“A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man.”Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange is a novel about moral choice and free will. Alex’s story shows what happens when an individual’s right to choose is robbed for the good of society. The first and last chapters place Alex in more or less the same physical situation but his ability to exercise free will leads him to diametrically opposite choicesgood versus evil. The phrase, “what’s it going to be then, eh?,” echoes throughout the book; only at the end of the novel is the moral metamorphosis complete and Alex is finally able to answer the question, and by doing so affirms his freedom of choice. The capacity to choose freely is the attribute that distinguishes humans from robots; thus the possibility of true and heartfelt redemption remains open even to the most hardened criminal. A Clockwork Orange is a parable that reflects the Christian concept of sin followed by redemption. Alex’s final and free choice of the good, by leaving behind the violence he had embraced in his youth, brings him to a higher moral level than the forced docility of his conditioning, which severed his ability to choose and grow up.
The question, “what’s it going to be then, eh,” is asked at the beginning of each section of the novel. In the first and third part it is asked by Alex, but in the second part it is asked by the prison chaplain. The answer does not come until the end of the novel when Alex grows up and exercises his ability to choose. He progresses to become a responsible and discriminating individual, escaping the clockwork that binds the rest of society.
A Clockwork Orange opens with Alex and his buddies outside the Korova Milkbar deciding what they were going to do for the evening. Alex acts on his impulses to do evil. He is driven by cause and effect relationships. When Alex wants something, he simply goes out and gets it. If he needs money, he steals it; if he wants to let out his aggression, he beats people up; if he wants sex, he rapes; if his droogs’ do not listen to him, he teaches them a lesson. He feels no remorse when stealing, raping or murdering innocent victims. Man possesses potential for both good and evil. Alex’s decision cannot be blamed on any outside factor, it is simply something from within that drives him to lead and participate in evil acts.
After a series of bad deeds, Alex ends up in prison, and becomes subject to a government-sponsored treatment called Ludovico’s Technique. The technique is a scientific experiment designed to take away moral choice from criminals. The technique conditions a person to feel intense pain and nausea whenever they have a violent thought. The key moral theme of A Clockwork Orange is articulated during a chat between the alcoholic prison chaplain and Alex two weeks before he enters treatment. He reflects on the moral questions raised by the treatment that will force Alex to be good. “Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed on him?” The government experiment fails to realize that good and evil come from within the self. The Ludovico Technique messes with Alex’s internal clockwork. He transforms into a being that is unable to distinguish good from evil. The altering of his personality makes him, “as decent a lad as you would meet on a May morning, unvicious, unviolentinclined to the kindly word and helpful act,” but his actions are dictated only by self-interest to avoid the horrible sickness that comes along with evil thoughts. He has no real choice, “he ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature of moral choice.” Being stripped of his free will, Alex is no longer a human he is the government’s toy. “Choosing to be deprived of the ability to make an ethical choice does not mean you have in a sense really chosen the good.”
Alex undergoes the treatment and his free will disappears. A Clockwork Orange was written in the early 1960’s at a time when Communism was a serious threat to western democracies. Burgess believed that the Communist project shifted moral responsibility from the individual to the state. Alex’s treatment exemplified such a transfer of moral responsibility on a smaller scale. The government’s conditioning, by robbing Alex of this capacity, makes him inhuman; he becomes, as F. Alexander puts it, “a little machine capable only of good.” As a little machine, Alex is unable to choose the good, although he may perform good acts. This is what the chaplain is referring to when he says to Alex, “You are passing now to a region where you will be beyond the reach of the power of prayer.” By committing evil acts and exercising his right to choose, the possibility of true and heartfelt redemption is open to him. Burgess, with the chaplain, takes the Christian moral position that it’s the free choice to do good, and not the good action, that really matters; in an interview, he said, “I still maintain, more than ever I did, that it’s the only thing we have, that this capacity to choose is the big human attribute.”
Upon Alex’s release he realizes his change of role in society from the victimizer to the victim. When the question is asked again Alex realizes he can’t choose what his plans for the night will entail. He can’t fight back when he is attacked by the “old cronies,” or when Dim and rival gang leader, Billy Boy beat him up. Alex’s deadened mind and body are subject to their revenge. He has no control over his actions, and feels like he would be better off dead.
Alex undergoes many changes during his adolescent years. He starts out as a malevolent gang leader full of ill will. He commits crimes for the experience itself, taking pleasure in raping, beating and killing innocent people. He comes from loving parents and a good neighborhood proving that the evil stems from something inside him. His parole officer questions his character by asking him, “is it some devil that crawls inside you,” that makes you act as you do. He fantasizes about nailing Jesus to the cross, which exemplifies the extreme evil workings of his mind. Alex is recaptured by government; the Ludovico Technique is reversed and his ability to make free choices is restored.
The question, “what’s it going to be then, eh?” is asked one final time when Alex is released with the capacity to choose between good and evil. He redeems himself by affirming his freedom to choose. Even though he first goes back to his old ways as a hooligan, he grows tired of that life. Alex’s character grows as he contemplates what it means to be a good citizen in society. “He grows bored with violence and recognizes that human energy is better expended on creation rather than destruction.”
In the first part of the novel Alex acts without consideration and forethought, he is not truly free. As a teenage criminal he asserts the power he possesses to choose, by emphatically choosing evil. He reflects on his life in the last chapter and becomes conscious that being young is like being a tin wind-up toy that “itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things and it cannot help what it is doing.” As he grows morally he begins to reflect more on his actions, and, in doing so, he works his way toward a more complete and real freedom. His final and free choice at the end of the novel demonstrates that good along with evil come from inside.
The question “what’s it going to be then, eh,?” repeats throughout the novel and shows Alex as a different individual every time. It should be noted that the government’s conditioning did nothing to change Alex’s mentality. Burgess portrayed Alex as an extremely evil character on purpose to show that each individual is in charge of his destiny. The character was still an emerging human being that had to go through a moral metamorphosis. Alex, the clockwork figure, was impelled towards evil but transformed into a useful member of society, on account of his free will to choose good.
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