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Anthony Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange" as Coming of Age Narrative

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Coming of Age Genre or the Bildung Narrative
  3. A Clockwork Orange
  4. Conclusion


Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is a novel that explores the nature of youth, and in particular the capacity for a young person to grow, change and develop. In the case of Burgess’s narrative, the central character is named Alex, and the reader follows him as he engages in mindless acts of violence with his group known as the Droogs. When Alex is imprisoned, however, he is subjected to an experimental technique, known as the Ludovico treatment, meant to “cure” his extremely violent tendencies. Although this appears to have been successful, Alex is then “cured” again of his re-programming, something which causes his violent impulses to return. Crucially, it is only when Alex sees two of his former gang members who has grown up and becomes a police officer that he begins to feel as if he actually wants to change his behavior and to become a productive member of society. As a result of this, it is possible to argue that a key element of the novel involves the way in which it juxtaposes the kind of forced conversion that Alex is forced to undergo, with an actual situation of growth and development, something that only occurs as a result of a change in a person’s inner life.

The difference between these two kinds of change, once of which is forced on Alex by the scientists who attempt to “cure” him, and one of which comes about as a result of his own action and his own increasing maturity, plays a key role in whether or not one can understand A Clockwork Orange as being a conventional coming of age narrative. In order to investigate this, it is necessary to first of all investigate the precise qualities of the coming of age genre itself, and then to understand how Burgess’s novel does or not fulfill these criteria.

The Coming of Age Genre or the Bildung Narrative

The so-called coming of age genre is closely related to the bildung-narrative or to the narrative of “formation.” Typically, this kind of narrative is related to the novel, particularly the so-called Bildungsroman. This narrative is one that dates back to the late 18th century, including novels such as Goethe’s Wilmhem Meister’s Apprenticeship. Typically, such novels involve characters who pass from a state of young adulthood to a state of maturity, and who encounter a series of challenges, obstacles and disappointments along the way. It is as a result of these challenges, however, that the individuals in question are able to progress and to become the well-formed, rounded people. In this sense, therefore, one clearly important aspect of the coming of age genre involves the manner in which an individual protagonist, or in this case the anti-hero, relates to the world around them and to various social conventions and institutions. According to Melissa Gelinas, therefore, one key element of any such coming of age narrative is the way in which it provides the reader or audience with an “in-depth relationship with the text’s protagonist” but also with an “understanding of the cultural critiques of the author, examined through the protagonist and his or her peers”. In this sense, a typical coming of age narrative is one in which a person progresses from immaturity to maturity, and in which, as a result of this process, an author is able to demonstrate their own perspective on the various social institutions and situations that the protagonist is confronted with.

Importantly, however, the coming of age narrative is not simply restricted to a combination of satire and of personal experience. Rather there are important conventions relating to the nature of the transformation that a protagonist undergoes, and also relating to the way in which this transformation occurs and precisely what it is about a character that changes. Gelinas, for example, expands on her discussion of the Bildung narrative by stating that there are three key elements through which one should understand the relationship between the protagonist and the world within a proper instantiation of such a narrative. She states that the first of these factors involves the idea that “the protagonist is represented in the process of becoming – her gradual coming to a sense of self, as part of a larger world is pivotal”. According to this point, it is crucial that the protagonist the Bildungsroman comes to understand themselves as part of something that is bigger than them, but also as something that must participate in order to have a sense of self.

Secondly, Gelinas argues that proper Bildungsroman will involve a narrative in which “the changes that place” within the protagonist will acquire “plot significance,” meaning that, in some way or another, the fact that the protagonist of the narrative has reached a new state of maturity must directly affect the world of the novel as a whole. Finally, Gelinas argues that the world of the novel itself must be “presented as a site of potential apprenticeship and awakening,” meaning that the reader must believe that the protagonist will be able to continue to make their way in the world following their development or their coming to maturity. According to this thinking, therefore, it is not possible for a proper Bildungsroman to focus on a social outcast, or on someone who is entirely opposed to society. Rather, this narrative form must involve someone who becomes a member of society at the end and who is never so isolated from society that they would be unable to live or work within it.

While the traditional conventions of the Bildungsromans are clearly important when considering A Clockwork Orange, it is also important to note challenges to these conventions, in particular in relation to people who argue for a different approach to the Bildungsroman in relation to the modern world. For example, Edward Engelberg argues that modern versions of the coming of age genre may actually involve several generations of the same family or group of people, and that it matters more that these people engage in what he terms a “trial and error war with experience” than that they are successful in their aims. Rather, according to Engelberg, the most important aspect of such a modern coming of age narrative is its ability to ensure that the reader comes to glimpse some kind of development or possible change within the world, even if this development does not actually come about successfully. In this sense, to understand whether or not A Clockwork Orange should be understood as a coming of age narrative, it is necessary to understand both how it meets traditional criteria for such a narrative and, also, how it can be seen to challenge.

A Clockwork Orange

The opening of A Clockwork Orange clearly establishes Alex as both the narrator and the anti-hero of the novel. It also appears to suggest that Alex is clearly immature and that he is essentially a delinquent who has little interest in anything other than hedonistic activities. The opening of passage makes this feature of his character clear, as he describes his desire to become intoxicated and to conduct acts of violence. Specifically, Burgess writes that he drinks something that can “give you a nice little horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog and All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe with light bursting all over your mog”. The suggestion in this passage is clearly that Alex enjoys recreational drugs as they enable him to have intense psychedelic experiences. The desire to have such experiences may be typically associated with a youthful attitude, one that is immature and hedonistic.

Importantly, as is an important convention of the coming of age narrative as discussed, this feature of Alex’s behavior also arguably relates to Burgess’s own views on the world, and in particular on a society that encourages such hedonism. Alex states explicitly that, while there is a law against alcohol, there is no law against taking milk laced with drugs. He then also goes on to comment that taking these drugs will also enable “sharpen” him in order to commit acts of violence. This violence forms a key part of the way in which Alex’s character is introduced and Burgess makes clear that it is pursued only for the sake of enjoyment. When discussing the violence that the Droogs will commit, Alex states that his pockets were so full of money that “there was no need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty pollly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swimming in his own blood” but, “as they say, money isn’t everything”. Through this description of the violence that Alex will happily commit, it is made evident that he is motivated by a purely hedonistic desire, something that serves no purpose outside of his enjoyment. In this way, Burgess establishes a connection between Alex’s hedonistic consumption of drugs and his hedonistic enjoyment of violence, as the drugs facilitate the violence. This fact can be argued to show that, as in a conventional coming of age narrative, Burgess uses elements of his story in order to critique the superficial nature of society, something that he suggests actively encourages the violence that Alex engages in. As such, as well as showing the inherently immature nature of Alex at the start of the novel, this opening description of violence also ties A Clockwork Orange to the coming of age genre as a whole.

The first section of the novel is dedicated to showing the hedonistic activities of Alex and the other Droogs, activities to culminate in Alex’s arrest and imprisonment following the murder of an elderly woman and after being betrayed by other members of his group whom he had humiliated in an earlier fight, which broke out after they tried to usurp him as leader of the gang. Following his arrest, Alex is subjected to the “Ludovico Technique” which is intended to permanently change his behavior and make it impossible for him to act on his violent tendencies, in addition to his sexual desires, by causing him to associate any thought of carrying out violent acts or sexual ones with a deep feeling of terror and nausea. In one sense, it is evident that this technique is intended to produce a “change” in Alex that would, in some way or another, be similar to kind of change that a person would undergo in conventional coming of age narrative, in that it would allow him to be functional member of society, to overcome his violent urges and to stop treating people as if they were simply objects for his enjoyment. At the same time, however, it is also clearly the case that the change that the technique brings about in Alex is false and that it does not stem from any real growth or maturity on his part. Rather Alex is treated as if he were simply a mechanical object to be reprogrammed. Rather than actually facilitation his own personal development, therefore, the Ludovico Technique can be argued to be another aspect of Burgess’ social criticism throughout the novel.

The nature of this criticism is easier to see if one considers Burgess’s views on the form of the novel as a whole and on its relationship to other social issues. According to Charles Sumner, Burgess argued that the novels themselves were an expression of a society that valued individual freedom, and that without this freedom it would be impossible to write novels. According to this reading, therefore, it is possible to view Alex’s initial resistance to what he has to undergo in the Ludovico Technique as being in a certain sense heroic, as it enables him to maintain his individuality against a social institution that wants to reduce him to the level of a pure machine. Sumner writes, for example, that “in maintaining his individual self despite government efforts to erase it, Alex defends the raw human material that Burgess sees as necessary for the survival of fiction”. According to Sumner’s reading of the novel, this “raw material” even though it may be deeply violent in Alex’s case is something that should be preserved and that should not simply be programmed out of a person, regardless of how violent their behavior may be. This is because Sumner believes that Burgees wants to advocate the beauty of individuality, no matter how horrific it may be.

At points during the middle section of the novel, during which Alex is subjected to the technique, it is certainly the case that he appears to be an individual who considers himself to be standing up to authority and to be engaged in a kind of heroic rebellion which preserves individuality in the face of social institution that wishes to make all people the same. In a passage on which he reflects on his treatment by the prison system, Alex states that “the not-self cannot have the bad, meaning they of the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self. And is not our modern history, my brothers, the story of brave malenky selves fighting these big machines?”. According to his thinking in this passage, Alex is being subjected to the Ludovico Technique by a social institution that wishes to erase all traces of individuality and to bring about a situation in which people are reduced to “not-selfs” instead of actual human personalities. By resisting the transformations that he is subjected to, Alex gains a sense of his own understanding of self. Importantly, therefore, the Ludovico Technique is not the only significant change that occurs in Alex at this stage of the novel. Rather, the fact that he is subjected to the technique also causes him to reflect on the nature of society and to gain a specific sense of self. At this stage, however, this sense of self does not exactly match the sense that one would expect to find in a conventional coming of age drama, as it is not a sense based on an understanding of Alex as an individual who is a part of a wider world. Rather, Alex simply sees himself as being oppressed by the world, meaning that he is clearly not yet ready to integrate himself into it and to grow as a result.

At other points in the narrative, Alex makes clear that other people whom the government is attempting to change remain resistant to their treatment and they express an essential individuality that cannot be taken away from them. He states for example that “of course some of the malchicks living in 18a had, as was to be expected, embel- lished and decorated the said big painting with handy pencil and ballpoint, adding hair and stiff rods and dirty ballooning slovos out of the dignified rots of these nagoy (bare, that is) cheenas and vecks”.

In this sense, it is clearly the case that Alex is not the only individual who feels that he is resistance to being changed by force. Indeed, at this point in the novel it is possible to argue that Burgess is almost writing a satirical version of a coming of age story or of a Bildungsroman. This satire lies in the fact that, rather than stimulating a person to undergo a process of internal change and emotional and intellectual growth, the world of the novel as it exists at this point attempts to force change in its characters. Rather than encouraging such individuals to become actual individuals, something that occurs in a typical coming of age narrative, in which a person learns to take responsibility for their actions, the world that Burgess criticizes is more interested in the production of non-individuals, as those will conform to society without resistance.

Although the most obvious process transformation that Alex undergoes in the novel is one that feels more like an object of Burgess’s satire rather than a transformation associated with a changing internal state, there other aspects of the novel that appear to suggest a more standard coming of age narrative. The key moment for considering this occurs in the final chapter of the novel. At the start of this chapter, Alex has been “cured” of his conditioning inflict upon him by the Ludovico Technique and has assembled a new gang in order to return to his old, deeply violent, forms of behavior. Before he is able to do this, however, Alex has a chance encounter with one of the old Droogs who has now grown up and gotten married. It is this encounter, rather than the psychological conditioning that he has received earlier in the novel, that causes Alex to take less pleasure than in the acts of violence that he commits. Indeed, it even causes him to begin to think about becoming a productive member of society and raising a family. This desire to conform accompanied by a realization that Alex is no longer young, and that he therefore has to take a degree of responsibility for his life in order to continue to function. Indeed, as Alex addresses the reader in order to finish the narrative, he states that “all it was that I was young. But now, as I end this story, brothers, I am not young”. As in a conventional coming of age narrative, a change in character occurs along with a realization that certain period in the protagonist’s life has passed. While it is important to note that Alex does not renounce the acts of violence that he has previously committed, and neither does he appear to authentically regret them, he does reach a state of awareness and enter a new stage of his life and his relationship to society. Both of these things would be associated with a coming of age narrative.


In conclusion, therefore, A Clockwork Orange clearly shares some things in common with a traditional coming of age narrative, or Bildungsroman. Most significantly, it shows a character who progresses a state of youthful immaturity to a state in which they appear to have grown and changed and discovered a different sense of self. Alongside this, the novel can also be argued to be a satire on the coming of age narrative, especially considering the way in which the change that is forced on Alex by the Ludovico Technique aims to erase his individuality and to turn him into a non-self. As such, while Burgess clearly uses elements of the Bildungsroman, it is not entirely clear that A Clockwork Orange should be considered as an actual coming of age narrative.

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