“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
It is hard to improve upon Anthony Burgess’ classic opening line to his masterpiece. With this bold, taunting question, A Clockwork Orange’s protagonist, 15-year old Alex, opens the door for our descent into a terrifyingly grim world where ultra-violence and apathy pervade a shocking totalitarian society. The book is partly written in a Russian-influenced argot called nadsat which serves to minimize the horror of the violence depicted. It revolves around a devastatingly simple premise; when state authorities seek to reform young criminals like Alex, Burgess asks- what’s the cost?
Like all good dystopian stories, the world of A Clockwork Orange shocks us because it is not impossible to achieve. The perfect tyrannical societies portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or even Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series are all realistic because they beam present-day society into a twisted mirror and show us how close we are to becoming a daunting, hellish civilization. Similarly, A Clockwork Orange reflects English society as Burgess perceived it in the 1960s- fresh off the boat, he was startled by the prevalence of an irreverent youth subculture of coffee bars, teenage gangs, and rising incidents of juvenile delinquency. This, coupled with the fact that pioneers of behaviorism such as B.F. Skinner were gradually growing in importance, caused him to investigate the