Anthony Burgess Biography and his A Clockwork Orange

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A writer with incredible intellect, Anthony Burgess is best known for his novel, A Clockwork Orange, that portrays a disturbed youth who is violent and feels rejected by society.
Anthony Burgess was born into a Catholic family on February 25, 1917 in Manchester, U.K. His father was a pianist, and his mother was a musical comedy performer who died when Burgess was only a year old.

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Anthony Burgess Biography


A writer with incredible intellect, Anthony Burgess is best known for his novel, A Clockwork Orange, that portrays a disturbed youth who is violent and feels rejected by society.

Anthony Burgess was born into a Catholic family on February 25, 1917 in Manchester, U.K. His father was a pianist, and his mother was a musical comedy performer who died when Burgess was only a year old.

He studied at Manchester University before serving in the Army Education Corps in World War II. He also spent several years abroad working as an education officer for the British government. In his late 30s he began writing as a hobby. Many of is early novels were inspired by his experiences in Southeast Asia.


Burgess' A Clockwork Orange


In 1942, while doing his army service, Burgess received news from London that his wife Lewela had been badly assaulted; as a result, she miscarried their expected first child. This incident is thought to have provided him the idea for the most violent scene in his most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange. In the story, a writer and his wife are viciously attacked.

A Clockwork Orange was first published when Burgess was 45. He used made-up slang language and set a near-future England. The plot tells of a young, violent thug who served his time in prison and later brainwashed into becoming a member of a society that will accept him. The violence, heightened in the 1971 film version, provoked controversy.


Themes of Burgess Work

Aside from addressing social concerns, Anthony Burgess was preoccupied with the relationship between literature, language and music. In A Clockwork Orange, he was inspired to crime by listening to Beethoven's music. The composer also provided the theme for his later book, Napoleon Symphony. Burgess also verbalized the last movement of Mozart's famous Symphony No.40, K551 with his Mozart and the Wolf Gang.


At 42, Burgess was diagnosed as having a brain tumour. In an effort to provide for his wife after his death, he wrote five novels in just one year. He survived the tumour and wrote more than 50 novels. He died at the age of 76, November 25,1993.


Works by Anthony Burgess

Time for a Tiger, 1956

The Enemy in the Blanket, 1958

Beds in the East, 1959

The Doctor is Sick, 1960

The Worm and the Ring, 1961

A Clockwork Orange, 1962

The Long Day Wanes, 1964

 Enderby Outside, 1968

Napoleon Symphony, 1974

Ernest Hemingway and His World, 1978

Man of Nazareth, 1979

Earthly Powers, 1980

You've Had Your Time, 1989

Mozart and the Wolf Gang, 1991



Goring, Rosemary, Ed. Larousse Dictionary of Writers. New York: Larousse, 1994.

McGovern, Una, Ed. Chambers Biographical Dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers / Harrap Publishers, 2002.

 Ousby, Ian. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Payne, Tom. The A-Z of Great Writers. London: Carlton, 1997.




There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no license for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quick horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I'm starting off the story with.


-from A Clockwork Orange

“Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?” 

 ― Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

“The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities.” 

 ― Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

“But what I do I do because I like to do.” 

 ― Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

“Each man kills the thing he loves.” 

 ― Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

“I see what is right and approve, but I do what is wrong.” 

 ― Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

“The next morning I woke up at oh eight oh oh hours, my brothers, and as I still felt shagged and fagged and fashed and bashed and my glazzies were stuck together real horrorshow with sleepglue, I thought I would not go to school.”

 ― Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange


There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening.

"I creeched louder still, creeching: 'Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?'"

You needn't take it any further, sir. You've proved to me that all this ultraviolence and killing is wrong, wrong, and terribly wrong. I've learned me lesson, sir. I've seen now what I've never seen before. I'm cured! Praise Bog! I'm cured!

"It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

"Suddenly, I viddied what I had to do, and what I had wanted to do, and that was to do myself in; to snuff it, to blast off for ever out of this wicked, cruel world. One moment of pain perhaps and, then, sleep forever, and ever and ever."


--Tim Conley

Burgess, in his work and personality, represents a unique and energetic conflict between the artist and the hack. His industriousness and erudition make for a puzzling combination, the incredulous responses to which are admiring or derisive – sometimes both. This double identity is not easily accommodated by readers who prefer one, and Roger Lewis, the spiteful hack who has previously published biographies of Peter Sellers and Laurence Olivier (pity them) but no novels of his own, makes a dismal spectacle. If there is anything to be said for his book, it is that it makes the anticipation of Andrew Biswell’s forthcoming biography of Burgess that much stronger.


A Clockwork Orange is Burgess's best known and most controversial work. A kind of dystopian bildungsroman relating the "ultra-violent" life of Alex, a teenage hoodlum in a future English society, the novel is told in the first person and features Burgess's invented "nadsat" language, a patois comprised of distorted English and Russian words that is spoken by Alex and his cronies, or "droogs." The novel presents a bleak picture of society terrorized by street gangs and incompetently governed by hypocritical and self-serving officials. Through Alex's story, Burgess explores themes of free will, violence, and state-controlled behavior in a blackly humorous and subtly satirical style. Originally published in the United States in a truncated, twenty-chapter edition (which served as the basis for Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film), the complete novel ends with a twenty-first chapter in which a somewhat older Alex, grown bored with his violent lifestyle, dreams of beginning a family. Burgess later attempted to distance himself from A Clockwork Orange, believing that the novel—inflated by the popularity of the film—overshadowed his other works. In addition to the film version, A Clockwork Orange has served as the basis for three stage productions, two of which were written by Burgess.

Plot and Major Characters


Alex and his "droogs," under the influence of hallucinogenic milk, engage in acts of extreme violence against innocent, randomly-selected citizens and other gangs. One night he and his gang steal a car and travel to the outskirts of town where they happen on a private residence called HOME. There they brutally beat and rape the wife of F. Alexander, a liberal intellectual writer and author of a book called A Clockwork Orange. The next day Alex feigns a headache and stays home from school. He goes to a record shop where he meets two young girls whom he leads to his house and rapes. Alex's starkly violent life is counterpointed by his startlingly inventive discourse and by his love for classical music, particularly Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Later that evening, two of Alex's droogs, Dim and Georgie, challenge his leadership of the gang. A fight ensues in which Alex reestablishes his authority by slashing the two with a razor. Later, however, while escaping the scene of a burglary during which Alex mercilessly beats an elderly woman to death, Dim hits his leader in the eyes with a metal chain and the gang abandons him to the police, or "millicents." Alex spends more than two years in the "Staja" (STAte JAil). In that time, the prison chaplin introduces Alex to the Bible, which he reads as though it were a lurid novel; Alex also kills a fellow inmate who made sexual advances toward him. He then accepts an opportunity to undergo the experimental "Ludovico Treatment," a form of behavior conditioning in which the subject endures drug-induced nausea while being forced to watch films of wildly violent acts. Alex is made incapable of considering violence without becoming physically ill and is released from prison. Lonely and bereft of vitality, Alex eventually runs into and is brutally beaten by Dim and Billyboy, his former droog and an old gang foe who have since become members of the police. Left for dead on the outskirts of town, Alex stumbles to the nearest house—F. Alexander's HOME—where he quickly becomes the pawn of a liberal political organization that attempts to use him as an example of the current government's sadistic and ineffective methods of dealing with crime. Alex then attempts suicide by jumping out of a window; the fall doesn't kill him, but it nullifies the effects of the Ludovico Treatment. After recovering from his injuries he considers himself "cured" and is again free to contemplate and commit acts of violence. In the novel's final chapter, the older Alex loses interest in his old way of life and dreams of being married and having a son. The novel ends with Alex melancholically imagining that his son will be much like himself: that, as a father, Alex will be no more successful controlling his son than his own father was at controlling him.


Major Themes


A major theme of A Clockwork Orange is the ability of the individual to make moral choices. Burgess presents a society that experiments with radical behavior modification techniques on criminals to eliminate socially unwanted behavior; his argument is that it is morally and ethically preferable for the state to allow its citizens the choice between good and evil than it is for the state to destroy the capacity for choice. A side effect of Alex's conditioning is that, because classical music accompanied the films he watched during the Ludovico Treatment, he can no longer listen to Beethoven without getting sick. While this is a negligible by-product from the point of view of the government, it illustrates Burgess's point that destroying the ability to choose evil also destroys the capacity to choose good. The novel also juxtaposes the violence committed by Alex and his gangmembers with the violence committed by the state in the name of justice and security.

Critical Reception


A Clockwork Orange has sparked controversy and debate since it was first published. Much of the critical commentary has focused on the novel's violent content. While some critics view it as titillating and gratuitous, others consider the severity of the violence committed by Alex as a thematic counterbalance to the extreme actions of the State. Debate has also focused on the function and interpretation of Burgess's ending. Some commentators argue that the twenty-first chapter detracts from the moral and ironic power of the novel; others find that the final chapter adds legitimacy to the notion of the novel as a bildungsroman, a story about Alex's moral and psychological growth. Views on the function and effect of the "nadsat" language also differ. Some critics see it as a "distancing" device that insulates the reader from the violence and thus makes it easier to identify with Alex. Others contend that the nadsat language reflects Alex's rebellion against his society's standardized and homogenized culture and see the use of nadsat as both parodic and heroic. Most critics agree, however, that the creation of the language itself is an impressive feat. Geoffrey Aggeler stated: "Both as satire and linguistic tour de force, A Clockwork Orange is one of Burgess' most brilliant achievements."


Source: Contemporary Literary Criticism, ©1997 Gale Cengage. All Rights


in the twentieth century, most notably Anthony Burgess’s novel A

Clockwork Orange where a mechanical teenage slang reflects a world without human


At the start of the novel, Alex is the fifteen-year-old leader of a

band of punks who spend their evenings committing random

acts of violence in a dystopian setting where crime is rampant

and most folks stay indoors at night. Not that Alex and his

cronies are above breaking and entering, and beating people to

death in their homes. A Clockwork Orange follows Alex’s

criminal career, his subsequent arrest and rehabilitation in a

high tech brainwashing facility, and finally his attempt to

return to society. In the longer book version, Alex decides on

his own to embrace the straight and narrow, while the

shortened edition leaves the matter ambiguous.


This final episode changes the meaning of the book, but can

hardly negate the tone of nihilism in the previous two hundred

pages. Oddly enough, Burgess insisted on the later inclusion of

the final chapter in US editions, yet also claimed that the pat

resolution of the book was its biggest flaw. “The book does also

have a moral lesson,” he wrote, “and it is the weary traditional

one of the fundamental importance of moral choice. It is

because this lesson sticks out like a sore thumb that I tend to

disparage A Clockwork Orange as a work too didactic to be


Now that might have surprised the censors, and even many

current readers of the book. Burgess thought his novel was too

obvious in advocating traditional morality? Hmmm, I think we

should let the readers vote on that. Many would see this book

as the quintessential expression of anti-morality or of a

Nietzschean will to power.

Burgess once offered a different angle on the book to an

interviewer. Talking to a journalist in Malta (where Burgess

had moved to avoid 90% marginal tax rates back home), he

commented: “We can eradicate any public evil we wish most

efficiently if we employ dictatorial methods. The secret of

government, as of private morality, is to balance individual

freedom of choice with what is considered to be a necessary

apparatus of repression. Lead us not into temptation. But it’s

only to God that we pray so; it’s not up to the State to keep

away the occasions of sin.”

So one can read A Clockwork Orange as a look into the

morality of an individual, or as an inquiry into the morality of

the State. The latter perspective is easy to overlook in all the

throttling, kicking and slashing in these pages, but is there

nonetheless. Indeed, the dark sci-fi trappings of the novel

make A Clockwork Orange a worthy follower in the British

tradition of Orwell and Huxley, who believed that genre fiction

could support the weight of sociopolitical discourse.

Yet put aside the “meaning” of A Clockwork Orange for a bit,

and just enjoy it for the prose. Burgess is one of the great heirs

of James Joyce, and creates a new language to convey his

story. You will realize from the opening page that this will not

be your conventional narrative: “There was me, that is Alex,

and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim, Dim being

real dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our

rassodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter

bastard though dry.”

I have elsewhere suggested that conceptual fiction, which plays

fast and loose with our conceptions of reality, serves as an

alternative to fiction that experiments with words. Yet here

Burgess delivers both, and in full measure. This author may

have had reservations that he had written a novel that was all

too ‘weary’ and ‘traditional’. But I doubt that will be your

impression on reading this extraordinary, unsettling book.



Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular culture.

His newest book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the


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