A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess published in 1962. A Clockwork Orange is also a 1971 dystopian crime film adapted, produced, and directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on Anthony Burgess‘s 1962 novella. It employs disturbing, violent images to comment on psychiatry, juvenile delinquency, youth gangs, and other social, political, and economic subjects in a dystopian near-future Britain. According to Burgess, the novella became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation. Burgess also dismissed A Clockwork Orange as “too didactic to be artistic”.
Set in a near future English society that has a subculture of extreme youth violence, the novella has a teenage protagonist, Alex, who narrates his violent exploits and his experiences with state authorities’ intent on reforming him. When the state undertakes to reform Alex—to “redeem” him—the novella asks, “At what cost?”
Nadsat is a mode of speech used by the nadsat, members of the teen subculture. The antihero and narrator of the book, Alex, uses it in first-person style to relate the story to the reader. He also uses it to communicate with other characters in the novel, such as his droogs, parents, victims, and any authority-figures with whom he comes in contact. As with many speakers of non-standard varieties of English, Alex is capable of speaking Standard English when he wants to. It is not a written language: the sense that readers get is of a transcription of vernacular speech.
In the first edition of the book, no key was provided, and the reader was left to interpret the meaning from the context. In his appendix to the restored edition, Burgess explained that the slang would keep the book from seeming dated, and served to muffle “the raw response of pornography” from the acts of violence. Furthermore, in a work of literature where a form of brainwashing plays a role, the narrative itself brainwashes the reader into understanding Nadsat.
The term “ultraviolence,” referring to excessive and/or unjustified violence, was coined by Burgess in the book, which includes the phrase “do the ultra-violent.” The term’s association with aesthetic violence has led to its use in the media.
Nadsat is basically English with some borrowed words from Russian. It also contains influences from Cockney rhyming slang, the King James Bible, the German language, some words of unclear origin, and some that Burgess invented. The word nadsat itself is the suffix of Russian numerals from 11 to 19 (-надцать). The suffix is an almost exact linguistic parallel to the English ‘-teen,’ and is derived from ‘на,’ meaning ‘on’ and a shortened form of ‘десять,’ the number ten. ‘Droog’ is Russian друг ‘close friend’. Some of the words are also almost childish English such as eggiweg (‘egg’) and appy polly loggy (‘apology’), as well as regular English slang sod and snuff it. The word like and the expression the old are often used as fillers or discourse markers.
Burgess, a polyglot who loved language in all its forms, was aware that linguistic slang was of a constantly changing nature. Burgess knew that if he used modes of speech that were contemporarily in use, the novel would very quickly become dated. His use of Nadsat was essentially pragmatic; he needed his narrator to have a unique voice that would remain ageless while reinforcing Alex’s indifference to his society’s norms, and to suggest that youth subculture existed independently of the rest of society. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex’s interrogators describe the source of his argot as “subliminal penetration.”
Russian influences play the biggest role in Nadsat. Most of those Russian-influenced words are slightly anglicized loan-words often maintaining the original Russian pronunciation. One example is the Russian word Lyudi, which is anglicized to lewdies, meaning “people”. Another Russian word is Bábushka which is anglicized to baboochka, meaning “grandmother”, “old woman”. Some of the anglicised words are truncated, for example “pony” from ponimát’, “to understand”, or otherwise shortened, for example “veck” from čelovék, “person”, “man” (though the anglicized word ‘chelloveck’ is also used in the book).
A Clockwork Orange was written in Hove, then a senescent seaside town. Burgess had arrived back in Britain after his stint abroad to see that much had changed. A youth culture had grown, including coffee bars, pop music and teenage gangs. England was gripped by fears over juvenile delinquency. Burgess claimed that the novel’s inspiration was his first wife Lynne’s beating by a gang of drunk American servicemen stationed in England during World War II. She subsequently miscarried. In its investigation of free will, the book’s target is ostensibly the concept of behaviourism, pioneered by such figures as B. F. Skinner.
The novel contrasts the psychopathic behavior of youth with the unempathic violence of society itself. When it is the turn of Alex to pay for his sins of violence, a fate that Alex considers fair, he is confronted with one former victim that wants to use him as a prop for political propaganda, with absolute disregard for his well-being. In the Stanley Kubrick’s film version, the victim realizes who Alex is and tries to kill him out of revenge, but in the novel, it is just a convenient fact that makes Alex expedite as cannon fodder in a propaganda war between political parties. Nonetheless, one can feel the undercurrent of optimism that was running on the sixties, a kind of cynical acceptance that man is intrinsically violent but that at the end of the day society functions and everybody settles in.