Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Twenty-First Chapter of "A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a classic and not just because Stanely Kubrick made a movie out of it. Burgess does something phenomenal in A Clockwork Orange by offering a world entirely outside of the comfort zone of the average reader and through the lens of a character it is very easy to find detestable, which I believe was the whole point.

Though Burgess had a long and varied career, including thirty-two novels as well as other works, A Clockwork Orange is the book he is best known for. The version I happened to pick up was the 1985 American reprint which includes not only the 21st chapter left out of the original American version, and the American film, but also an introduction written by the author called "A Clockwork Orange Resucked". Having never read the 1963 printing of A Clockwork Orange or watched the film, I started with the introduction and was, while not shocked, surprised there were two different versions of the book: American and everyone else. (Why this surprised me, I don't know, we Americans have a tendency to want to make ourselves special somehow. Why not have a printing all our own of an incomplete story if it makes us stand out?)

The reason given for Burgess choosing to allow his work printed without the 21st chapter is one any writer can respect, it was about the money. He wanted to sell the story; therefore, he let it go without what he considered to be a very important chapter. According to Burgess, "the twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change" (viii). I was always taught that no good story has static characters; in order for the work to be of worth, the characters have to change.

With this in mind, I read A Clockwork Orange for the first time, specifically wondering if the twenty-first chapter was really going to be as important as Burgess was making it out to be. It certainly should be, but there is no telling. Authors are rarely the best judges of their own work.

For those not familiar with the plot of A Clockwork Orange, this is the story of Alex, an ultra-violent fifteen year old in future London. At first, things seem to be going very well for him, running around with his mates Dim, Pete, and George. However, after he breaks into the house of a woman and accidentally kills her, he is sentenced to fifteen years in jail. While he is in jail, he is given the option of taking part in a conditioning program that will cure him of his violent tendencies. The program works, very well, making violence so abhorrent the thoughts make Alex ill. He loses his free will by being forced to be good. This does not last, however, as Alex is eventually deprogrammed or 'cured'.

This is where the original American version, and the Kubrick film, end with Alex intent on returning to his previous behavior.

In the 21st chapter, the reader is introduced to Alex's new crew, of whom he is now the oldest as opposed to the youngest. He is still the man with the ideas, so he retains his place as leader. However, he is caught in the thought he no longer gets the same feeling from his behavior. Then he runs into his former mate, Pete, the only one of the four who seems to have truly moved on with his life. Pete has married and now has a respectable job. This meeting, I feel, is what truly gives Alex the idea he is ready to move on.

Does Alex's choice to move on with his life, to give up the ultra-violence, get married, settle down, and have a family of his own add much to the book? The original ending seems to promote the power of evil, and the lack of redemption available to those who chose to follow that path. This final chapter, however, offers the idea of there being a chance for everyone. Even those who chose to be one way can find a way out of there. Things can change. So yes, his choice adds a great deal to the narrative, it adds hope.

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