In A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, the author uses language and tone in order to help convey his idea that it is better to be a criminal by choice, than a model citizen by force.
Language is a tool that we use in order to express our thoughts, emotions and ideas. It consists of many rules and constraints; however, Burgess has a unique trait, in that he likes to bend these rules. In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess develops a new language, called Nadsat, which is based on English, with influences from the Russian dialect.
This language adaption creates a futuristic feel to the novel.
The tone of the novel is created by the choice of language, tone is the attitude and opinions of an author towards a specific theme that they are writing about. In the case of A Clockwork Orange, Burgess’ main theme is choice and free will. This is what I will go onto discuss in the essay.
At the beginning of the book, the Nadsat language is introduced to the reader. This unfamiliar speech is confusing at first, however by reading around the Nadsat words we are able to pick up this language rather quickly. The ease in which we adapt to Burgess’ creation is partially due to his past in language education, he was employed to teach languages quickly to soldiers. Burgess speaks in his book You’ve had your time (1990) about the fact that he used A clockwork orange as a brainwashing device, over time reading the book, context allows the reader to translate the unfamiliar words (anthonyburgess.
org). This engages the reader more. When you remember what a word means you feel intrinsically motivated to carry on reading. This creates an interesting additional dynamic to the novel.
In the first chapter of the book, the reader is introduced to Alex and his gang. We see Alex’s character develop into something very sinister as the chapter progresses. In our journey through the passage, we discover that the dystopian society that Burgess has created is much different from what we experience today, and even what 1960’s Britain was like. This is supported by the quotation “These were supposed to be the names of the different malchicks they’d spatted with before they were fourteen”(Burgess 5). The use of the verb “spatted”(Burgess 5) has connotations of fighting or bickering, especially with siblings. This highlights how immature and emotionally underdeveloped these children are. To a modern-day reader this is rather disturbing, multiple sexual partners before 14 years old is absurd in society today. A study on 500 Americans and 500 Europeans by DrEd found that the average age for people to lose their virginity today, is 17.4 years old(DrED). The 3+ year gap between the two worlds is a huge developmental stage in life, which can be hugely influenced by decisions. However, if we take a step back from the situation, we can see that Burgess chooses to use children of this age in order to shock the reader. The choices that they make, seemingly free of parental guidance, show that in this dystopian civilization, free will actually seems to mean free will.
It is difficult for us to see why Alex does what he does at first, most people would assume that crimes are committed to get ahead financially, but for Alex this is not the case. This is backed up by the quotation “The next thing was to do the sammy act, which was one way to unload some of our cutter”(Burgess 10). This quotation means that Alex and his gang are going to be generous and give away the money that they have on them. This leaves the reader questioning Alex’s intentions. The noun “cutter”(Burgess 10) has links to cockney rhyming slang, in which bread and butter means nutter, or someone who makes very bad decisions, usually related to fighting. This could be Burgess trying to give the reader an insight into Alex’s thought process. Burgess creates a jovial tone around the monstrous crimes that Alex commits. He does this by personifying the blood that Alex beats out of his victims. This is evident in the quotation “and that brought the red out like an old friend”(Burgess 13). Personifying blood and saying that it is Alex’s friend suggests that Alex has a much more intimate relationship with his violent acts than previously thought. This allows us to start to see the motivations behind Alex’s actions. As we know he is not financially motivated, we begin to realise the sheer pleasure that Alex gains from his acts of aggression. This highlights that Alex does not make these choices because he needs to, he makes them because he wants to.
To highlight the main message in his book, Burgess repeats the same quotation multiple times in different places throughout the book. “‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’“(Burgess 3, 5, 6, 85, 147). This quotation highlights choices. Constantly assessing whether these decisions will be positive or negative and, throughout the book, depending on Alex’s state his reactions are very different. In the first chapter when asked this question, the reader could deduce it is simply a question of what drink Alex is going to order. However, it is repeated three times in 4 pages, which implies that the question has deeper meaning. This use of repetition shows how as human beings we are constantly making decisions. In this first chapter, the question to Alex is referring to whether Alex will choose good or evil. In Alex’s state at the start of the book he consistently chooses evil. In part two of the book, Alex is incarcerated, so has many of his rights and freedoms stripped from him. This means that Alex does not have a choice when being asked this question. Instead, he has to toe the line. Eventually, he has his ability to choose completely stripped. At the beginning of part three when asked again, Alex only has the ability to choose good, after undergoing the treatment. This strips his rights entirely. Throughout the book we grow to like Alex as a relatable evil force, Alex is a living version of the evil within all of us. The difference being that Alex acts on impulses rather than choosing to do the ‘right’ thing and suppress them. This treatment takes away the side to Alex which provides his personality. This is done by Burgess in order to highlight that our choices define who we are, and that without them, who really are we? This point is further supported by Burgess himself, in an interview with Samuel Coale, when discussing character creation. “Coale: Does the basic element include free will, or is that left mysteriously complex? Burgess: You can’t get rid of that, whatever happens”(Coale 447). This shows that Burgess believes that free will is vital in a character, and that relates directly to real life.
In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess uses a combination of sinister and immature tone. Burgess uses Nadsat words, such as “oobivat”(Burgess 101) and “tolchock”(Burgess 34). We can deduce that these words mean to kill and hit/punch respectively. The oxymoron of using such immature, childish sounding words to represent such malicious actions is confusing to the reader. This is done in order to show the lack of remorse that Alex feels for his actions. His choices are his and that he is happy with them.