A Clockwork Orange Historical Context

A Clockwork Orange was famously dismissed by its author as too didactic to be considered art. He did not believe it could possibly, especially compared to his other works, define his legacy.

In part due to Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of the novel, that’s exactly what happened. His 1962 novel is by far his best-known and most commonly read. The other 50+ novels he wrote throughout his life have broadly fallen into obscurity. 

A Clockwork Orange Historical Context


Totalitarianism

When writing A Clockwork Orange, it’s likely that Burgess was inspired by his experiences during the 1940s, the rise of totalitarianism, and the threat it still presented during the 1960s. He was well aware of the dangers of fascism and the way that a powerful political party could have over the population. Although A Clockwork Orange isn’t as outwardly dystopian as 1984, the books do share similar features.

The popularity in A Clockwork Orange is mainly under the sway of the state, something that the protagonist is deeply troubled by. He shows his dislike for rules and regulations through his incredibly violent behavior. This form of rebellion lands him in prison and then a spot in a brainwashing program meant to reform him and take away his ability to choose between good and evil. 

The procedure may have been inspired by attempts by the United States and the Soviet Union to change the way human minds operate. For example, the advent of electroshock therapy in the 1930s and the practice of lobotomizing patients who were unstable. 

Behaviorism

Behaviorism is another historical movement that is important to note when considering Burgess’ influences. It was popular during the 50s and 60s and was concerned with the study of human and animal behavior.

Through rewards and punishments, the scientists who worked in the field could alter behavior is crucial and, some would say, inhuman ways. Burgess saw it similarly. He used the fictional Ludovico’s Technique in order to pass judgment and satirizes the attempts by behaviorists to control human beings. At the root of the novel is a desire to maintain human free will, even if that means risking violence. The brainwashing Alex undergoes removes his free will and thus his humanity. 

The 1960s is also noted for the ideological shift that separated the younger generations from the older. Drugs, alcohol, and new political and religious beliefs made the gulf even wider. This same separation is seen in A Clockwork Orange through Alex’s use of slang, violence, and his frequenting of the milk bars. 

WWII Blackout 

Additionally, some readers and scholars have cited an incident from Burgess’ past that may have influenced his choice to write A Clockwork Orange. Or, at the very least, one particularly traumatic scene. At the beginning of the novel, Alex and his gang break into F. Alexander’s home. They destroy his manuscript, titled ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ and they rape F. Alexander’s wife. This attack results in her death, something that sets F. Alexander on a crusade.

The attack she endured may have been inspired by a similar attack that Burgess’ own wife, Lynne, was subject to during a WWII blackout. Four American deserters attacked her in London in 1940. Burgess was unable to get time away from his military service in order to see or take care of her, something that one can only imagine was quite traumatic. 

Leningrad 

Another famous moment from Burgess’ life that was certainly influential on his composition of A Clockwork Orange was the time he spent in Leningrad. While there, he came into contact with the stilyagi, gangs that resembled that which Alex forms in the novel. He described one evening when he was eating in a restaurant and one of those gangs, which he noted as strangely dressed, were banging on the door. He was certain he was being targeted, but they stepped aside when he wanted to leave. His time in Russia also led to the creation of Nadsat, the slang language that Alex and the other youths of the city speak. 

Although many readers find a great deal of anti-Communist imagery in A Clockwork Orange, Burgess equally detested programs and ideologies in the UK and in America. He hated the way that popular culture fostered homogeneity, the tendency in both counties to favor stability over liberty, and the “alternative criminal body” that was the American police force. 

FAQs 

What is the meaning behind A Clockwork Orange

The central meaning at the heart of the novel is the human free will is crucial for maintaining one’s humanity. Without his free will, Alex loses touch with what it means to be human. He has to have the choice between good and evil, or that choice means nothing.

Why is A Clockwork Orange satirical? 

A Clockwork Orange is a satire of contemporary political and social attempts to reform society and control the populous. Violence is met with violence in the novel in an attempt to remove the former. As the state attempts to control its citizens, they get harder to control.

Is A Clockwork Orange communist?

A Clockwork Orange is often analyzed, in part, as a critique of communism. But, that’s not all the novel is. There are broader critiques of western democracy, social welfare programs, and police forces. Readers shouldn’t restrict themselves to considering the Soviet Union when reading A Clockwork Orange.

How is A Clockwork Orange a dystopia?

A Clockwork Orange is a dystopia because the state seeks to control its citizens in a fundamental, inhuman way. It is often described as pre-dystopia as the government is still trying to sort out the best way to gets its citizens under control, and they’re willing to try anything. 

Why is A Clockwork Orange important?

A Clockwork Orange is one of the most important novels of the 20th century. It defined a cultural time period and inspired the next. Numerous musicians, artists, filmmakers, and writers have taken inspiration from the book’s characters, allusions, and overall atmosphere.

About Emma Baldwin
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues on Book Analysis.
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