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Literature / A Clockwork Orange

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"A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man"
F. Alexander, Part 3, Chapter 4

What's it gonna be then, eh?

A Clockwork Orange is a 1962 novella by Anthony Burgess. In a dystopic future where street crime is rampant and youths are uncontrollable, teenage sociopath Alex and his friends prowl the night spreading terror and destruction wherever they go. By daybreak, Alex returns home to his vapid parents, who turn a blind eye to his activities, and enjoys his second favorite thing in the world: Classical Music.

Things are going swimmingly for Alex until his 'droogs' begins to chafe under his leadership. Alex is still content with pointless violence, but the gang is starting to grow up and think about making a profit. After a fight for supremacy, he reasserts himself as leader, but bows to the gang's interest in robbing a wealthy widow's house. Alex takes the lead in the robbery, but the widow discovers him, leading to a fight. As the gang flees, they betray Alex and leave him for the police to apprehend. At the station, the police inform Alex that the widow died of her injuries, making him a murderer. He is quickly convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.


In prison, Alex settles into his old habits, pretending to be a model prisoner while plotting his return to violence. When he discovers that the government is planning to test an experimental treatment on a prisoner in exchange for freedom, Alex jumps at the opportunity. The prison chaplain warns him not to volunteer, claiming that no external force can turn a man good, but Alex is only interested in getting free and returning to his murderous ways.

The treatment turns out to be a nightmare. Alex is continuously injected with drugs that make him sick while watching scenes of violence in a theater. His mind soon associates violence with the sickness, causing a Pavlovian response. Particularly abhorrent to him is the classical music on the soundtrack, which he inadvertently relates with the sickness as well. When the procedure is complete, Alex cannot even think about violence or rape without suffering from crippling illness, rendering him harmless to society. He also can't listen to his favorite music without intense pain.


Alex's case is controversial. His own prison chaplain argues against the procedure, and other critics agree that removing Alex's capacity for moral choice has not turned him good, but reduced him into a programmable machine. The government, however, is only interested in the bottom line of cutting down crime. They release Alex into the world, still evil to his core, but without the ability to defend himself against all his enemies and former victims. His fate ultimately proves the self-defeating nature of the government's program.

It was adapted into a 1971 film by Stanley Kubrick. For tropes specific to the movie, see here.


  • Adult Fear: In addition to the elements shared by the movie, the book features, among other things, a chapter in which Alex rapes a pair of young girls, and graphic descriptions of the World War II footage he is forced to watch as part of his "treatment".
  • Adults Are Useless: Alex's parents are either clueless about his nightly excursions or in complete denial. They abandon him once he gets out of prison. Almost every other adult Alex meets wants to use him to further their political agenda or pound the living daylights out of him for his ruthless acts. Even the prison chaplain, the closest thing in the book to a character who cares about Alex as a person, just wants to bugger him. Not that Alex exactly invites compassion.
  • An Aesop: Human goodness must come from free will; as such it is intrinsically wrong to deny even the vilest of individuals their capacity for moral choice.
  • All There in the Manual: Some editions of the book have a glossary for the Nadsat slang.
  • Arc Words: "What's it gonna be then, eh?" is stated a number of times in the book by various characters. It seems to relate to the theme of moral choice. Each of the three parts of the novel have this as their opening sentence.
  • Asshole Victim: The rival gang Alex and his droogs fight. Also, Alex himself deserved every second of suffering he endured and more for his deeds; see Karma Houdini.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: Subverted. Alex outfights his whole gang to reestablish himself as their leader, but they betray him at their first opportunity.
  • Author Avatar: The author. In the book, his name is given as Frank Alexander (his book is called A Clockwork Orange), and the rape scene is based on a vaguely similar incident that occurred to Burgess' wife during World War II.
  • Ax-Crazy: Alex, who throughout the book causes chaos, mayhem and wanton violence simply because it's amusing to him.
  • Bad-Guy Bar: The Korova Milk Bar. Alex says that the drug-laced milk served there really sharpens you up for some ultraviolence. In the beginning and end, he describes the fashion of his gang as fitting in completely with the bar's patrons.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: The repressive government persuades a still dazed post-treatment-reversal Alex to do a deal with them to make his story positive publicity for them.
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • Alex's nadsat slang is partially based on crudely anglicized Russian, so Russian speakers might better understand it from the onset. However, part of the fun for some readers is learning the argot as they go along.
    • The Polish translation actually came in two versions: one with the argot based on English, and the other one based on Russian (appropriating both languages into Polish). This comes from the fact that, at the time, more people would be familiar with Russian than with English. The Other Wiki has more on that.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Alex himself is one hell of a bastard, but there aren't really many better people in the novel. There are some "good" people (Alex's parents, the chaplain, etc.) but they never actually do anything, whether out of fear or weakness.
  • Black Comedy: In the book, Alex narrates with a level of smug self-satisfaction that might count.
  • Book-Ends: The 21st chapter, where present, begins by mirroring the first chapter.
  • Bored with Insanity: In the 21st chapter, Alex discovers that raping and murdering aren't that interesting for him anymore. He wants to settle down and have kids. His former droog Petie feels the same. It's implied that this trope was the cause for the internal strife within Alex's gang at the beginning: Alex was still amused by random violence, while his older droogs were getting bored.
  • Brainwashed and Crazy: Subverted. Alex already was crazy before he was brainwashed. Afterwards, Alex's mental state could be considered even worse.
  • Brainwashing for the Greater Good: Deconstructed.
  • Broken Aesop: The 21st chapter postulates that sociopathy and violence are natural aspects of being young, but that they're eventually grown out of. It's a little dampened by the fact that the entire latter half of the book sees Alex tortured and brutalized by older people around him.
  • Conlang: Nadsat is slang Burgess constructed for the teens of the novel, mostly from Russian but also German, Cockney Rhyming Slang, and The Bible. See the Trivia page for a list of the more common nadsat words.
  • Crapsack World: Big time.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: The rich widow's house is filled with cats.
  • Death of the Author:invoked Publishers disliked the final chapter of the book and simply left it off of initial American publications. Many critics prefer the edited version, which significantly changes Burgess's central message. He disowned both versions, but his criticisms are generally ignored, and it continues to be his most popular work.
  • Downer Ending: In the American version, no one learns anything, and Alex is given free rein to exercise his violent tastes with government protection. In the English version, Alex never feels regret for his actions, but finally matures and simply doesn't feel like assaulting and raping anymore, implying that sociopathic tendencies are a natural part of youth (and by extension, the natural state of humanity).
  • Dramatic Reading: An in-universe example. Prior to the droogs' attack on F. Alexander and his wife, Alex mocks the writer by reading his work-in-progress in this manner.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Happens frequently. They are symbolic and are used for foreshadowing.
  • Driven to Suicide: The treatment's sickness is so bad that Alex is driven to suicide if subjected to it for too long. He attempts to do so after being locked in a room with the Third Symphony by the fictional composer Otto Skadelig. Wonderfully symbolic in that 'Skadelig' means 'Harmful' in Danish and Norwegian.
  • Dumb Muscle: The gang's strongest member is referred to only by his nickname, "Dim." In the opening lines of the book and film, Alex explains that Dim is, in fact, "very dim."
  • Dystopia
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The gangs may be brutal rapists and robbers, but they have a strict prohibition on having more than five members in each gang; Billy Boy has six, which is the main reason Alex holds him in such low regard. Also, it's implied they completely refuse to kill anyone; at any rate, Alex is horrified when he learns he accidentally killed the old woman he robbed.
  • Evil vs. Evil: The "hero" is a violent, sadistic sociopath; the government that apprehends him is a corrupt regime that's halfway down the road to becoming a totalitarian police state, and the revolutionaries are willing to drive a man to suicide for their own political agenda. Also, the gangs in his world often fight one another, and the book features a fight between Alex gang and a rival one led by Billy Boy.
  • Fascist, but Inefficient: The government is portrayed as this.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Alex may be one of the ultimate examples of this.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: As adults, Dim and Billy Boy put aside their youthful rivalry and become partners on the police force.
  • For the Evulz: The whole reason for the old ultraviolence.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Alex is melancholic, Georgie is choleric, Pete is phlegmatic, and Dim is Sanguine.
  • Future Slang: Burgess was a language expert. He invented the "Nadsat" slang partially based on the Russian language. Part of the intention was to distance the reader from the horrific acts being described.
  • Genre-Busting: According to The Other Wiki: "A Clockwork Orange is most frequently described as political satire, dystopian science-fiction, black comedy, and crime drama, although its crossover appeal to the horror fan community is unmistakable."
  • Got Me Doing It: Alex is displeased when he notices he caught his parole officer's Verbal Tic, yes?
    • Meta-example: quite a few lewdies who've read the bookiwook started govoreeting in nadsat talk, right right right? note 
  • Heel–Face Brainwashing: The point of the Ludovico treatment is to turn bad men "good," but the novel ultimately shows that this is impossible.
  • High Times Future: Mescaline (or a synthesized form) is apparently legal since you can get it added to your yummy glass of moloko.
  • Humiliation Conga: The second half is one big one for Alex.
  • I Kiss Your Foot: A man forces Alex to lick his shoe to prove that he is completely incapable of defending himself as a result of the treatment.
  • Idiot Ball: Alex allowing his former victim, F. Alexander, to identify him. He says several things to trigger the writer's suspicion, each time making a mental note to be careful about this. This comes to a head when, after he uses "dim" as an adjective, the writer recalls the name of his droog Dim. Instead of keeping quiet, Alex blurts out "What do you know about Dim?"
  • Karma Houdini: Alex receives a lot of punishment through the second and third acts, but ultimately gets away with his freedom. In the American edition and film he smugly celebrates his return to violence, while in the British book he settles down with a cushy government job.
  • Knife Nut: Alex favors a "cut-throat britva" (straight razor) in close combat and is very handy with it.
  • Knight Templar: The government when pushing the Ludovico treatment, being more concerned with reigning in crime than the moral costs.
  • Loophole Abuse: Alex and his droogs are underage, so they can't drink alcohol. They drink milk with drugs that make them super-violent instead.
  • Loud of War: The fact Alex finds classical music unbearable after being subjected to the brainwash is exploited by the writer whom Alex and his gang attacked and forced to watch his wife be raped.
  • The Ludovico Technique: Used on Alex to "cure" his violent tendencies. Trope Namer.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • The name Alex can be interpreted in Latin as "without law", and in Greek as "without words".
    • It's probably no coincidence that the writer and his wife are Mr. and Mrs. Alexander.
    • The "Ludovico" Treatment - Latin for Ludwig.
  • Mind Rape: The Ludovico treatment, which is an extremely creepy version of the Real-Life aversion therapy taken Up to Eleven beyond any actual (known) examples.
  • Neologism: Some of Alex's nadsat Future Slang has trickled into common usage, most notably "horrorshow" and "ultraviolence." "Droog" is widely understood as well, though not very widely used. A former name for the trope was Grokking the Horrorshow after all.
  • The New Rock & Roll: Subverted. Music really does inspire Alex to commit horrible acts, but it's classical music that he listens to. He speaks of "Ludwig Van" as an icon. The trope is emphasised when Alex reads a newspaper article that suggests a keener interest in the arts might stop teenagers from committing crimes. He laughs at it.
  • Nonindicative Name: The name of the novel itself has very little to do with the plot; it's the title of the manuscript Alex's victim's husband is working on when the crime is committed; Alex reads a paragraph of it (the story appearing to be similar to the plot of the movie) before tearing it up. (And even this is omitted in the film version.)
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • After Alex's release from prison he has many, but a truly epic one for him is when he gets rescued from an attack by two coppers. Said coppers are one of his old gang members... and the leader of the enemy gang.
    • After being carried into the writer's home by the bodyguard, and explaining to him what had happened, the writer suddenly exclaimed "I know you!" But it's because he recognized Alex's picture in the papers that morning, rather than recognizing him as the rapist of his wife.
  • Only One Name: Alex's last name is never given in the book.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: The Writer, upon realizing who Alex is, proceeds to torture Alex with the same kind of sadistic glee that Alex had previously shown him.
  • Pre-Asskicking One-Liner: "Ho, ho, ho! Well, if it isn't fat stinking billy goat Billy Boy in poison! How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap, stinking chip oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if ya have any yarbles, ya eunuch jelly thou!"
  • Preferable Impersonator: When Alex is released, he returns to his parents' home only to find they've taken in a lodger, a young man they treat like the good son Alex never was.
  • Psychic Dreams for Everyone: Alex and his father dream events that eventually come true, albeit in a roundabout way in Alex's case.
  • Rape Discretion Shot: When Dim and Billy take Alex out in the middle of nowhere for a beatdown, what apparently happens during the attack is so graphic that Alex refuses to describe it to the readers. The attackers put their clothes back on afterward, suggesting a rape.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Anthony Burgess' wife was gang-raped at some point, although it was not a case of him being forced to watch. That incident, which occurred in 1944 or so (accounts vary) provided the inspiration for the rape scene of the writer's wife.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: Alex and his gang wear certain effeminate details of makeup; fake eyelashes on one eye (Alex), mascara (Georgie), rouge (Petey) and lipstick (Dim). As seen in the Korova Milk Bar, this is the reigning fashion of their set.
  • Reformed, but Not Tamed: Two of the Droogs become policemen after Alex is released from prison and proceed to abuse him when he encounters them.
  • Restraining Bolt: The Ludovico treatment is an aversion therapy that causes Alex to suffer intense physical pain whenever he thinks about committing acts of violence, with the unintended inclusion of certain types of music.
  • Retired Monster: Pete and Alex become this in the book's 21st chapter.
  • Revised Ending: The original British edition had 21 chapters, but the initial American edition left out the 21st chapter, which was more of an epilogue, and the film adaptation is based on this edition. Later American editions restored the missing chapter. The relatively bright ending that was removed caused a strange inversion of Happily Ever Before.
  • Shaped Like Itself: "Dim being really dim..."
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: At the far, FAR cynical end of the scale. At least until the 21st chapter.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: Averted insofar as Alex is assigned to regular meetings with one (P.R. Deltoid). On the other hand, Deltoid has a severe case of Adults Are Useless, and later turns on Alex, who enjoyed jerking him around a little too obviously when he was a client.
  • Something Only They Would Say: In Alex's second visit to the writer, he avoids blatantly identifying himself, but inadvertently does so while saying several of his common phrases that he also uttered while raping the writer's wife.
  • Spot of Tea: Even psychopaths like Alex enjoy a cup of the old chai.
  • The Starscream: Georgie to Alex.
  • Strange-Syntax Speaker: Nadsat involves eccentric word order in addition to new words.
  • Teenage Wasteland: Adults still try to run society, but gangs of teens have become uncontrollable.
  • Teens Are Monsters: The dystopic world is based around this, and the 21st chapter of the book highlights this. Much of Alex's friction between him and his old gang is based on Alex being the youngest and therefore the last to mature.
  • Title Drop:
    • A brief paragraph of singing that doubles as The Aesop
      Do not be a clockwork orange,
      Freedom has a lovely voice.
      Here is good, and there is badness;
      Look on both, then take your choice.
      Sweet in juice and hue and aroma,
      Let's not be changed to fruit machines
      Choice is free but seldom easy -
      That's what human freedom means!
    • The title of the author's book is "A Clockwork Orange", and states that rules can not be enforced on man, or he becomes a "clockwork orange", a Foreshadowing of Alex's conditioning.
  • Totally Radical: Averted; Burgess knew that the current slang would become obsolete in a few years, so invented his own set based on Russian. Khorosho (good) becomes "horrowshow", druhg (friend) is "droog", etc.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The setting is London in the near future as viewed from The '60s.
    • Though the year is never specified, we know it takes place no earlier than 1995 (or possibly late 1994) from the model year of the sports car Alex and his droogs joyride near the beginning. Since the car is described as being very shiny and desirable the book either takes place close enough to 1995 that it's a hot new model or long enough after that it's become a beloved classic.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Classic free will vs. know-it-all society conflict.
  • Verbal Tic: Mr. Deltoid, yes?
    • To a subtler degree, Alex's "brother", "O my brothers," "little brother," etc. can come off like this.
  • Villain Has a Point: While Georgie is a vicious, amoral hoodlum, he's perfectly correct that it's stupid for the gang to be running the risks they run for what amounts to chump change, when they could be making a lot more money by going after more valuable targets.
  • Villain Protagonist: Alex.
  • What Is Evil?: "Come now, you know that's just a matter of words."
  • Wicked Cultured: Alex's speech and gang attire are sarcastically genteel, and he's an absolute freak for classical music.
  • Word Salad Title: The "clockwork" part clearly has something to do with the way the treatment makes Alex programmable, but Burgess has given several different explanations for what the title is supposed to mean:
    • The phrase comes from "as queer as a clockwork orange," a Cockney phrase Burgess claimed to have heard, but of which there is no record of ever being used before he wrote the book.
    • "Orange" is a pun on the Malay word for man, orang, though there are no other Malay words used in the novel.
    • "Orange" refers to the human capacity for "color and sweetness."
    • Within the book itself, it is used as a metaphor for the brainwashing procedure: a criminal who is conditioned to be sickened by violence is as unnatural as a clockwork orange... a machine imitating life, but not alive itself. A clockwork orange would be an utterly useless contraption (you can't eat it, but oranges are only worth anything if they can be eaten)... So too would the human robbed of free will be useless as a human being.
  • Would Hurt a Child: In a particularly disturbing chapter in Part I, Alex lures two ten-year-old girls back to his flat and proceeds to drug and rape them. Earlier, before Alex and his droogs interrupt, Billy Boy and his gang are fixing to gang-rape a ten-year-old girl.
  • Writer on Board:
    • The 21st chapter shows Alex matured to the point where he wants to end his violent ways and have a family. This after displaying all the signs of a psychopath—deriving joy from causing pain, total disregard for the consequences of his actions, and a complete lack of empathy for others—for the previous 20 chapters.
    • Burgess adapted it into a play for the express purpose of making sure that no-one else would, as they would surely take the film version as their source. To distance it as far as possible he actually made it a musical, much of the dialogue taking its metre from the works of Beethoven, and the play has its definite end where the author intended, Alex growing up and getting bored with youthful madness. It even includes a fantastic summation to the play's intended message to the tune of the fifth symphony (which you'll find in the quotes section). The script even suggests that a man dressed as Stanley Kubrick should come onstage trying to sing "Singing in the Rain" as a counterpoint, and get lynched by the rest of the cast.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Alex often mixes this with his nadsat slang.
  • You Are Number 6: Alex is referred to with his prison number "6655321" in the book.
  • Zeerust: The book's setting is the near future as viewed from the Sixties.

Alternative Title(s): Clockwork Orange


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