Last week was banned book week, and my classmates and I celebrated by reading a banned book. I chose A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. It wasn’t difficult to see why this book has been challenged and banned, as it contains strong language and graphic violence and sex, which are common reasons for challenges.
I’m not sure if saying I “enjoyed” the book would be exactly the right description, but it is very well-written and thought-provoking, as the best books are. I have no regrets about reading it.
The story is narrated by 15-year-old Alex in a future dystopian England. Alex enjoys violence, and spends his nights terrorizing the town with his gang for kicks and giggles. Eventually, he is caught by the police and put in jail, where he eventually becomes the government’s guinea pig for an experimental process based on behaviorism (think Pavlov’s dogs) to turn criminals into law-abiding citizens.
I was most impressed by Burgess’s use of language. Alex and his friends speak a slang language that is a mix of Cockney, Slavic, Russian, and other things, but after about a chapter I was able to easily understand almost everything they said. This is a remarkable feat, and fascinating from a linguistics perspective. It reminded me of what M. T. Anderson did in Feed. As a geeky English major who loves words and language, this part of the book was fascinating.
The story itself also delved into serious questions about what it means to be human, and what it means to be good. After his treatment, Alex’s thoughts and language remain unchanged, but he is no longer able to commit any acts of violence without feeling extremely ill. But does this make him a good person? Are intentions or actions more important for morality? The recurring question in the book is whether or not free will is a requirement for both humanity and true morality. Once Alex’s free will has been hijacked by the “healing” procedure, is he still a man, or has he been reduced to something more animal like? Or did his violence put him on an animal level because of his complete disregard for other people, and the treatment restore some level of humanity? There is no neat answer to these questions at the end of the book, leaving readers to think hard about them and come to their own conclusion, which I consider to be a virtue in literature.
Burgess also raises questions about what we consider good and bad through the comparisons drawn between Alex and some of the characters considered to be good. Nearly everyone in the book, on both sides of the law and of all ages, political leanings, and social status, has few qualms about engaging in violence and using people to advance their own aims. So who got to decide that Alex is the enemy and men who beat him up in the library are justly punishing a criminal who wronged them several years ago? The government and law enforcement officials are just as vicious as the people they are punishing.
While A Clockwork Orange is certainly a challenging read that I would recommend for older, mature readers, this book is an excellent piece of literature that wrestles with hard questions about humanity and morality that is well worth reading.