Existentialist Analysis of Burgess' A Clockwork Orange
Freedom and liberalism are catchwords that appear frequently in both philosophical and political rhetoric. A free man is able to choose his actions and his value system, to express his views and to develop his most authentic character. What this kind of idealistic liberalism seems to forget, however, is that liberty does not mean a better society, better life or humanistic values such as equality and justice. In his novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), Anthony Burgess portrays an ultimately free individual and shows how a society cannot cope with the freedom which it in rhetoric so eagerly seeks to promote.
Existentialism as a mid-20th century philosophical trend introduced the idea of an absolutely free individual into the scheme of modern and postmodern individualism. A Clockwork Orange is a novel that raises a wide range of ethical questions from the definition of free choice and goodness to methods of punishment. Existentialism in the form presented by Jean-Paul Sartre and the German phenomenologists does not provide an ethical nor a psychological perspective to the novel. Applying 'existentialist thought' to Anthony Burgess' work will, however, give understanding of the narrator Alex as a case of a free individual who attempts to construct his world and relate to it authentically. Hence the main issue to be examined is the necessity of self-definition and the extent of its discouragement in Alex's social environment.
Alex is a 15 year-old boy cast into a problematic future society. He is the dominating only child of an ordinary working class family. He attends corrective school during the day and seeks violent pleasures with his droogs during the night. As the Humble Narrator of the novel he reveals himself and thus justifies the existentialist examination of his character.
In his environment Alex does not represent a stereotype of Modern Youth. Unlike his droogs he has significant intellectual and artistic potential. He is smart and calculating and indulges himself with vivid poetic visions through classical music, the height of which is represented by Ludwig van Beethoven. He is an artistic self confined in an environment that severs him from self-expression and self-definition. His artforms and mediums of expression become vandalism, rape, and ultra-violence. In his unrestricted state Alex is truly a-lex, outside the law.
The society of A Clockwork Orange is constructed upon struggles for power. Crime is a part of the everyday. Violent street gangs seek power through anarchism, direct authority is represented by a network of corrupt police, and on the highest social level a struggle for political and administrative power is fought. Alex reflects: "Power, power, everybody like wants power." As a microcosm of the social mentality, he seems to fit the notion of being a product of his environment.
Alex's world is characterized by class collectivism and dullness....