BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
I’m a habitual rereader. I love revisiting favorite sentences and scenes, and I love rediscovering moments in a story I’d forgotten. So it was a special surprise when rereading A Clockwork Orange last week to find a final chapter I didn’t remember at all. How had I missed this?
Anthony Burgess explains in his introduction to this 1986 addition:
My New York publisher believed that my twenty-first chapter was a sellout. It was veddy veddy British, don’t you know. It was bland and it showed a Pelagian unwillingness to accept that a human being could be a model of unregenerable evil.
The first time I read A Clockwork Orange in high school, I must have borrowed an older American edition from my local library. Kubrick’s screen adaptation sticks so closely to the American version that it never occurred to me that anything might be missing from either the novel or the film.
But there is something missing. The American version ends with Alex’s deconditioning. The British version and this new(er) American edition reveals what happens after Alex regains his capacity for evil: in Burgess’s words, “my young thuggish protagonist grows up.” He decides to give up his violent ways to look for a wife.
It’s a bizarre turn, and it’s the ending Burgess intended, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he gets the last word.
Burgess raises his own suspicions of authorial intention. “I meant the book to end this way,” he says in the introduction, “but my aesthetic judgment may have been faulty.” He goes on to say, “Writers are rarely their own best critics,” adding, “nor are critics.”
His bland pronouncement that it’s up to “readers of the twenty-first chapter to decide for themselves whether it enhances the book” would be more difficult to take seriously were his preferences not so clear:
The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings can change… 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.
As a reader of his own work, Burgess is decided. The book is better with its last chapter intact, but with or without it he tends “to disparage A Clockwork Orange as a work too didactic to be artistic.” The whole is flawed by the prominence of its message about the “fundamental importance of moral choice” which “sticks out like a sore thumb.” Burgess is prepared, with “frigid indifference,” to let his readers make what they will of his book: “You are free.”
Discovering a new chapter to A Clockwork Orange was a surprise; learning its author disparaged it was a shock. Even more shocking was to realize that I loved the elements Burgess disparaged. I enjoy reading Orange as a science-fiction fable, a tale of good and evil in a frightening new age of technology. The matter of moral choice is foregrounded so forcefully that I took it not as the novel’s overly prominent lesson, but as its subject, an exploration of motivation, retribution, punishment, and rehabilitation.
As it twists and complicates its moral content, Orange challenges readers to accept the consequences of morality based on personal choice. “What’s it going to be then, eh?” asks the refrain that opens each of the book’s three sections. What will Alex choose for himself? What will he do in prison with his freedom limited? What will he do without any capacity for evil? And when he regains it, is it really better that he can “razrez” and rape as much as he likes once again?
The last chapter offers a new complication. It should be affirming to see Alex give up his violent ways in light of everything he’s suffered, but that’s not exactly what happens. Back in the fourth chapter, he tells readers if “lewdies are good that’s because they like it… what I do I do because I like to do.” He sees goodness versus badness as a simple preference, like preferring coffee to tea. When he decides to give up his old ways in the final chapter, it’s not because he’s reformed or repentant. He’s just tired of coffee.
The last chapter opens just like the first, Alex in the milk bar with his new “droogs.” He describes the scene, what they’re wearing and what they’re drinking, “but I’ve told you all that before,” he says. He’s doing all the same things, and it comes to him as a revelation that he wants something different now. Imaging a life with a wife and a son he feels “this bolshy big hollow inside” and realizes that he is “like growing up.”
His transformation would be easier to accept if it involved some reckoning with his past. Instead, he offers “profound shooms of lipmusic brrrrr” to everyone involved in his story, including, presumably, everyone he wronged and the few who, however lamely, tried to help him. He asks readers to “remember sometimes thy little Alex that was.” Far from feeling repentant about his actions, he looks back on his violent days with nostalgia.
Everything I know about Alex makes me doubt him. Even if he gives up thuggery to build a more stable life for himself, I imagine he will be the same conniving, selfish prick in pursuing it. In some ways, its easier to think of him continuing as the evil bastard I’ve come to know than admitting that he might find himself a wife and a quiet, fulfilling life.
Maybe the twenty-first chapter is a “sellout,” maybe it does shrink from the hard truth that a person could be irredeemable, but it leaves a worse taste in my mouth. I don’t trust him, and I don’t want to trust him, but accepting the consequences of moral choice means accepting that even Alex has a right to make new choices.
I agree with Burgess about the last chapter, which adds new and challenging moral dimensions to the story, but I cannot agree with him about the book as a whole. For me, it’s Alex who makes this novel a classic, a narrator so charming and so awful, and who sounds like no one else in all of literature. The next time I reread A Clockwork Orange, and every rereading thereafter, the last word will always be his: “Amen. And all that cal.”