shortcomings of all three systems of thought while making a consistent strong argument in favor of the individual free will. 

The first interpretation of morality solidifies itself early in the narrative when Alex kills an old woman, branding himself to the public world as an immoral criminal. A recurrent juvenile delinquent, Alex frequently partakes in acts of brutal violence which are uninhibited due to a lack of governmental authority. After being sentenced to fourteen years in prison, Alex attends a series of mandatory chapels where he recalls the prison chaplain saying:

‘Is it going to be in and out and in and out of institutions like this, though more in than out for most of you, or are you going to attend to the Divine Word and realize the punishments that await the unrepentant sinner in the next world, as well as this? … The thrill of theft, the urge to live easy — is it worth it when we have undeniable proof, yes yes, incontrovertible evidence that hell exists?’’ (Burgess 88)

In prison, morality is deeply connected to the idea of doing good and contributing positively to society. The chaplain infers that since the current society is one that condones or is unable to control these actions, thus allowing people to be “unrepentant sinner[s]” freely, it is not morally desirable. He identifies the inmates’ actions as a repeating cycle of sin, where they are arrested, released, then arrested again. He references the “thrill of theft [and] the urge to live easy” as the main motivations for the inmates, asking them if free will is truly so important compared to eternal damnation. Ludovico’s Technique uses the chaplain’s diminishing of the importance of free will as justification for its premises, forgoing individuality for an enforced societal harmony. When introducing the treatment to Alex, the Governor even calls it the “Reclamation Treatment,” establishing a sense of urgency and moral superiority over Alex (Burgess 105). By labeling Alex as a criminal requiring “reclamation” to the public welfare, the government officials identify both Alex and the current society as immoral and portray forcible intervention and the reduction of free will as the best chance at restoring morality.

Though the book introduces Ludovico’s Treatment as the most effective plan, Alex’s experience through the second part of the story questions its justifiability. After he agrees to the treatment, doctors show Alex a series of violent films to associate scenes of immorality with biological sickness caused by injections. When Alex questions his malaise, Doctor Branom, the head doctor of Ludovico’s Technique, tells him:

‘What is happening to you now is what should happen to any healthy human organism contemplating the actions of the forces of evil, the workings of the principle of destruction. You are being made sane, you are being made healthy.’

‘That I will not have,’ [Alex] said, ‘nor can understand at all. What you’ve been doing is to make me feel very very ill.’ (Burgess 121)

Ludovico’s Treatment forcibly rectifies Alex’s mode of thinking into one deemed moral by the government.  By clarifying that a “healthy human organism” contemplating evil should have an innate sense of disgust, the doctors hold Alex to the standards of complete morality, regardless of whether perfect morality exists. By taking an active role in enforcing certain thought and behavior patterns, Ludovico’s Treatment also makes an assumption of moral superiority. However, Alex’s immediate reaction is to tell them he feels ill. He also refuses their offered “reclamation,” stating that he “will not have, nor can understand at all.” This challenges the validity of the morality that the treatment is aimed towards. While Ludovico’s Technique advertises itself as a fast and sure way to a safe and non-violent society, this version of morality incites a visceral negative reaction from Alex himself. During the final stages of Ludovico’s Treatment, doctors also use violence to prove Alex’s submission, introducing brutality into a system meant to “turn the bad into the good” (Burgess 104). Through this reaction, Burgess elucidates the importance and essentiality of free will to a person, questioning the validity of the premise of Ludovico’s Treatment. Ironically, while Ludovico’s Technique is meant to achieve a state of morality, it uses questionable methods to justify its ends.

Moreover, the ambiguity of Ludovico’s Treatment extends past its methods to its application. Its outcome, one meant to remove any immoral thought and behavior, also removes many positive contributions to society. For most of the book, Alex’s only humanizing quality has been his love for classical composers such as Beethoven and Mozart. When he finds that the films use music for dramatic effect, Alex calls it a “filthy unforgivable sin,” the only time he passes moral judgment on his surroundings (Burgess 127). Bereft of music, Alex describes himself wanting to “snuff it,” since “any music that was like for the emotions would make me sick just like viddying or wanting to do violence” (Burgess 157). Dr. Branom also observes that “the sweetest and most heavenly of activities partake in some measure of violence,” reflecting a contradiction largely ignored by Ludovico’s Treatment (Burgess 130). Kathryn L. Moran discusses the overarching control of Ludovico’s Treatment in her dissertation, Utopias, Subtopias, Dystopias in the Novels of Anthony Burgess, stating that “The state, portrayed as a non-human machine… lacks self-awareness and sensitivity to non-ethical values.” By limiting his capability to sin definitely, the treatment also takes away any potential for Alex to both live a normal life and to achieve any “heavenly” or moral activities. Therefore, neither the pretext, process, nor payoff of Ludovico’s Technique, one that removes responsibility and choice from the individual and places it entirely in the hands of the state, can be considered truly applicable or effective morally.

After finishing Ludovico’s Treatment, Alex enters a largely unfriendly and authoritarian world of extensive urban renovation and massive police forces, who are often unnecessarily violent themselves. Unable to fight back due to his conditioning, the police beat up Alex and leave him outside the city, where he wanders into the home of F. Alexander, an author and widower. F. Alexander, who recognizes Alex’s face from the papers, believes Alex can fuel the political movement against the authoritarian government. Explaining his reasons to a wary Alex, F. Alexander says:

Some of us have to fight. There are great traditions of liberty to defend. I am no partisan man. Where I see the infamy I seek to erase it. Party names mean nothing. The tradition of liberty means all. The common people will let it go, oh yes. They will sell liberty for a quieter life. That is why they must be prodded, prodded— (Burgess 180)

In F. Alexander’s Clockwork Orange Theory, morality and liberty are inseparable concepts. F. Alexander views liberty as a prized yet undervalued idea, holding it to be supreme over all other things. He mocks “the common people” who care only about their own lives, and views himself as a warrior who has to “fight” for the “great traditions of liberty.” The Clockwork Orange Theory directly counters the idea of morality posed by Ludovico’s Treatment and enacted by the government, whose strict and often brutal policies severely restrict personal freedom. However, F. Alexander’s speech is inhumane at heart when applied to current circumstances. Just as he still has difficulty doing dishes effectively, constantly forgetting to move on to another plate, F. Alexander is incapable of recognizing realistic problems. In her analytical essay Ironies and Inversions: the art of Anthony Burgess, Suzanne Keen argues that Burgess’ liberal characters often fail to “recognize that education, individual effort, and government oversight cannot correct the world’s problems,” an oversimplification that F. Alexander especially falls prey to. The “quieter life” that he mocks, albeit staffed by brutal policing strategies and ideals such as Ludovico’s Technique, is one devoid of danger and crime for average middle-class citizens. By stressing the importance of liberty but refusing to account for any negative outcomes, F. Alexander’s radical proposal of superior free will is at times callous and certainly hypocritical.

The ethical fallibility of his ideal exacerbates when it becomes clear that the liberty and morality F. Alexander values are not individual rights, but liberty and morality as vague all-encompassing ideas and traditions. During Alex’s stay, F. Alexander views Alex solely as a figurehead for his cause. Throughout most of his appearance, he refers to Alex as a “very potent weapon” (179), a “living witness” (180), and most clearly “a victim of the modern age” (Burgess 176). While these words and F. Alexander himself seem to be sympathetic to Alex’s cause, it betrays an apathy for Alex’s humanity and future. When Alex questions him repeatedly “what is to become of me?” and “can any veck restore me to who I was?” (183), F. Alexander waves it away and assumes that the party will take care of Alex, treating these questions as though Alex “was being selfish in wanting something for [him]self” (Burgess 181). F. Alexander can only understand and cultivate the symbolic value of Alex, while giving his real self no concern. Just as Ludovico’s Technique molded Alex into thinking and acting a certain way, F. Alexander uses Alex as a proxy to promulgate his thoughts without considering Alex’s free will. As his Clockwork Orange doctrine holds liberty central, the negligence of Alex challenges F. Alexander’s interpretations of morality.

The problems of latent hypocrisy and contradicting views on personal freedom in F. Alexander’s ideals manifests when Alex gives himself away as one of the rapists of the former’s passed wife. For most of their encounter, F. Alexander appears understanding and utterly compassionate for Alex, arguing that his “punishment has been all out of proportion” (Burgess 174). However, when F. Alexander begins suspecting Alex of raping his wife, he flies into a mad rage, stating that “‘if he were I’d tear him. I’d split him, by God, yes yes, so I would,’” a polar opposite of his detached attitude (Burgess 184). F. Alexander later devolves into a completely authoritarian state where he calls for extreme punishment and retribution, “mad with desire to stick a knife” in Alex (Burgess 198). After leaving F. Alexander’s house, Alex attempts suicide to escape the classical music that the companions of F. Alexander play intentionally, realizing that “‘If I had died it would have been even better for you political bratchnies’” (Burgess 192). While they claim to promote liberty and freedom, F. Alexander’s companions violate  their principles as a means to an end. F. Alexander’s own hypocritical and contradicting views also greatly weaken the applicability of his morality. As it fails to account for multiple factors, is conflicting in nature, and cannot be applied objectively in real life, Burgess demonstrates that F. Alexander’s ideals of morality are not realistic and implemental. 

Alex’s suicide attempt reverts Ludovico’s Treatment and leaves him once again prone to violence and able to enjoy music again. In the final chapter of A Clockwork Orange, however, he begins having a change in attitude as he roams the streets with a new group of teenage boys at night. After a mugging, Alex feels “very bored and a bit hopeless” (202) towards the violence and drinking, pondering if “perhaps I was getting too old for the sort of jeezny I had been leading” (Burgess 210). He describes himself as having “a like desire to keep all my pretty polly to myself, to hoard it up for some reason” and refers to his money as his “hard-earned pretty polly,” referencing aspects of workmanship that he had rejected at the beginning of the book (Burgess 203). After encountering the last of his original droog and realizing that he is already married, Alex finally understands his own need for a wife and a child, stating that “I was like growing up” (Burgess 211). Near the book’s resolution, the central focus of morality is on the self. While all parts of Alex’s situation are once again similar to his situation before incarceration, Alex ‘ages out’ of his urge for violence and crime and into stable adulthood, as represented by his concerns for economic and familial stability. 

The book makes an intrinsic argument that Ludovico’s Treatment and F. Alexander’s liberal ideology were necessary for Alex to reach his understanding and final departure from immorality. Alex’s definition and understanding of morality develop through experiencing the opposites of both morality and free will, and without his experiences, Alex may have never ‘aged out’ of his cycle of violence. When he first awakes after his suicide attempt, Alex describes himself as feeling that “my whole plott or body being like emptied of as it might be dirty water and then filled up again with clean” (Burgess 192). Alex’s statement of “Youth must go” and his recognition that youths have “a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside” is also a combination of the methodology of the authoritarian government and the Clockwork Orange theory, one that recognizes the mechanization of human thought (Burgess 211). In her dissertation, Moran observes Alex’s pattern of learning and improvement, stating that many of his prior habits such as refusing to drink drugged alcohol and interpreting the naivety of the two young girls lead to his final denial of alcohol and ability to judge Pete’s wife kindly. In his essay Ethical Values in Anthony Burgess’s “Clockwork Orange,” Rubin Rabinovitz also argues that “involvement with the cyclical system is the beginning of moral behavior”, and “those who ignore the cyclical system or attempt to disengage themselves from it … are guilty of immoral behavior.” Morality, both Moran and Rabinovitz argue, is a concept formed solely through individual experience, rendering Ludovico’s Technique and F. Alexander’s ideology crucial for Alex to undergo. 

The most important distinction between Alex’s morals and the previous two ideals, however, is his understanding and upholding of free will. During the first two sections of the book, Alex repeatedly asks about his future and what he is to do. As the prior ideals left no room for individual freedom, Alex becomes increasingly frustrated and hopeless. In one of his conversations with F. Alexander, Alex becomes angered from the control that F. Alexander exerts by dictating his actions, and bursts out:

 Stop treating me like a thing that’s like got to be just used. I’m not an idiot you can impose on, you stupid bratchnies. Ordinary prestoopnicks are stupid, but I’m not ordinary and nor am I dim. Do you slooshy? (Burgess 183-184)

This is one of Alex’s many assertions to have free will. Throughout the entire book, Alex refuses to be “an idiot you can impose on,” endeavoring to maintain individuality and a sense of identity. He is neither “ordinary” nor “dim,” distinctions that the government and F. Alexander had been using to dehumanize him, but is instead an intelligent and reflective narrator able to lead his band of droogs and to recognize the manipulation from both parties. F. Alexander uses Alex as a rallying figurehead to argue to liberty, and the Minister of the Interior bribes and takes pictures with Alex to ensure that the government persists. Burgess makes it clear through this exposition that the previous two ideals failed because they left no room to recognize individual free will. Suzanne Keen states that “The fundamental article of Burgess’s faith is that free will defines humanity … so he represents the curtailment of choices as fundamentally wrong.” As such, Alex’s story is one of “brave malenky selves fighting these big machines,” the machines representing both the machinery of Ludovico’s Treatment and the propaganda machines of both sides (Burgess 45). While Alex’s understanding of free will may seem to condone the acts of violence and aggression to some degree, as he acknowledges that he would not be able to stop the cycle of violence, Alex himself has left the cycle by exercising free will.  His persisting individuality makes him the antihero of the novel and eventually releases him from the cycle of violence. 

A Clockwork Orange debates three interpretations of free will in morality and the effectiveness of the ensuing moral society. Through using extreme polar circumstances, Burgess demonstrates the stakes of each solution: all-encompassing security, theoretical anarchy, and self-determined independence. As Alex’s story shows, all three beliefs are inherently flawed. A government that follows either Ludovico’s Treatment or the Clockwork Orange Theory will inevitably experience consequences that incline it to the other, and Alex’s understanding of complete independence, while beneficial to the self, casts the government into limbo without resolving any prior injustices. Within the book, Burgess never explicitly expresses favor any interpretation of morality. Nevertheless, individual free will gives life to a moral society which Burgess argues is the most humane and practical. To understand the cycle of sin that prompts all three understandings of morality, A Clockwork Orange also invites reflection on the culture at the time. Written in 1962, the book draws from a society of high crime rates, cultural unrest, and a generation that was no longer “made to last like” (Burgess 9). As problems of societal unrest and power imbalance continue into the modern world, discussions on maintaining individual freedom become increasingly important. While A Clockwork Orange’s debate on the applicability and justifiability of morality is a dramatized theoretical analysis, its consequences continuously manifest themselves in realistic ways.

Works Cited

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962. Print.

Keen, Suzanne. “Ironies and inversions: the art of Anthony Burgess.” Commonweal, 11 Feb. 

1994, p. 9+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A14824094/AONE? u=upenn_main&sid=AONE&xid=f1655b9d. Accessed 16 July 2019.

Moran, Kathryn L. Utopias, Subtopias, Dystopias in the novels of Anthony Burgess. 1974. University of Notre Dame, PhD dissertation.

Rabinovitz, Rubin. “Ethical Values in Anthony Burgess’s ‘Clockwork Orange.'” Studies in the Novel, vol. 11, no. 1, Spring 1979, pp. 43-50, www.jstor.org/stable/29531951

Lina Zhang is a V form boarding student from Beijing, China, who now lives in Southborough. In her free time, she enjoys baking, writing, and walking two hours for Starbucks.


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