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Does ‘a Clockwork Orange’ Belong in the Literary Canon?

Alex is a first year law student at the University of Leeds and writes about books, novels and other pieces of literature.



Literary canonical texts are deemed to be of considerable value. They must contain:

  • aesthetics
  • pleasure
  • art
  • beauty
  • A possibility of altering the reader’s moral perception.

'A Clockwork Orange’ is a piece of experimental literature due to Burgess’ use of Nadsat to brainwash the reader, as well as presenting universally significant themes, such as the nature of evil. The moral ambiguity presented in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ further challenges the reader’s stance on the protagonist as he is a being of evil and chaos, whereas the almighty state who aim to prevent disorder result in controlling Alex. Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ should therefore have a chance at proving its possible canonical status.


The nuance of experimental language within ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is witty and controlled. Burgess crafts an enthralling narrative due to his intention of brainwashing the reader’s outlook of Alex through the use of Nadsat. Burgess invents a hybrid idiolect called Nadsat with which the protagonist, Alex, narrates. It contains a form of Russian influence which, “was to be an exercise in linguistic programming, with the exoticisms gradually clarified by context.” The newness of language can be easily comparable to that of the “experimental modernism” found within James Joyce’s Ulysses - without a doubt within the literary canon, was similarly censored to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and was a book which heavily influenced and inspired Burgess; “It is a story about the need of people for each other, and Joyce regards this theme as so important that he has to borrow an epic form in which to tell it.” Burgess consciously plays with the possibilities of expression in order to produce verbal art as what once brought Alex immense ecstasy and satisfaction becomes something he has become forcefully and unknowingly censored to, by causing him to become sick and exhausted at the mere thought of violence. It is stated that language in valued texts is described as being… controlled and Burgess intentionally made it so that Nadsat was something for the readers to naturally gain a better understanding of, stating ”A glossary would disrupt the programme and nullify the brainwashing “, as the initial veil of overly simplistic and confusing language is, by the end of the novel, revealed to be something that contains significant meaning, as it highlight(s) the events and themes in the main plot and is verbal art that has specific aesthetic qualities. Burgess wanted to deliver a sensitive topic through a passive manner, as Nadsat was intended to “muffle the raw response we expect from pornography”. The language and incorporation of a totalitarian state can also be comparable to that of George Orwell’s 1984, another text within the literary canon. Both novels feature an almighty state which are representations of what was occurring during the time of both of the novels’ publication, during the mid 20th century, being the repressive state of Russia, and this inspiration is further evidenced by the Russian influence of Nadsat in ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The Newspeak presented in 1984 is also similarly used to that of the use of Nadsat, as it is used as a brainwashing device to prevent thoughts of protest or unrest against the government. The almighty states also have the same aim - to control the thoughts, feelings and actions of the general populace as seen with the Ludovico Technique in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and the Thought Police in 1984. Burgess’ use of Nadsat was also intended to represent the stigma of teenagers, therefore welcoming the growing negative associations of teenager’s during the mid 20th century - committing crime and causing chaos due to boredom - albeit, still being extremely relevant to modern times as the assumptions of teenagers committing crimes for joy has certainly not disappeared, and will likely always be prevalent. Burgess emphasizes these negative expectations of teenagers further to the point of them being the reason for bringing forth this dark, dystopian future presented in the novel. Burgess explores the mid 20th century teenager, making it temporary, however it is also a timeless problem, thus paradoxical. The crafting of the language is delivered through Burgess’ substitution of the most graphic terms of rape and violence into overly-simplistic, even childlike terms, which portray his intention of making Nadsat a “brainwashing device”. This can be seen with examples such as: “The good old ultra violence” and “The old in-out in-out”, as they lessen, even nullify, the horrendous acts that Alex commits. It also detaches the reader from the horrific crimes Alex and his droogs commit because the readers are too intent on deciphering and understanding the language incorporated in the novel. The deliverance of such grotesque and graphic scenes of violence depicted within the novel through such beautiful language essentially corrupts the reader, expressing the artistic and aesthetic qualities of Nadsat. The use of synthetic personalisation by Burgess also allows the reader to feel more attached to Alex as he continues to refer to the readers as “O my brothers” as well as addressing himself as “your humble narrator”, insinuating that Alex is deserving of his audience’s trust, convincing his audience that they are personally connected, and such they deserve to be told the truth. This is where Burgess’ brainwashing truly succeeds as, regardless of the childlike descriptions of the heinous, unforgivable acts that the protagonist narrates, the reader is still unsure of their stance on Alex. The description of the crimes which Alex commits also imply that he takes significant pleasure from committing his violent acts, but also speaks of violence as something he feels overly familiar with and connected to, describing blood as “An old friend”. This makes it clear that Alex has become so used to violence that he feels “to devastate is easier and more spectacular than to create.” Burgess’ creation and use of Nadsat was used to portray the ease of using simplistic and persuasive language as a technique for brainwashing, but also for people to look for the meanings that have been clouded by the explicit portrayals of violence.

The Nature of Evil

The nature of evil and the necessity of it in human nature is a central theme found within the novel and is a moral and philosophical topic[s] of acknowledged importance and of universal concern. Burgess portrays this very explicitly through the protagonist as he allows his cravings of violence to control him, however, although being a morally devious way of living as he is not at all adhering to society’s norms and values, thus causing disorder, the determination to do what brings him satisfaction is precisely what makes him human, as it is what makes him feel alive and free. Burgess however, conveys Alex as a judge of society and thus seeks to punish wrongdoers, which can be seen through his meeting with two truanting schoolgirls, and Alex states, “No school this after lunch but education certainly, Alex a teacher.” and proceeds to rape them as punishment. The irony of this is obviously that Alex himself is an extremely chaotic force of society and, intentionally or not, threatens the existing order. The altering of the traditional implication that a morally fair and just teacher is the upholder of a society’s norms and values is completely altered into something far more frightening - a teenager who enforces punishment on wrongdoers through violence, whilst simultaneously satisfying his own evil tendencies. Burgess labels this as “duality of the ultimate reality” meaning that in every walk of life, there will always be the opposite, which can be clearly perceived in ‘’A Clockwork Orange’: youth versus maturity, the state versus man, good versus evil. The cost of eliminating the evil aspects of Alex’s personality is also eliminating his humanity, stripping him of humanity's most important component - choice. This exploration of universal themes in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ further proves the novel’s canonical status and the nature of evil will forever be prevalent and be a catalyst for thought amongst readers.

Moral Dilemmas

Burgess therefore creates a moral dilemma, where the protagonist is a man of freedom, however commits acts of brutal violence, whilst the antagonist is the almighty state that wants to eradicate his evil tendencies and keep society safe from his desire to cause chaos, stripping him of his humanity in the process. Alex’s stance on the necessity of freedom is clearly portrayed in the novel - “when a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” This idea of what it means to be a man alludes to themes prevalent in Shakespeare’s tragedies: Hamlet and Macbeth. Like these tragic heroes, rather than taking responsibility for his actions, Alex directs the blame to the controlling bodies of society that maintain order, which is clearly hypocritical, but becomes morally complex when he is experimented on with the Ludovico Technique. As a result of this ‘treatment’, Alex is entirely under the state’s control, leading to what Burgess defines as ‘A Clockwork Orange’: “(Alex) has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by… the Almighty State.” This use of two evil beings creates a sense of moral ambiguity, as a Catholic Priest questions the ethical significance of free will, stating “Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?” - a timeless question that will always be significant in any society. A ‘Clockwork Orange’ therefore not only presents situations of moral quandaries for Alex, but also for the reader as the question “what is it going to be then, eh?” continues to be posed in ethical dilemmas of choice, further proving its canonical status as canonical texts rehearse the dilemmas of moral and ethical choice. Therefore, the presentation of moral dilemmas grants ‘A Clockwork Orange’ further credence to being a literary canonical text.


In conclusion, Burgess’ exploration of universally significant themes, such as the nature of evil, and demonstrations of dilemmas of ethical and moral choice to the protagonist as well as the readers, which are both core components of literary canonical texts, add further weight to ‘A Clockwork Orange’s’ deserved literary canonical status. The presentation of the rising fear of teenagers in the mid 20th century shows that Burgess constructs a text that is of its time, yet is timeless, due to the fact that it is still a prevalent issue today. The comparisons between other canonical texts further evidences ‘A Clockwork Orange’s’ right to be canonical. In my opinion, Burgess’ innovative and creative crafting of language makes it worthy of study, as it is proved to be controlled, witty and beautiful, and challenges the readers perception of Alex. Finally, the exploration of the necessity of choice and freedom in humanity further evidences ‘A Clockwork Orange’s’ canonical status. Ultimately, I believe this is sufficient evidence to prove ‘A Clockwork Orange’s’ deserved canonical status.

Your Opinion...


A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess [1962]

A-Level English Literature B: Critical Anthology, AQA [2015]

Ways of Reading: Advancing reading skills for students of English literature, Martin Montgomery [2006]

1984, George Orwell [1948]

Hamlet, William Shakespeare [1609]

Macbeth, William Shakespeare [1606]

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Ulysses, James Joyce [1920]

The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker [2004]

Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Students of English Literature,Tom Furniss, Martin Montgomery, Nigel Fabb, Alan Durant [1992]

Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Peter Barry [1995]


Quick quiz on A Clockwork Orange

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Who directed the movie adaptation of A Clockwork Orange?
    • Stanley Kubrick
    • Martin Scorsese
    • Frank Darabont
  2. Which composer does Alex listen to when he attempts to commit suicide?
    • Bach
    • Skadelig
    • Mozart
  3. What is the language spoken by Alex and his droogs?
    • Nadsat
    • Newspeak
    • Valyrian
  4. What does Alex refer to himself as when speaking to the reader?
    • Clever Alex
    • Your good old friend
    • Your humble narrator
  5. What does Alex call his knife that he carries with him?
    • Mr Dagger
    • His cut-throat britva
    • The little dirk

Answer Key

  1. Stanley Kubrick
  2. Skadelig
  3. Nadsat
  4. Your humble narrator
  5. His cut-throat britva

© 2021 Alex Tether

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