Anthony Burgess is one of the greatest British writers of the twentieth century. His masterpiece, A Clockwork Orange, is unrivalled in depth, insight, and innovation. The novel is a work of high quality – almost perfection. The novel’s main theme deals with free choice and spiritual freedom. More specifically, “[The ethical promise that ‘A man who cannot choose ceases to be man’] can be taken as both the explicit and implicit themes of the novel” (Morgan 104).
Anthony Burgess expresses his view that no matter how “good” one’s actions are, unless one has free moral choice, he is spiritually damned. The novel revolves around one criminally minded teen, Alex, whose world consists of rape, murder, and ruthless violence. Alex is eventually setup by his “droogs” (friends) and is arrested and jailed. After some time in jail, Alex is placed in a new rehabilitating program that uses electro-shock therapy, new medicines, and exposure to violent film.
The program breaks all that Alex holds dear and builds him up with a new artificial conscience. This part of the novel “presents the reader with a new, reformed Alex, an Alex without free will or freedom of choice, an Alex who has become a victim” (Magill’s Critical Survey of World Lit. 293). Burgess considers this lack of freedom to be spiritually murderous and terribly wrong. Burgess knows that it is better to choose to be evil, than to be forced to be good. Alex is tormented by his new state of oppression. He is incapable of making any choice; he must always do what is good.
Alex is then taken under the wing of a writer who is fighting the oppressive government. The writer greatly publicizes the oppressive rehabilitation the state put Alex through. But Alex is still tormented by his lack of choice, so tormented, that he even attempts suicide. While Alex is in the hospital following his suicide attempt, the tragedy of his oppression is highly publicized, in an attempt to stop public criticism, the state “fixed Alex. ” He once again has freedom of choice. Through these series of events, Burgess shows another conviction of his. The ‘spiritual death’ can also be seen in the wider context of a political or philosophical sterility which afflicts whole countries given over to the totalitarian view of life” (Dix 27). Burgess believes that totalitarian governments take away one’s individual choice and therefore suffocate his soul.
The state in A Clockwork Orange is a general parallel to any overly oppressive or totalitarian government. Alex is a representative of the common man. “Burgess’ attack on behaviorists and on totalitarian states is obvious” (Magill’s Survey of World Lit. 293).
By showing what torment Alex went through when rehabilitated by the state, Burgess shows his strong sentiment against governments taking away the choice of individuals, and therefore condemning the individual’s spirit. Burgess’s strong convictions on the subject of individual moral freedom seems odd and even backwards to some. But it is incredibly right when one grasps its full meaning. “Burgess replies… No matter how awful Alex’s actions become, he should be allowed to choose them” (Magill’s Survey of Long Fiction 370). To be forced to do good is truly wrong.
If one is forced to do right, and he does what is right, it is not out of any ethical or moral conviction. When one does what he is forced to, he is merely a programmed pawn of the state. He becomes sub-human, he is merely a robotic existence. But when one has choice, he is an individual. When one who is free, chooses good, it is out of a moral conscience and good intent. He chooses to do good. The good done through free choice is infinitely better than the forced good of one who is oppressed into morality. Burgess, through his use of satire, rebukes the suppression of freedom (Morgan 104).
Anthony Burgess is extremely clear in his message in A Clockwork Orange. His convictions on free choice and oppression are clearly stated and hidden in the dark satire of the violent tale. “Obviously Burgess’s feeling is that there is potentially more good in a man who deliberately chooses evil, than in one who is forced to be good” (Dix 27). This masterpiece grows stronger and deeper in meaning every time one reads it. Burgess repeatedly reveals his powerful beliefs that it is even the most violent crimes are trivial when compared to the heinous crime of oppression.
Burgess not only considers moral oppression to be a wrong against one’s civil rights, but he also considers it to be a destructive wrong against one’s spiritual existence. This book delivers this message so powerfully, so overwhelmingly, that it leaves the reader in a state of awe and profound musing for some time after the book is read. This book demands, and commands, one’s full attention and thought. Burgess seems to be inspired on a somewhat holy mission. His war is against moral oppression and the governments causing it. His weapon, a powerful one, is his incredible satiric writing ability.