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Essay: A Clockwork Orange (Burgess) and The Butcher Boy (McCabe)

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  • A Clockwork Orange (Burgess) and The Butcher Boy (McCabe)
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In A Clockwork Orange and The Butcher Boy, we are presented with two distinct forms of dystopian realms; Burgess’s novel is set during times of a near-future dystopic England and in a world of disorder and extreme violence, and McCabe’s novel may, to some extent, not appear to stray too far away from this aspect. Both the protagonist Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Francie from The Butcher Boy thrive on sedition and rebellion, a character trait bred from the familial and societal environment they are both placed in, and it is the concept of freedom and ‘breaking loose’ from these dispositions in their life that ultimately shapes every single action that these characters undergo. The authors arguably could be seen to suggest that, ironically, anarchy and corruption provide an opportunity for self-control for characters in both works; the lack of all external authority gives Alex in A Clockwork Orange all the more reason to feel more secure and free to fulfil his purposes in life, and the The Butcher Boy is in some ways a savage tragedy built around the idea of ‘control’ in various forms, perhaps glorifying violence and the grotesque upon the helpless. In many ways, Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas resonate these comparisons respectively; Naked Lunch, similar to A Clockwork Orange, is set in a world of disorder and during times of a widespread narcotics phenomenon, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, like The Butcher Boy, follows the experiences of those who live alternate realities due to the abuse and manipulation of the mind, whether it be through narcotic usage or social circumstances.

A constant theme in both texts is the comparison between the depiction of a literal dystopian setting in ‘A Clockwork Orange, and a form of dystopia created and transmitted by the human mind through the sadistic mindset of Francie in The Butcher Boy. Burgess’s novel explores the idea, very popular among psychologists at that time, of using psychological conditioning to suppress crime. Set sometime in the future, people are hibernating in constant fear of the violent nature of society, locking themselves into their homes and not being able to do much else but watch the government-endorsed ‘worldcast’ television programme. The youth culture is slavishly obsessed with violence, therefore a disturbing and arguably unethical method of behaviour control becomes a solution to asocial behaviour. In essence, it is evident from the very beginning of the novel that we are being introduced to a true dystopian setting, that of somewhere that our contemporary society would avoid at all costs to become. However, it is important to note that whilst A Clockwork Orange depicts a future dystopian life, the elements in its world can all be found in today’s world. This is related with one of the traits of dystopias: familiarity, which aims at creating an uncomforting relatable effect on the reader. The society in Burgess’s novel has echoes of today’s world in respect of its containing violence and through the means of the location being a socialist model of London, and this facilitates to identify the dystopian traits and inclinations with those of today’s world, which becomes an involving and effective experience for the reader. As Alex is the narrator, the reader sees their vandalism and other crimes through the lens of a criminal and deviant; therefore the reader feels the effect of violence strongly. “My endeavour shall be, in such future as stretches out its snowy and lilywhite arms to me before the nozh overtakes or the blood spatters its final chorus in twisted metal and smashed glass on the highroad” spoken by Alex in the fourth chapter reveals his sheer passion for destruction and violence; it is important to note that in his speech, when he speaks of violence and gore, the explicitly violent lexical field seems particularly aesthetic and with a sense of grandeur, thus clearly taking an unusual delight in violence. Not only the inclusion of ultra-violence in everyday life but also Alex’s legitimizing his acts of ultra-violence through emphasizing that he gets pleasure from them is a dystopian element in the novel presenting a more nightmarish vision. Alex associates violence with music providing him with similar kinds of aesthetic pleasure. Though Alex softens his expressions of violence through euphemism – for instance, he tells the reader that they are playing a game they call in-and-out when he actually mentions their act of rape – the extent of ultra-violence is at a horrifying degree. “There were dreams of doing the old in-out in-out with devotchkas, forcing like them down on the ground and making them have it and everybody standing around claping their rookers and cheering like bezoomny” portrays the distasteful appropriation of rape within Alex’s mindset, in which we get the sense that “old in-out” implies its conventionalization and therefore its harmlessness. The oxymoronic image and sheer fact that these are “[dreamt]” about emphasizes how out-of-touch the Droogs really are with morality, and it is further tragic to know that they themselves are victims of the conventionalization of disorder in their society of youths. It should also be noted that ultra-violence emerges in the novel in not only the actions of the characters but also Alex’s imagination. For instance, whilst listening to music Alex imagines himself smashing, with his boots, the faces of people of all ages “screaming for mercy”, and in this way he is thriving off of a sadistic fantasy.

Likewise, The Butcher Boy contains many elements of dystopian fiction that are absorbed by Francie through his familial environment, the main difference being that the dystopia is only being felt and experienced by Francie himself and nobody else around him. He captivates himself in this sense of dystopia for example through television, e.g. gaining knowledge on topics such as aliens, communists and the atomic age – until his father breaks it into pieces, a clear example of Francie’s dystopia being thrown onto him through the means of his family’s treatment towards him. Dystopia reflects the horrors of war or socio-economic crisis, and in this sense, The Butcher Boy is an example of literary dystopia that feeds on the reality of Ireland in the 1960s and its actual experiences, such as priestly child abuse or small communities like Clones abusing certain outlying members like the Brady family. In this way, McCabe constructs an outlandish world, one of metaphysical anguish for a child, like Francie, provoked by all the external restrictions imposed upon his being. With the intergalactic wars, lunar settlements, and extra-terrestrial contacts of science fiction that feature in Francie’s inner world, McCabe situates the child in a clear dystopic setting where he is the victim of his parents’ violence, a notable lack of parental skills, and alienation from his community. Francie’s goal is to achieve autonomy outside his small world, and to transcend his suffocating routine in the small town of Clones; this is of course why he runs away to Dublin, where he feels much more at ease. “All the beautiful things in this world are lies. They count for nothing in the end” indicates the clear confusion and despondency Francie constantly holds in his mind about his position and worth in life, stemming from the fact that he is essentially living life in a dystopic bubble, in which the rest of society seem to be oblivious to it and only Francie is experiencing any repercussions.

A constant theme in Naked Lunch is the thrill of being in situations of utmost chaos and absurdity. Burrough depicts one of many scenes of mayhem in the ninth chapter ‘Hassan’s Rumpus Room’, where we are introduced to a sexual free-for-all event (as such) in which spectators watch young boys contorted in erotic performances, before interacting with the boys themselves and consequently killing them. The idea of spectatorship here is fascinating, because the spectating is done in an unusual form; the bystanders are simply watching and accepting these terrible and tumultuous events unfold without any motive to stop these circumstances. Even the beginning of the chapter outlines the vile spectacle as entertainment for “men and women in evening dress [sipping] pousse-cafés”, implying that the audience attend fashionably dressed and consider the free-for-all event as somewhat holding high status and prestige. It is also worth noting that one very rarely spectates something in unsafe territories; a feeling of security and protection – safety in numbers, perhaps – is necessary for one to feel comfortable in spectating something, yet ironically, the Rumpus Room chapter shows just how the idea of spectatorship is twisted, as everything happening in the scene has opposite connotations to comfort and order. One could create a clear correlation with A Clockwork Orange in which the psychologists are supposedly spectating Alex undergo the ‘Ludivico Technique’ and somewhat thrive off of watching him endure the pain of the treatment inflicted upon him; “”You felt ill this afternoon,” he said, “because you’re getting better. When we’re healthy we respond to the presence of the hateful with fear and nausea”” illustrates this paradoxical, perverse view of medicine and thus their irrational treatment of Alex whilst they “introduce the subject himself” in front of the assembly of “gentlemen” and tell them to “observe, all”. The contradictory circumstances that Alex faces, as well as the same circumstances shown in the Rumpus Room, are clear uses of the absurd that all the more integrate an inescapable and ludicrous dystopian atmosphere to the bleak settings there are already placed in.

Both A Clockwork Orange and The Butcher Boy explore identity crisis as a result of these dystopian realities/mindsets, particularly due to political chaos, a lack of authority and counterculture explored in these texts. In the dystopian world of the first part of A Clockwork Orange, Alex’s effort to construct his self and identity in a dysfunctional family and a disordered society seems to be all in vain. The lack of any functional family system in which Alex can “interact with mature and fully realized adult selves” and its manifestation in Alex may also be characterized as dystopian. Another form of violence in the novel is domestic violence, which is partially implied. We know that Alex’s parents are scared of Alex and lest he should impose violence on them, they never complain of his disturbing behaviours such as the blare of music. On one occasion Alex tells us: “[They] had learnt now not to knock on the wall with complaints of what they called noise. I had taught them. Now they would take sleep-pills. Perhaps, knowing the joy I had in my night music, they had already taken them”. In another instance he tells that his mum “called in in a very respectful gloss, as she did now I was growing up big and strong”. It is not very hard to guess the underlying cause of his mum’s respect to him as her wish to prevent the likely violence at home. The gang’s choice to alienate themselves from the society in which they live due to their use of a language called Nadsat10 actually invented by Burgess as an argot which has “harsh, Russian-accented diction” can be viewed as another dystopian element in the novel. As the author Carl E. Rollyson noted, Burgess’s Russian-influenced slang “creates a strange and distant world. The reader approaches the novel as an outsider to that world and must try diligently to decode it to understand it”. Thus, the novel’s own creation of the identity of the British youth as a whole in the seventies is also represented; after all, the Nadsat language emerges as an aggression towards the standard English language, and becomes an unavoidable element of the new youth culture in Britain. Burgess portrays the increasing tendency to use this anti-language among the young generation which is made clear in: “Droogs, aren’t we? It isn’t right droogs should behave thiswise. See, there are some loose-lipped malchicks o’c’er there smecking at us, leering like. We mustn’t let ourselves down…There has to be a leader. Discipline there has to be.” The harsh diction of these words such as “smecking” indicates the violent nature of these Droogs, and whilst they vow to maintain control, their language ironically implies that they solely thrive off of chaos and disorder. By the end of the novel, we learn that even the Ludovico Technique could not save Alex from maintaining a new life free of crime and evil; ultimately, he forms a new group of delinquents and purposefully fails to achieve a respectable life. The youth culture he is bred makes it incapable for him to be tweaked and rectified to suit the main stream British culture, and in this way, Burgess uncovers the bleak side of integrating in British society.

In McCabe’s novel, identifying Francie is a task made rather complex due to the variety of roles he plays. However, the one unchanging role that he does play is that of the narrator of the novel itself, and it is Francie’s appropriation of language which forms the body of the narrative. His attempts in the novel to control language and thus create an identity for himself are doomed to failure. For him, as for any language user, language is insufficient to deal with both the self and the world. This insufficiency is made apparent in the following passage, when Francie, on his way to murder Mrs Nugent, passes Doctor Roche’s house, and his resentment for the man whom he still blames for his parents’ deaths resurfaces; “I went by Doctor Roche’s house it was all painted up with big blue cardboard letters spread out on the grass: AVE MARIA WELCOME TO OUR TOWN. I was wondering could I mix them up to make THISIS DOCTOR ROCHE THE BASTARD’S HOUSE, but I counted them and there wasn’t enough letters and anyway they were the wrong ones”. The fragments of language that Francie inherits are not only too few, but are also unsuitable, and supplied with too few of the words he seeks Francie is fighting a losing battle. The slippage between narrative and dialogue here suggests a stream-of-consciousness way of thinking that somewhat normalizes the peculiar behaviour we witness in him, and this simultaneously brings to the light the ease at which McCabe allows us to experience his shockingly infantile thought processes, despite the violence that he is contemplating. The end of the novel reveals how Francie’s sense of identity has shifted, affected by his fantasies and the daily, frequently violent, experiences in his dysfunctional family: he has drifted from being a manic fantasist to a murderer who kills his neighbour Mrs Nugent as if “she [were] another pig in his slaughterhouse”, degrading the level of humans to that of animals and feeling completely undisturbed by this comparison he himself has made. Of course, throughout the novel Francie is labelled by Mrs. Nugent as “Francie Pig”, and lacking the tools he needs to retaliate, Francie’s only recourse is to eventually give in and adopt the identity; thus he constantly returns to Mrs. Nugent’s definition of him and his family as a way of establishing his identity. By labeling the Brady family as pigs, Mrs. Nugent discounts their existence – their poverty and anguish are ultimately not the community’s issue due to their sub-humanness being the source of the problems. However, Francie internalizes this trauma for so long that towards the end, the murder of Mrs. Nugent emerges as the inevitable end to his futile quest for an identity; he cannot undo her categorization of “piggishness” with the Brady family, therefore he must eliminate the source of this identity.

The most troubling aspect of both dystopias and their violent protagonists is the morbid fascination we experience, despite their disturbing acts. Readers of A Clockwork Orange may be sickened by Alex’s description of the red “krovvy” (Nadsat term for ‘blood’) flowing “beautiful”, by Burgess’s stylization of language to describe something hardly ever associated with ‘attraction’. Howeve¬r, the depiction of demonic teens in the novel, particularly after the release of Kubrick’s movie version, spawned many copycat crimes, proving that there really is something about ultraviolence that appeals to people. Burgess explained it as follows: “Unfortunately there is so much original sin in us all that we find evil rather attractive. To devastate is easier and more spectacular than to create. We like to have the pants scared off us by visions of cosmic destruction.” A Clockwork Orange presents the attraction to evil as a natural part of being human. Alex does evil simply because he likes to. While his violence cannot be condoned, perhaps the point is that violence and evil must be recognized as a natural part of humanity—just as natural as good. It will never be eradicated, as long as free will exists, simply because deep down, humans find it attractive. However, having said this, some would hold the thought that ‘A Clockwork Orange is not about violence’ as theorized by the author Steven M. Chan; whilst on the one hand many would say that the novel is glorifying violence (hence its cause for the infamous copycat murders), while others on the other hand would disagree and say it is condemning it, Cahn would disagree with both opinions, and concludes that the novel is in fact ‘a dramatization of the view that no human being is right when he calls himself “free”’. Burgess utilizes this set-up to expose the defining characteristic of a dystopia: the forceful revocation of free will from the people. It is the underlying characteristic of all aspects of a dystopia, from oppression, to censorship, to lack of individual rights, to surveillance; the inherent evil that lingers underneath all of these qualities is that moral choice is not an option. Burgess states in the introduction: “…by definition, a human being is endowed with free will. He can use this to choose between good and evil. If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is A Clockwork Orange—meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice, but is in fact only a clockwork toy wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State.”

It is therefore widely suggested that A Clockwork Orange is the story of what happens when a person has his or her free will taken away. Alex is a dangerous and ruthless criminal, and the idea of treating him so that he is no longer able to commit crime seems like a reasonable one. At the time of Burgess’s writing, operant conditioning was an exciting new idea, presented as a “technology of behaviour” that could be used to solve many societal problems, including warfare, crime, and overpopulation. Burgess’s novel warns against the use of such technology. In his view, a person who has been conditioned to behave a certain way loses the God-given right to free will and becomes something like a machine, something as unnatural as A Clockwork Orange. It is true that after his treatment, the formerly monstrous Alex appears ‘good’ to the outward eye. However, since he is not capable of moral choice, his ‘goodness’ is hollow and insincere. “Goodness is something chosen – when a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man” perfectly indicates main moral to the story employed by Burgess in which one is stripped of their label as a ‘human’ when their free will is withdrawn.

Likewise in The Butcher Boy, we are sickened by Francie’s ease and lack of hesitation to kill, whether it be pigs in the local abattoir, or humans such as Mrs. Nugent who he unflinchingly kills, “stick[ing] his hand in her stomach” (p. 195) and further uses the blood from her dissected body to write the word ‘PIG’ on the walls. McCabe thrives off of absurdism through the use of scatology – the comparison of characters (the Nugents and Francie) with animals like pigs and thus the animalisation of human beings. For example in one scene, Francie is caught having defecated on Mrs Nugent’s carpet as if he were a pig, and in this way McCabe seems to delight most in the filthiest and most disgusting scenes in The Butcher Boy by repeatedly introducing scatological, excremental, and grotesque details and placing both Francie and Mrs Nugent in the most embarrassing situations. One could postulate that this is a form of dark satire, yet this in no way correlates with Francie’s life journey through the novel and his fate, two things that are not satirical in the slightest. Particularly when focusing on the scene of Mrs. Nugent’s gruesome death, whilst Francie is revolting against the one force that has maintained his trauma throughout the novel, ironically he is finally accepting his role as someone, if not, something far from being moral and thus human. He isolates himself from everyone, and just like with Alex in A Clockwork Orange where he is seemingly trapped in a life of constant violence and delinquence, Francie is similarly trapped in a vicious cycle of solitude and distress.

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a similar concept undoubtedly emerges in which the dystopic circumstances that Duke and his attorney reside in draw fascination from readers due to the fact that they seem to be so oblivious to living in a completely alternate reality. In one scene, Duke randomly tells a waitress “we’re looking for the American Dream” (p.164), yet from a wider angle the whole novel consists of two protagonists manipulating their vision of the world with hallucinogens and substances and getting involved with violent acts that ultimately lead them down a nightmarish path, deeming it almost impossible to seek any form of an ‘American Dream’. In some ways Thompson takes the opportunity to employ dark comedy to criticize American culture in the sixties and its conventional advertisement of the American Dream to be hard-earned capitalist success, where he perhaps believes that there ought to have been a change to this ideology. The novel is filled with surreal imagery that are solely as a result of drug hallucinations, to the point where “reality itself is too twisted” (p.47), and just like with A Clockwork Orange and The Butcher Boy, the sense of entrapment is revealed as a dystopia’s biggest penalty, however ‘free’ one feels.

Both Burgess and McCabe depict dystopian settings as a product of the corruption of both the social environment and the human mind; A Clockwork Orange sees Alex and his tribe revolt against a state that, in their eyes is unnecessarily intruding upon their lives, but in the eyes of the government stand as a force against evil, represented by the Droogs. Likewise in The Butcher Boy, Francie feels it is his duty to overcome the trauma forced upon him by the Nugents and his familial issues, yet ultimately his hypocritical mindset of combatting his trauma with violence and rebellion leads him to no productive end and seclusion from the rest of society. Therefore, it can be postulated that a ‘dystopia’ in itself is based predominantly on perspective. In the case of A Clockwork Orange, the psychological treatment is a form of dystopia for Alex, yet for the doctors presenting the treatment in front of their audience it is their formula for a utopia. Similarly in The Butcher Boy, Francie’s brutal murder of Mrs. Nugent is in many ways a symbol of his freedom from the imprisonment he has experienced in his own dystopic bubble up until this point, and perhaps represents a light into a utopia for him, when in reality he has created an even harsher, less forgiving dystopia for himself.

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