A Clockwork Orange: What are the functions and effects of the language and narrative form in A Clockwork Orange?

‘ “Me, me, me. How about me? Where do I come into all this? Am I just like some animal or dog?” And that started them off govoreeting real loud and throwing slovos at me. So I creeched louder, still creeching: ‘Am I just like to be a clock-work orange?” ‘ (Burgess, 1962, p. 94)

This is the question begged by the protagonist of Anthony Burgess’s controversial novel A Clockwork Orange after he has been ‘cured’ of his criminal ways through a form of therapy known as ‘Ludovico’s Technique’ (Burgess, 1962, p. 62). It is a good question to ask, given the fact that he has behaved very bestially indeed over the years. Whether or not he warrants the treatment he is given is an issue that has remained unresolved both in fiction and real life: in an imperfect world who has the right to judge it?  
One of the functions of language in A Clockwork Orange is to initiate the reader into the world and lifestyle of Alex De Large and his gang of ‘droogs’. This is a world of ‘milkbars’ and ‘mestos’, of ‘ultra-violence’ and ‘the old in-out in-out’: and the fact that the text describes it all in the slang of the day makes it all the more real. By the end of the first chapter the scene has been set of an increasingly immoral society where criminals are still of school-going age and hard-working civilians are too afraid to even step outside. This is a different world, one that is not often represented in literature as it is always controversial to portray anarchy artistically, and consequently A Clockwork Orange joins the ranks of other quarantined books: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Paradise Lost and Catcher in the Rye, to name a few. It is part of a canon, or maybe an anti-canon would be a better term, of literature which forces its readership to perceive the world through rebellious eyes, in a way that is disturbing and provocative.
As it is a first-person narrative the story is only ever told from the point of view of the protagonist, who is a nasty piece of work. His antics up to the end of Chapter 3 establish him as a sadist and thug, as he effectively rapes and pillages his way through the night. However, as it is only through Alex that the reader gains an insight into events they are forced to empathise with him. There is no choice – Alex is the narrator and it is his story we are being invited to hear: ‘O my brothers’. The power of the narrative really comes into effect at this point with the reader becoming the guest and Alex the host: ‘Your handsome young Narrator’. As well as being a thug Alex is intelligent and interesting. He is not Dim, who clearly is just a brute and lives aptly and obviously up to his name. Alex is friendly, keen to remind his reader of the time in which his story is set; ‘you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget’ (Burgess, 1962, p. 5), and obligingly describes what a ‘mesto’ is, while simultaneously passing over words such as ‘moloko’, ‘veshches’ and ‘mozg’. His unusual style of speech draws the reader into a linguistic system that has been customised by the youth of the day in order to meet their expressive needs. Chapman has noted the book received hostile first reviews precisely because of the fact that ‘it was difficult to read’ (1999, p.132).
The language used by Alex and his droogs is weird and uncouth:
Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veckin an alley and viddy him swim in his blood. (Burgess, 1962, p. 5)
His colloquial speech, or Nadsat as Burgess labeled it, shouts aggressively from the pages of the book: it is hard to read such words as ‘tolchock’ or ‘veckin’ and construe them as pleasantries. Sometimes the words seem vaguely familiar and this is attributable to the fact that they are a ‘mixture of American-English, colloquial Russian, Slavic gypsy dialect and Cockney rhyming slang’ (Chapman, p. 132). It is particularly significant that Alex chooses to tell his story in Nadsat, and not conventional English, which we know he can speak because he uses it frequently when not addressing his droogs: ‘ “A rather intolerable pain in the head, brother, sir,” I said in my gentleman’s goloss.’ (Burgess, 1962, p. 29). In a way the Nadsat of A Clockwork Orange echoes the robotic newspeak of Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four. Just as the practice of censoring the way we communicate disturbs so Nadsat embodies a similarly hostile sub-culture, not of fascist controllers sitting in soulless concrete buildings but of an exclusive set of ‘vecks and cheenas’ (Burgess, 1962, p. 22). In A Mouthful of Air Burgess comments brashly on the beauty and ugliness of a whole variety of languages. German does not get off very lightly, he accuses it of being too guttural and unpleasant on the ear, while the Romance languages he praises for their lovely alliteration. As Nadsat is an amalgamation of Russian and English it is clearly intended as a strain of the Germanic language group. Going by Burgess’s language preferences it is clear that this is a carefully constructed patter designed to grate and annoy.
Alex’s refusal to pander to any traditional expectations regarding narrative style means that he deems Nadsat appropriate for telling his story. This is similar to the narrative mode known as stream of consciousness, employed both by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye and by Sal Paradise in On the Road. However, the narrative of A Clockwork Orange differs from that of Catcher in the Rye in its expression of the desires rather than the dislikes of the protagonist. Alex tells us how he feels internally: ‘I still feel shagged and fagged and fashed and bashed’; what he feels externally: ‘I put my nogas into very comfy woolly toofles’ (Burgess, 1962, p. 29); and what he enjoys generally: ‘spoon after spoon after spoon of sugar, me having a sladky tooth’ (Burgess, 1962, p. 31). He is primarily positive, whereas Holden is negative from the outset:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that
David Copperfield kind of crap. (Salinger, 1945, p. 1)
The narrative of A Clockwork Orange is concerned first and foremost with its narrator, Alex himself, who conscientiously details his own feelings, thoughts, appearance, actions and state of mind. He is the embodiment of Freud’s Id – from the psychologist’s tripartite model of the human psyche - behaving solely for his own gratification: ‘what I do I do because I like to do’ (Burgess, 1962, p. 31). While Holden in Catcher in the Rye riles against his society on his ‘oddy knocky’ to quote a term of Alex’s, the latter rules his pack of droogs like an Alpha male, and as a result is very certain about his role as ‘ “a leader. Discipline there has to be.” ‘ (Burgess, 1962, p. 24). In contrast to Holden’s anger and defensiveness Alex is witty and informative. He gives detail to his character descriptions where he does not have to and which we would not expect from a supposedly disinterested degenerate: ‘It was the goloss of P. R. Deltoid (a real gloopy nazz, that one) what they called my Post-Corrective Advisor, an over-worked veck with hundreds on his books’ (Burgess, 1962, p. 31). The function of this is to show how even though he is undoubtedly a psychopath he is also an intelligent human being with an appreciation for life and all its rich intricacies, from classical music to the ever-changing modes of fashion. The effect of this is that the reader is not able to stand objectively to one side in moral disgust, but on the contrary becomes instead almost a confidante to Alex, especially when he loses the loyalty of his droogs:
All that they gave me, my brothers, was a crappy starry mirror to look into, and indeed I was not your handsome young Narrator any longer but a real strack of a sight, my rot swollen and my glazzies all red and my nose bumped a bit also. (Burgess, 1962, p. 55)
It is in this sophisticated use of the narrative form that Burgess establishes an affinity between the reader and his murdering protagonist, positing uncomfortable questions about the human ability to overlook evil in its many guises.
Of course A Clockwork Orange is not unique in its preoccupation with the temptation of evil. This is a topic that has been explored time and again, throughout literary history and is present in a whole list of narratives from Greek mythology right up to present day cinema. As Pearson relates, ‘one of my students recently wrote of his viewing of the film The Silence of the Lambs ... My student thinks Hannibel Lector is someone you know is evil, yet someone who “ends up being a hero in your mind.”’ (Pearson, 1993, p. 186). This sentence can similarly be used to describe Alex De Large who we know to be Sin-incarnate and yet who, as a consequence of his capture and exploitation at the hands of indistinct government doctors becomes an under-dog who the reader instinctively starts to root for. Milton spearheaded the same glory for his anti-hero Satan centuries beforehand in Paradise Lost. The effect of this plot event is that it goes someway to reaffirm for the reader their belief in their own goodness, as suddenly an equivalent evil has arisen in the shape of Alex’s aversion therapy that he must undergo as part of his ‘medication’ (Burgess, 1962, p. 87). It is debatable as to which is worse; Alex’s joyful cruelty to others as he seeks to satisfy his desires, or the clinical cruelty of the psychologists as they reek havoc with the human psyche. It is also largely dependent on the reader: from a female perspective for example it is unlikely that we would regard Alex as having received his comeuppance at the close of the novel, whereas if we take an orthodox Christian stance, such as that taken by the ‘prison charlie’ (Burgess, 1962, p. 59), we would deride Alex’s treatment as it is as far from the Biblical doctrine of ‘to turn the other cheek’ as it is possible to get. The fact that it is up to the reader to decide which is worse gives some autonomy back to them; no longer do they look voyeuristically through Alex’s eyes, much like the characters of the film Being John Malkovich who find a portal into the eponymous actor’s head, but they are now able to make a personal judgment on the morality of unfolding events, based on their own ethical convictions. In this way the discourse, although still in the first-person, allows for the reader to bring their own interpretation and therefore something of themselves into the narrative.
A Clockwork Orange follows on from earlier novels written in the same style, with a protagonist pouring out their opinions and observations in the form of a flowing interior monologue. It is shocking because of its lucid descriptions of street violence and gang rape all from the point of view of its perpetrator. What it achieves up to this point one may question, as it seems only to be the self-indulgent autobiography of a sadistic adolescent. However on further study of elements of the novel such as: its narrative form; the characterisation of its protagonist; the language and its usage (and abusage) it becomes clear that this is a meticulous suggestion of the world not only as it may become but as it already was at the time it was written. As Blake Morrison points out:
Newly back in Britain, Burgess had been struck by the development of coffee bars, pop music and teenage gangs. In particular, there was the rivalry between Mods and Rockers, whose violent Bank Holiday clashes – in Brighton and in Hastings – he was in a good position to observe. (1996, p. xv)
Sadly the parallels between Burgess’s reality and his fiction did not stop here with his wife suffering the exact crime that befalls the ‘devotchka’ in Chapter 2 of A Clockwork Orange. The truth is hard – be horrified by this novel but realise that it is only a reflection of the real.


Burgess, Anthony. (1962) A Clockwork Orange. London: Penguin Books.

Burgess, Anthony. (1992) A Mouthful of Air. London: Hutchinson.

Chapman, James. (1999) ‘A bit of the old ultra-violence: A Clockwork Orange’. In I. Q. Hunter (Ed.) British Science Fiction Cinema (pp. 128-137). London & New York: Routledge.

Kerouac, Jack. (1957) On the Road. London: Penguin Books.

Morrison, Blake. (1996) ‘Introduction’. In A Clockwork Orange (pp. vii-xxiv). London: Penguin Books.

Pearson, Jr. Douglas A. (1993) ‘Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange’. In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints (pp. 185-190). London: The Scarecrow Press Inc.

Salinger, J. D. (1945) Catcher in the Rye. London: Penguin Books.