A Clockwork Orange

”What’s it going to be then, eh?’

– Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1962) is a dystopian satire by Anthony Burgess, which was controversially filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. This essay will primarily concern Burgess’s original novel but make reference to that film, which I will examine itself in greater detail at some point in the future.

Burgess gave a great deal of thought to the name of his protagonist:

The name of the anti-hero is Alex, short for Alexander, which means ‘defender of men’. Alex has other connotations – a lex: a law (unto himself); a lex(is): a vocabulary (of his own); a (Greek) lex: without a law. Novelists tend to give close attention to the names they attach to their characters. Alex is a rich and noble name, and I intended its possessor to be sympathetic, pitiable, and insidiously identifyable with us, as opposed to them.

– Anthony Burgess, ”Clockwork Oranges” (p.91-92)

The Individual vs The State

Burgess’s primary theme that of Free Will vs. Determinism, or Agency vs Structure, which he explores through the conflict between youthful revolt – or delinquency – and the forces of Law and Order.

The supposed breakdown of society was a major theme of discourse in the post-war years and was regarded by many on both the Left and Right to be a product of American popular culture.

The Ludovico Technique

The Ludovico technique is a fictitious brain-washing technique based on the classical conditioning demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov in 1927, and the behaviourist psychology of B. F. Skinner. Skinner himself had written a novel of the future, Walden Two (inspired by Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau‘s Walden) about a world in which psychological conditioning was used to create ideal citisens; however, Skinner himself rejected negative reinforcement in favour of positive reinforcement and his work was an attempt at portraying a utopia, not a dystopia.


Burgess was a linguist, as well as a musician and author: he wrote an excellent introduction to the subject called A Mouthful of Air: Language and Languages, Especially English (1992).

Burgess’s invented language is a mixture of Russian, Cockney rhyming slang, Romany and pure invention. The word nadsat itself is derived from the suffix of the Russian numerals from 11 to 19 (-надцать) – the equivalent of the English suffix ‘teen’.

Burgess’s primary reason for using an invented argot was to avoid the book becoming dated as it would had it used contemporary slang; as it happens his arbitrary use of the word like to punctuate sentences prefigured the development of youth slang as this use spread nationally from the Northwest, largely due to the popularityof The Beatles.

He also intended the language as a demonstration of the power of brainwashing.

Burgess went on to create several other fictional languages such as Workers English (WE) for his Orwell parody, 1985 (1978) and Ulam for the movie Quest for Fire (1981).

Chapter 21

The US edition of the book differed from the British in that it deletes the final chapter in favour of a glossary of Nadsat terms. Crucially, it is the US version that Stanley Kubrick adapted.


  • Adams, Michael (ed. 2011) From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages
  • Burgess, Anthony (1962) A Clockwork Orange
  • Burgess, Anthony (1978) 1985
  • Burges, Anthony (1978) ”Clockwork Oranges” in Burgess, Anthony (1978) 1985
  • Burgess, Anthony (1988) ”Introduction” to Burgess, Anthony (1962, 1988 Edition)
  • Burgess, Anthony (1990) You’ve Had Your Time
  • Burgess, Anthony (1992) A Mouthful of Air: Language and Languages, Especially English
  • Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1982) The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain
  • Evans, Robert O. (1971) ”Nadsat: The Argot and Its Implications in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (pdf) in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Mar., 1971), pp. 406-410
  • Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke & Brian Roberts (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order
  • Hallsworth, Simon and Tara Young (2008) Gang talkers and gang talk: A critique” in Crime Media Culture August 2008 vol. 4 no. 2 175-195
  • Jackson, Howard (2011) ”Invented Vocabularies: The Case of Newspeak and Nadsat” in Adams, Michael (ed., 2011)
  • Krämer, Peter (2011) A Clockwork Orange (Controversies)
  • Morrison, Blake (1996) ”Introduction” to Burgess, Anthony (1962, 1996 Edition)
  • Self, Will (2010) ”Introduction” to Burgess, Anthony (1962, 2010 ‘Decades’ Edition)
  • Skinner, B. F. (1948) Walden Two
  • Skinner, B. F. (1948) ”News from Nowhere, 1985” in Skinner, B.F. (1987) Upon Further Reflection
  • Thoreau, Henry David (1854) Walden; or, a Life in the Woods

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