Author: Anthony Burgess
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1962
Anthony Burgess discusses the idea of good vs. evil in his novel A Clockwork Orange. The question I believe summarizes the whole novel is this: “Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?” (p. 106).
I’ll provide a general overview of the plot, then discuss what I think it can mean. Alex is a fifteen-year-old boy living sometime in the future. He and his friends spend their time walking around town beating up men and raping women. This is the norm for this dark and nightmarish future that Burgess presents.
When a break-in at an elderly woman’s house goes wrong, Alex is caught by the police and sentenced to fourteen years in jail. After two years, Alex gets a new cellmate who has not so great intentions about their relationship. Alex and his fellow cellmates respond by attacking the new guy to the point of death. Alex is blamed for the death and becomes a perfect candidate for “Ludovico’s Technique,” a technique believed to cure criminals of evil.
This Ludovico’s Technique follows the same principals of Pavlov and his dogs. They give Alex an injection which makes him feel very ill and force him to watch movie after movie of people committing horrendous acts, similar to the ones Alex committed before his arrest. After two weeks of this, Alex can no longer think of violence without becoming seriously ill, so he is called “cured and returned to the free world.”
After a series of beatings by several different groups of people, Alex is fed up with his inability to do what he really wants: fight back. He jumps out a window, lands on his head, and winds up in the hospital, completely “cured” from this cure. Finally, once again Alex can commit horrendous crimes as he originally did.
Is it better to choose evil than to be forced to do good? Before sending Alex away, the minister asks him, “Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness” (p. 106)? Alex loses his choice to do either good or bad. Even after these endless violent videos, he wants to attack people who insult him. As he starts to, he gets ill, and the only way to stop these ill feelings is by doing good. Alex then does good so that he can feel better. This is not a choice. Alex has to do good; he cannot help it.
This brings up another question of intent. A person can look and act 100% “good” on a day-to-day basis, but if his heart isn’t truly in the “good” acts and deeds, is what he does good? Jesus preaches on this in Matthew 7:
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
Alex is a bad tree, as can be seen by his first sixteen years of life, and his years after prison and the “cure.” Even his “good” works are actually bad fruit. He jumps out a window because he is sick and tired of not being able to hit and kill when people offend him. He jumps because he doesn’t want to be good; he preferred the evil life.
The doctor in charge of this experiment claims that Alex will be a true Christian after this cure. He will only turn the other cheek after being hit, would rather die than kill, and even the thought of killing a fly makes him sick. Alex finds this out himself when he is punched by one of the nurses. He forces himself to go to sleep to escape the feeling that “it was better to get the hit than to give it” (p. 135).
This isn’t true Christianity. Jesus Christ didn’t turn the other cheek when he was attacked because he wasn’t capable of attacking back. Rather, Jesus turned the other cheek because He wanted to.
It’s interesting to see that Alex, after his “cure,” is bound to do solely good. He thinks of doing evil but cannot because he is forced to perform only good acts. As humans, bound to sin, we can only do evil. We are slaves to sin, only capable of committing bad works. Until Christ.
Christ is our cure. He comes into our lives, freeing us from the bonds of slavery, freeing us from sin, allowing, encouraging, and leading us to fight sin and perform acts of goodness, following Christ’s example as best we can.
When Alex is cured again, we follow his story and see that he commits both good and evil acts throughout the rest of his life. He is not 100% good, as he was when he was cured, but he is not 100% evil. Because of sin and the wicked world in which we live, we too are not 100% good. We are still sinners and every day is a fight against the temptations of sin and the devil. The Holy Spirit guides us and leads us to lead godly lives, but we still fall short daily and must pray for forgiveness daily.
Is it better to choose daily between good and bad, or is it better to be capable of only good? Christians are stuck. The Holy Spirit is guiding us to be holy, but our sinful nature is still within us, causing us to want to sin. We aren’t capable of choosing only to do good, and we won’t have those capabilities until Christ returns and creates a new heaven and earth. Until that day, we remain on earth, fighting against the temptations of sin and the devil, praying for Christ’s return.
Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1962, 1986.
Picture taken from https://www.amazon.com/Clockwork-Orange-Anthony-Burgess/dp/0393312836