The title refers to something natural being forced to change into something unnatural and mechanical. Burgess claimed that he first heard the phrase "as queer as a clockwork orange" in London in 1945 and that it simply referred to something highly unusual. However, there is no record of its usage before 1962.
The novel's main character and narrator is a juvenile delinquent named Alex, who is fifteen years old at the start of the novel. Alex, although intelligent and a lover of classical music, is a violent sociopath who thinks nothing of beating up men or raping women and girls. He is the leader of a small gang of petty criminals and thugs, who regularly indulge in acts of violence and criminality simply for their own amusement. After Alex is found guilty of murder and sent to prison, he agrees to undergo a kind of aversion therapy which will cure him of his violent tendencies. Alex becomes conditioned against violence but, as a side effect, also finds that he hates all music. Some friends of one of Alex's former victims try to use his hatred of music to force him to commit suicide. Alex fails in his suicide attempt. In a hospital, he finds that he has returned to his former self, enjoying both music and violence again. In the final chapter, a slightly older Alex finds that he has lost interest in crime and feels ready to become a productive member of society.
The final chapter was not included in the first American edition of the novel, the publisher insisting that American readers would not accept it as realistic, and did not appear in any edition of A Clockwork Orange published in the United States until 1986.
A notable feature of the novel is the use by Alex and his contemporaries of a kind of slang called Nadsat, created by Burgess. Nadsat is made up largely of words derived from Russian, which the young people are said to have learnt from propaganda, together with expressions taken from Cockney rhyming slang and some words of Burgess' own creation.
A Clockwork Orange has been adapted as a film twice, most notably as the 1971 movie by Stanley Kubrick, and adapted for the stage numerous times.
Alex is a fifteen-year-old boy. He is quick-witted and intelligent and adores classical music, especially Beethoven. However, he has been a petty criminal and the leader of a gang of juvenile delinquents for some time. The other members of the gang, who Alex calls his "droogs" or his "droogies", are Dim, Georgie and Pete. Dim, as his nickname suggests, is not very intelligent but is used by the gang as muscle. Georgie is the gang's second in command.
The novel begins in the Korova Milk Bar, where Alex and his "droogs" are drinking milk laced with narcotics and looking forward to an evening of crime and violence. After leaving the bar, they beat up and destroy the books of an old man who has just left a library, rob a shop, leaving its owner and his wife badly wounded and unconscious, and have a fight with a rival gang, lead by a young man known as Billyboy.
After stealing a car, Alex and the rest of his gang drive out into the country and arrive at the cottage of an author and his wife. Alex and his friends put on masks and gain entrance to the house. The author is badly beaten and Alex rapes the man's wife. Finding the work that the author is currently writing, entitled A Clockwork Orange, Alex makes fun of its title and its contents before destroying the manuscript.
At home in his parents' flat, Alex listens to some classical music, imagining violent images as he does so.
The following day, having failed to turn up at school, Alex is visited by his "post corrective advisor" P.R. Deltoid, a man whose job it is to persuade Alex to change his behavior and thereby avoid going to prison. P.R. Deltoid gives Alex a lecture which he ignores. Later that day, Alex meets two ten year-old girls. He brings them back to his parents' flat and gets them drunk on whiskey before raping them.
In the evening, Alex is challenged by Georgie, who wants to take over the gang and pull off a major crime. Alex puts down the challenge by fighting Georgie and slashing Dim's hand with a knife. However, to show that there are no hard feelings, he buys drinks for his "droogs" at the Duke of New York pub and asks to hear Georgie's plan. Georgie tells Alex about a wealthy old woman who lives alone, except for her cats, and suggests that they rob her house. Alex and his "droogs", masked once again, gain entrance to the house and Alex attacks the woman. However, on leaving the house, Dim gets his revenge by beating Alex. Unable to move following the attack, Alex is the only member of the gang who is still at the scene of the crime when the police arrive.
At the police station, Alex is told that the old woman who he attacked died and that he is to be charged with murder.
Alex is found guilty of murder and sent to prison. He gets a job helping the prison chaplain. The chaplain is pleased to see that Alex enjoys reading the Bible, taking it as a sign of Alex's increasing faith. The chaplain is not aware that the only parts of the Bible which Alex enjoys reading are passages that describe acts of violence and sex.
After Alex is accused of killing a fellow prisoner, he agrees to undergo a new behavior modification treatment, known as the Ludovico Technique. Alex is transferred to a clinic where he is subjected to the technique, which turns out to be a kind of aversion therapy. For several days, Alex is given an injection before being made to watch movies which are made up of images of sex and extreme violence. Alex is unable to move and unable to close his eyes while he watches the movies. As a result of the injection which he received earlier, Alex begins to feel sick while watching the films and comes to associate the feeling with violence and sex. Alex notices that one of the films, which he recognizes as having been made by the Nazis during World War II, has a soundtrack made up only of music. He recognizes the music as being by Beethoven, his favorite composer. As a result of feeling nauseated while watching that particular film, Alex accidentally becomes conditioned against all music.
To prove that the Ludovico Technique works and that Alex has been cured, a demonstration is organized in front of an audience of staff from Alex's prison, government ministers and other important people. Alex finds that he is unable to fight back when he is bullied and becomes nauseated when faced with a scantily clad young woman. The mere thought of violence or sex makes him feel ill. The prison chaplain protests that Alex has been robbed of his free will. Alex himself, now understanding what the phrase means, loudly complains that he has been turned into "a clockwork orange". However, the Ludovico Technique is hailed as a success.
No longer considered dangerous, Alex is released from prison. Returning home to his parents' flat, he finds that his bedroom is now occupied by a lodger and he is unwelcome there. Finding himself homeless, Alex goes to a library, hoping to find out about a painless way to commit suicide. At the library, Alex is recognized by the elderly man who he attacked earlier. The man persuades other library patrons to join him in attacking Alex. Two police officers arrive at the library but they turn out to be Dim and Billyboy. Alex's former gang member and his former rival both want to take revenge on him. Taking Alex, they drive far out of town and violently beat him.
Dazed and injured after his beating, Alex makes his way to a cottage, not realizing at first that it is the home of the author who he once attacked. The author does not recognize Alex, who wore a mask when he invaded the writer's house, and offers him help. The author reveals that his name is F. Alexander and that his wife died after she was raped. Alex wins the writer's sympathy by telling him about the Ludovico Technique. F. Alexander is an opponent of the government and considers the Ludovico Technique to be a form of state brutality. He hopes to use the example of Alex's misfortune as part of a campaign to prevent the current government from being re-elected. However, F. Alexander begins to suspect from Alex's mannerisms that he was the person who previously attacked him and raped his wife.
Alex admits to the crime to some of F. Alexander's friends. They take him to a flat in a tall building and force him to listen to classical music. To put an end to his suffering, Alex tries to kill himself by jumping out of the window.
Alex finds himself in a hospital. A government representative, keen to put a stop to the negative publicity which Alex's treatment has received, informs Alex that F. Alexander has been sent to a home for the insane. He adds that Alex will be guaranteed a good job and generous wages if he agrees to support the government. Some classical music is then played and Alex once again enjoys imagining violent images while listening to it. Alex has been secretly operated on while in the hospital and his previous personality has been restored.
In the final chapter, Alex is once again in a milk bar.He has become the leader and the oldest member of another gang He is getting ready for another night of violence but his heart is not really in it.. By chance, he notices Georgie, with a woman, and goes over to speak to him. The woman is Georgie's wife. She finds the Nadsat which Alex uses funny and asks her husband if he used to talk like that. Georgie has put his wild days behind him and settled down to a respectable life. Alex, having naturally outgrown his juvenile delinquent phase, contemplates doing the same and decides to start looking for a wife the next day.
A Clockwork Orange was loosely adapted as Vinyl, a 1965 low budget, 70 minute, black and white film directed by Andy Warhol.
Stanley Kubrick's 1971 movie A Clockwork Orange, which stars Malcolm McDowell as Alex, is the best known adaptation of Burgess' novel. The film is a largely faithful adaptation of the novel, although there are several differences. The most notable difference is that no material from the final chapter appears in the movie at all. The film ends with Alex once again enjoying listening to Beethoven and realizing that he has become his former violent and sexually aggressive self again. Stanley Kubrick was unaware of the novel's final chapter, not included in American editions at that time, until after filming had begun. Other changes make Alex appear to be a more sympathetic character. For example, although Alex's age is never given in the film, he appears to be considerably older than fifteen. Instaed of raping two ten year-old girls, Alex has consensual sex with two young women who appear to be roughly the same age as him. The elderly woman who Alex kills is replaced by a middle-aged woman whose home is full of sexually explicit works of art. Those changes help to present Alex's point of view to the audience, demonstrating that he did not believe that he was really doing anything wrong before he underwent the Ludovico Technique treatment. Another notable change is that instead of becoming conditioned against all music, Alex only becomes conditioned against Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the movie.
Stage plays based on A Clockwork Orange were performed in Bad Goldesberg, Germany in 1988, in London in 1990, in Chicago in 1994, in New York in 2002 and in Los Angeles in 2003.
- There are conflicting reports of the derivation of the Nadsat "rozzer" (policeman); some claim that Burgess derived it from Russian, like "droog" and "horrorshow", while others claim that it is a Cockney term from the early 20th century and comes from "Robert" (Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Metropolitan Police).
- Although the word "droog" has come to be understood as meaning "hooligan" or "violent gang member", in A Clockwork Orange, it is simply the Nadsat word for "friend". It comes from the Russian word "друг" (droog) which means "friend" or "buddy' in that language.
- The Russian word "корова" (korova) means cow