[Work: A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962]
Burgess’ Myopic Morality:

Why Anthony Burgess’ Infamous A Clockwork Orange is Stronger Without its Original Last Chapter


Anthony Burgess Sketch by M.R.P. - A Clockwork Orange - bad last chapter 21

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.
[High-res prints available here]


I really think that there is no better demonstration of the valuable insight and truth behind the concept we know as ‘the death of the author‘ than A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess wrote one of the greatest works of philosophical farce of the twentieth century—in many ways as strong in that genre as is Voltaire’s Candide—and then lived out the remaining 30 years of his life without really realizing he had done so. And on the strength of luck (as well as a savvy editor, and later a savvy director), his accidental stroke of genius will be remembered in perpetuity.

Do not mistake this as outright disparagement of Burgess’ abilities as an artist. Far from it, I think he was a clever writer, a subtle reader of classic literature, and a capable composer. But I also think that he was too old-fashioned, moralistic, and traditionally intellectual to notice the real virtues of his work in A Clockwork Orange.

And the great book that he decried (his own), which became the great film that he decried (Kubrick’s), was something that he dedicated much time and effort to denigrating in his later years. He sneered at it and dismissed it whenever it came up, and—most egregiously, from my perspective—he worked hard to ensure that a weaker version of the book (which he successfully marketed as the true version of the book) became the primary version available to the world.

The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of A Clockwork Orange, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already read the book (or seen its 1971 film adaptation).

Two Versions of A Clockwork Orange:

As he tells it, Burgess was desperate for money at the time in his life when he wrote A Clockwork Orange. As such, he allowed the excision of the final chapter of the novella from its American edition because it was more important to him that it be sold than that it be whole. As an aspiring novelist myself, I can well imagine a state of mind wherein the prospect of getting my writing published would have me accepting all kinds of outlandish or bold edits. But here’s the problem with the story thus far: that American editor who lopped off the last chapter of the book had a keen eye, and chose well.

So what is this last chapter that I’m going on about? Well, we’ll get to that very soon, but let’s first have a quick primer on the plot. A Clockwork Orange, as you may know, is the story of Alex DeLarge and his band of erstwhile “droogs,” who live in an ill-managed dystopian urban center and spend their evenings engaging in criminal activities that range from petty theft to rape and assault.

A Clockwork Orange book cover - Anthony Burgess - bad last chapter 21After a vicious outing goes poorly, Alex is betrayed by his former friends and ends up incarcerated. While in prison, he is forcibly conditioned (via “the Ludovico technique“) to become physically ill in violent and sexual situations. When the treatment is complete, he is released. A group of political reformers use Alex as an emblem of the cruel and inhumane practices of the state, and Alex is returned to his good old horrible self.

And if you’re a film fan or an older American, that’s where A Clockwork Orange ends. It’s a messy, punchy poem about a society that’s broken in just about every way: its politics don’t work; its authorities are impotent; its delinquents are “ultraviolent;” and its solutions to these problems lack all empathy and understanding. The list of works that can so successfully instill in their consumers both the disgusting nature of violent proclivities and the stupidity of some approaches to society and justice is not all that long; but this version of A Clockwork Orange deserves a spot.

That’s not, however, where the novella was supposed to end. Instead, A Clockwork Orange was meant to end with a chapter (which nearly every copy of the book now contains) in which Alex quite suddenly loses his taste for violence, and decides he would much rather have a nice little family with a wife and kids and abide by the rules of society. It feels so unnatural to read this chapter in the invented Russo-English slang of the novel, which is itself vulgar and highly physical (with most of its terms being active verbs or nouns referring to crimes or body parts), that it almost comes across as bad fanfiction.

That last chapter is ham-fisted; it lacks all of the show-don’t-tell juice of the same message in the edited version; and it could scarcely have felt less earned, more sudden, or more out of character if Burgess had tried. And in the context of the novella, there just doesn’t seem to be any good reason for Alex DeLarge to suddenly find the pleasures of typical society any better than the perverse pleasures he had so far enjoyed. So why does Anthony Burgess feel it’s so vital? Well, read this passage from his 1986 essay on A Clockwork Orange, and enjoy his benevolent numerology:

The book I wrote is divided into three sections of seven chapters each. Take out your pocket calculator and you will find that these add up to a total of twenty-one chapters. 21 is the symbol of human maturity, or used to be, since at 21 you got the vote and assumed adult responsibility. Whatever its symbology, the number 21 was the number I started out with. Novelists of my stamp are interested in what is called arithmology, meaning that number has to mean something in human terms when they handle it. The number of chapters is never entirely arbitrary. Just as a musical composer starts off with a vague image of bulk and duration, so a novelist begins with an image of length, and this image is expressed in the number of chapters into which the work will be disposed. Those twenty-one chapters were important to me. (Burgess x)

Before I let my laughter grow too loud, I should confess something: I was so enamored of Burgess’ reasoning in this paragraph when I first read it, at the age of 15, that the first novel I ever wrote was also “three sections of seven chapters each.” Nevermind the fact that my novel was not a coming-of-age story at all, but a work of science-fiction allegory. It all seemed very deep and meaningful at the time, and I too wanted to fill my literary work with “symbology.” I now freely acknowledge my mistake, although Burgess never did.

But all of the “symbology” and “arithmology” in the world wouldn’t help Burgess’ case here. Even if the connection between the number 21 and maturity was not exceedingly tenuous (which, of course, it is), it wouldn’t matter, as his novella is also not a coming-of-age story. A Clockwork Orange, as Burgess fully intends it, is a farcical dystopia with a dozen pages of coming-of-age tacked on at the end.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it particularly satisfying or illuminating for the ending to have the juvenile rapist Alex DeLarge living ‘happily ever after’ with a nice little family. And I want this least of all when the only reason to include it is so that its author can force the moral of his story down my throat. But then I’m getting ahead of myself, because I still haven’t really hit on what exactly Burgess was trying to accomplish with that last chapter. For that, we’ve got to dig a little deeper.

Anthony Burgess’ Moral, Religious, and Political Project:

It is a bit disingenuous of me to imply that Anthony Burgess’s primary reason for including the last chapter in A Clockwork Orange is that he felt it made for a more musical number of chapters. This is definitely true, but his most pressing reason for wanting to include the chapter is much worse. All of the things I said above about how Burgess’ last chapter is tonally inconsistent and stomps on the face of an otherwise great work of dystopian literature are basically the reasons that Burgess included it. Don’t believe me? Read on:

There is no hint of this change of intention in the twentieth chapter. The boy is conditioned, then deconditioned, and he foresees with glee a resumption of the operation of free and violent will. ‘I was cured all right,’ he says, and so the American book ends. So the film ends too. The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change. There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel. (Burgess xii)

There you go. The answer as to why it’s so vital can be boiled down into two reasons. The first is that Burgess’ readers are imbeciles, apparently. The changes that a character undergoes must not only be huge, immediately apparent, and life-changing, but they must also be broadcasted for a number of pages before they will enter a reader’s brain. Burgess seemingly contends that having a work that remains subtle and trusts its readers to react appropriately just puts too much faith in the violence-obsessed masses. This would be like if Orwell had decided to include a chapter at the end of 1984 wherein Winston clarifies for the reader that it’s really a rather bad thing that he’s had his forced change of heart. As human beings, however, we intuitively understand this.

The second reason we see here is that Burgess thinks that a novel that doesn’t tick all of the traditional novel boxes is no novel at all. The fact that this man is also a Joyce scholar causes me no end of amusement. Does he also consider Ulysses a “fable” and say it lacks “the quality of genuine fiction,” or is he just using a definition that allows him to conveniently deride Kubrick’s film? This is an especially poor line of defense for his actions when the more common definitions of “fable” and “novel” would put Burgess’ version of his novella, with its clear, trite moral at the end, decidedly in the former category.

So that’s my argument: Anthony Burgess just can’t see A Clockwork Orange for what it is. It’s about a failed society, and he wants it to be about hope (just ignore those 200 pages about the failed society that come first). And if you think I’m still being uncharitable, consider another passage of Burgess’ reflection, which is all about politics and religion, and which at first glance seems like a tangent. During this sequence, without a hint of irony—though followed by a semi-humble admission of his own self-loathing attraction to evil—Burgess declares, “Unfortunately there is so much original sin in us all that we find evil rather attractive” (Burgess xiii).

A Clockwork Orange movie poster - Anthony Burgess - bad last chapter 21

Poster by Bill Gold

 Burgess throws that comment in while talking about war and people giving up on religion. He just doesn’t think, as it turns out, that the edited version of the book is optimistic or religious enough. In light of this, I must insist that Burgess may be an unwitting comic genius. He is really sincerely suggesting that the appeal of his dystopia—a portrayal in invented slang of the ethical questions surrounding programmable morality—is that its readers and viewers find its violence, in his phrase, “titillating.”

Anthony Burgess’ ‘Humility’ and Legacy:

Here is the sentiment that covers the conclusion of Burgess’ essay: “Readers of the twenty-first chapter must decide for themselves whether it enhances the book they presumably know or is really a discardable limb. I meant the book to end in this way, but my aesthetic judgment may have been faulty. Writers are rarely their own best critics, nor are critics” (Burgess xv). I’m inclined to give Burgess the benefit of the doubt on this one, but following on the heels of his moral diatribe, this is also a bit of blatant preemptive self-defense.

It certainly does not strike me as only real humility, seeing as it comes from a fellow who at times compares himself (in the course of that very essay on A Clockwork Orange) to Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Pontius Pilate. Instead I read that quote as having the following subtext: ‘you may read A Clockwork Orange with or without the last chapter as you please, but I trust you’ll make the right choice.’

Unless you are yourself a Burgess scholar or an enthusiast of classical music, you are likely to be surprised when I tell you that Anthony Burgess is the author of “thirty-two novels, a volume of verse, two plays, and sixteen works of nonfiction—together with countless musical compositions, including symphonies, operas, and jazz” (Burgess i). In fact, I have never met a person who could name even one other piece of art by the man, though he was immensely prolific.

And sure, part of this bit of regrettable trivia must be bad luck. A writer as good and as imaginative as Burgess must have produced a number of truly great works that just didn’t catch on for some reason or other. But a part of it, I must venture, might be that despite having found success, he drew the wrong lesson from it. He thought people had loved him for his brutality, when they had loved him for his intellect. And if Anthony Burgess could have gotten past his own prejudices about the commoners obsessed with their violence, he could have seen that most people were not quite as ignorant as he thought, and were drawing exactly his desired message from both his book and Kubrick’s film. Here’s a chilling bit of myopia from the man himself:

The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. (Burgess 205)

I am sad to report that I think this is the first quote of Burgess in this article wherein I find him absolutely and thoroughly correct. He didn’t pay all that much attention to what he was writing; the movie does seem, very superficially, to glorify sex and violence; all of the readers misread his intentions; and the misreading annoyed him for the rest of his life. But what he failed to notice is that the readers were misreading him charitably, and allowing the work to be something much better than he intended.


The really strange thing in all of this is that the truth was staring Burgess in the face the entire time: he simultaneously criticized editions that failed to represent A Clockwork Orange as a morality tale and criticized the novella in its entirety as “a work too didactic to be artistic” (Burgess xiv). He damn well wanted it to be a traditional morality tale so that everyone could hate it as much as he hated it! Unfortunately, Anthony Burgess’ artistic senses were just so tethered to traditional and elite interpretation schema that he never made that connection.

The Ludovico Technique - A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess - bad last chapter 21I wish Burgess were still alive so I could send him a letter—even if he would never read it, or would dismiss it. He wrote one of the dozen or so books that make me truly envious, that do exactly what I want to do as an artist and do it almost flawlessly. His book is funny, tragic, and affecting. And he couldn’t see that, which makes me sad. The lesson for other writers: take the advice of your editors seriously, and when something you write succeeds, study it until you really figure out why and can replicate it.

Of course, the final irony is that Anthony Burgess’ message, the simple message behind the book’s title, that one can not make mechanistic that which should be organic, is both the actual subtle message of the original American edition and the film—and is precisely the message Burgess labored against with his stubborn fight to make the organic value of A Clockwork Orange fit his machined-in intentions.

Works Cited:

Burgess, Anthony. “Introduction: A Clockwork Orange Resucked.” A Clockwork Orange. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. ix-xv. Print.

Burgess, Anthony. Flame Into Being: The Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence. London: Heinemann, 1985. 205. Print.

[Work: A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962]
Burgess’ Myopic Morality:

Why Anthony Burgess’ Infamous A Clockwork Orange is Stronger Without its Original Last Chapter

was last modified: July 27th, 2018 by Daniel Podgorski
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  1. Alex certainly changes in chapter 21, but there’s no hope in it. Alex extrapolates himself into fatherhood, knowing (and stating) that his son will become just as evil and violent as Alex himself has been. Seems to me this actually strengthens the societal failure.

    • That’s a great point, and certainly something to keep in mind. But that seems like a far stronger statement supporting Burgess’ basic distaste for young people and popular culture than a statement in favor of the last chapter. After all, that notion does nothing to solve the pacing or tone issues of the chapter, and little to solve the moralizing issues.

  2. I hope the lesson to future writers is _not_ to study what has been successful in your previous works and try to repeat it, but to continue to be inventive and realize success is formed not mainly by your intent (and sadly, perhaps not even your quality or abilities) but by luck, timing, and the capricious “jeu d’esprit” that cannot be controlled, only unleashed.

    • Haha, I agree! That sounds like a perfectly wonderful lesson as well. So I guess I should’ve said, ‘Just do basically anything besides spending several decades wrongfully blaming your audience for liking the wrong part of your body of work.’

  3. I’m afraid I disagree with the premise of this article. Having read both versions, I find that Burgess’ original (with the final chapter intact) is the more compelling. The reality that end presents took some time for me to appreciate; having been a juvenile delinquent myself (though nowhere near as brutal nor as nihilistic as Alex), I understood that final chapter to be Alex “growing up” – despite the horror and wanton violence that defined Alex’s early life, he found himself growing older and moving on, just as his peers do. Very much a product of his environment, Alex adapts to the changing reality of being an adult and integrating into adult life, like nearly every delinquent did before him. Contrary to what seems to be a popular belief, being a dangerous and violent child does not guarantee that one will be a dangerous and violent adult. The scars and memories might remain, but that nihilistic glee will hide behind that same mask of adult respectability that, say a shy and sensitive child might use to hide his or her feelings of discomfort in social situations.

  4. Burgess was not stating anything new, his novel is simply a story about the human condition. Alex represents the human, equally capable of recognising beauty and the ability to commit the most violent and horrific acts. The thoughtless and unrestrained actions of Alex are those of a child and it is Burgess’ intention that the act of maturing is an organic drift toward restraining from some actions and refining others.
    The title of the book is A Clockwork Orange for a good reason. The explanation through the book is saying that this transition from child to adult should be natural and organic, one which happens the same way with each generation.
    Burgess was a religious man and considered the original sin fall of man, where we realised our free will to think and make our own decisions, to be our greatest achievement. The remove this element of free will is the moral that is addressed in his book. We fail as often as we achieve but the important thing is that we have the choice.
    The author of this article seems to be of the mindset that if it isn’t a dark, bleak or depressing ending then it is just not credible. This is exactly the mentality that the American publishers had in mind when they removed the final chapter. Burgess does not hate the younger generation but rather recognises the absurdity that each generation has to mature in the same organic fashion.
    I’m sorry if it is a bit of an anti-climax but the fact that we do not experience a problem with gangs of 40 year old males creating havoc in the streets seems to be evidence that he may have a point.

    • Spot on, Robert! Thank you for your eloquent response. My thoughts exactly yet I couldn’t have said it as well as you did.

    • We do have gangs of 40-year-old males creating havoc in the streets. Age does not always bring with it wisdom.

  5. Mr Podgorski has completely missed the point.
    Burgess was a Christian and a Joyce scholar.
    ACO is a Kierkegaardian morality tale. What Alex (a-lex = no Law) experiences in chapter 21 is a criterionless Kierkegaardian choice: Either/Or, the aesthetic life or the moral life. Each of the three sections begins with the same question “So what’s it going to be then?” Alex, who starts out as a Kierkegaardian aesthetic man through and through, becomes a Kierkegaardian moral man for no rational reason, which is how Kierkegaard insists such a conversion has to work. Burgess was writing a retort to Joyces’ Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in which Stephen Daedelus moves from being a moral man to an aesthetic man on the basis of a similarly criterionless Kierkegaardian choice. Alex does exactly the opposite, which is why chapter 21 is absolutely necessary. Burgess’ novel is Christian. Kubrick’s film is Platonic (Alex in the theater undergoing the Ludovico treatment = Plato’s Cave).

    • Well, first, it seems to me that you’re really in the wrong series! My philosophy sequence is over there. Haha.

      I think you are absolutely right to call the decision in the original last chapter of A Clockwork Orange unmotivated, and I think your reading of Burgess’ own philosophical project is exactly correct. I’m well aware of Burgess’ religious opinions. But I also think it’s that exact project that led Burgess himself to willfully discard A Clockwork Orange as “a novel [he is] prepared to repudiate” (205) and “a work too didactic to be artistic” (xiv). Hence my comment about him wanting it to be a proper moral tale so that everyone could hate it as much as he did. Further, I would contend that, for a person to think that the only kinds of decisions are those made by force and those made for no reason whatsoever (as you likely know, Kierkegaard did not think this), that person must have a deep-seated misanthropy.

      You are probably unaware, however, that, like Burgess, I too am a Joyce scholar. And I must say that your reading of Stephen’s choice in the last chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as unmotivated is at best misleading. In fact, the entire premise of that wonderful novel is that it shows what sort of upbringing results in the production of an artist. And everything about the depicted upbringing—including the political discussions Stephen witnesses in his youth; the strictures of his schooling; the enforced loyalty of his familial bonds; the opposition between his instincts and his education; and the nationalistic urges of his college classmates—lead directly to the rebellion of the last chapter.

      Consider Stephen’s famous remarks about art’s lack of restraint: “I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.” So if I grant that Burgess really wanted the moral choice at the end of A Clockwork Orange to be without rational basis (I certainly grant that it is without rational basis, at any rate), then I still must insist that this is a poor answer to Joyce’s aesthetics.

  6. I couldn’t disagree more about the final chapter. Alex was growing up and he moved on with his life; even his taste in music was changing. This was not just a sudden metamorphosis. His violent impulses were simply just a phase and he was too immature to find a proper release for his pent up energy like many male teenagers. I think the Burgess novel tells an ugly truth about society but he was optimistic because he simply saw any issue of violent behavior as simply another phase in a person’s life.

  7. People grow up. People mature. Lots of people, even ones who did crazy bad stuff as teenagers. I remember reading the book for the first time when I was 14ish, and I knew before I read the end that one of his friends was going to end up a cop. The naughtier the group of teenage boys (and I’m not saying only boys can be naughty, only that this phenomenon seems to apply less with girls), the more likely it is that one of them will turn out to be law enforcement later in life. I’ve seen it a million times, or maybe five. Heard about it more. From, you know, credible sources.

  8. The reason why I can’t get behind Chapter 21 is because Alex isn’t simply a bad seed who did a few bad things in his youth- he was the quintessence of true evil, and evil that could not be reformed and which sprung as a direct result of the dystopic society it feels as though Burgess is defending in the last part. I would almost consider 21 ironic if he hadn’t explained his reasoning for the last chapter to be sincere.
    You can’t go back from doing what Alex did. You can’t even be forgiven.
    The reason why it’s clear to me that 21 is moralizing (despite Burgess’ claims to the contrary) is that he sees the main character’s change (and how unnatural that change is!) as a perfectly normal part of life, when in reality his work establishes a world from which there is no moral return. This isn’t Crime and Punishment where the character is given time to understand his moral failings and grow. In this, the violence is simply a result of youthful hijinks, and not from anything truly evil. But it is.
    Kubrick understood that a person as evil as Alex couldn’t change, and nothing would make him.

    • I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

      The tendency of folks in these comments and elsewhere to characterize the violent, abusive, rapist actions of Alex as—in the terms you so rightfully phrased it—”youthful hijinks” (from which one can mature instantaneously with no sustained recuperative process) is such a wild error that it seems that it could only result from a long span of time between their reading and their analysis, and thus their subsequent misremembering.

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