What Does the Title of “A Clockwork Orange” Mean?


Aside from the metaphorical meanings of the title of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), the name reportedly came from an off-hand Cockney expression, “as queer as a clockwork orange,” which the source novel’s author, Anthony Burgess, claimed he heard in a London pub before World War II, decades before publishing his famous work in 1962. Burgess has written and spoken about the title on several occasions. In an introduction called “A Clockwork Orange Resucked,” he refers to a person who “has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State.” On the television programme Camera Three in 1972, he explained, “I’ve implied the junction of the organic, the lively, the sweet – in other words, life, the orange – and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined. I’ve brought them together in this kind of oxymoron, this sour-sweet word.”

In the film adaptation, however, Kubrick touches upon these themes without explicitly breaking down the title, leaving its specific meaning more open to the audience’s interpretation.

Still, Kubrick has shared analysis of the film’s central issues. In an interview with Michael Ciment, a French film critic and editor of the cinematic magazine Positif, the director stated, “The film explores the difficulties of reconciling the conflict between individual freedom and social order. Alex exercises his freedom to be a vicious thug until the State turns him into a harmless zombie no longer able to choose between good and evil. One of the conclusions of the film is, of course, that there are limits to which society should go in maintaining law and order. Society should not do the wrong thing for the right reason, even though it frequently does the right thing for the wrong reason.”

In Kubrick’s film adaptation, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his fellow droogs break into the house of the writer Mr. Alexander (Patrick Magee), beat him, and rape his wife (Adrienne Corri), while Alex does his famous cover of Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain.”

However, in Burgess’ novel, when Alex breaks in, Mr. Alexander is writing a manuscript entitled A Clockwork Orange, which protests the nation’s increasingly authoritarian government, declaring, “The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness… laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen.” Alex discovers the manuscript and mockingly reads the piece aloud. The protagonist/antagonist doesn’t understand it, even though the thesis foreshadows his future state and dissects the complex title.

While Kubrick doesn’t address the title’s meaning so directly in the film, he still explores the themes suggested by the title in a number of scenes. Two years into his prison sentence, Alex has a heart to heart with the prison Chaplain (Godfrey Quigley). After Alex shows interest in the Ludovico Technique, which he hopes will make him “good,” the Chaplain expresses doubts about the experimental aversion therapy and states, “Goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen. And if a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”

Ultimately, Alex undergoes the controversial treatment at the hands of Dr. Brodsky (Carl Duering), who may have been inspired to some degree by the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, the inventor of the famous thought experiment involving classical conditioning of dogs. Also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning, it is a learning process in which an innate response to a potent stimulus comes to be elicited in response to a previously neutral stimulus; this is achieved by repeated pairings of the neutral stimulus with the potent stimulus.

Put simply, Dr. Brodsky’s inhuman experiments make Alex ill at the sight of violence, something which used to bring him great joy. Therefore, since he cannot choose, he is no longer human. Burgess writes, “What I was trying to say was that it is better to be bad of one’s own free will than to be good through scientific brainwashing. When Alex has the power of choice, he chooses only violence. But, as his love of music shows, there are other areas of choice.”

At the end of the film, Alex is flesh and blood on the outside but merely mechanical on the inside.