The Religious Clockwork. Religious Themes and the Passion of Christ in ‘A Clockwork Orange’

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

33 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations


1 Religious Themes in A Clockwork Orange
1.1 Freedom and Bondage
1.2 Violence and Suffering
1.3 The Relationship between Man and God
1.4 Innocence and Guilt

2 Alex and the Passion of the Christ
2.1 The Teachings
2.2 The Betrayal and Interrogation
2.3 The Passion
2.4 The Holy Ghost and the Rise of a new State Religion


Wordlist Nadsat -English


List of Abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt


A Clockwork Orange is art.[1] It is in the eye of the beholder whether the work is considered a sonata conducted by Anthony Burgess[2], or a novel in the dystopian tradition of Zamyatin's 'We', Huxley's 'Brave New World' and Orwell's '1984'. Similar to these novels, ACO raises religious and philosophical questions of human freedom and moral choice.

ACO could have been the story of an average teenager who likes to listen to pop music and go to parties with his friends. Instead, Burgess creates the narrator and protagonist Alex who adores Beethoven and spends his nights raping and killing helpless people with his gang friends Georgie, Pete and Dim. In order to maintain law and order, the police strike back as violently as the juvenile trouble makers. When Alex and his friends attempt to burglar a manse, Alex is betrayed by one of his companions and is arrested by the police. Instead of serving the stipulated sentence of fourteen years, he undergoes the so-called Ludovico technique which is supposed to cure him from his evil inclinations within fourteen days. During this treatment, scientists condition Alex against violent stimuli by exposing him to violent films and classical music. As a consequence, he feels an unbearable sickness whenever he is confronted with violence or classical music. The impossibility of violence in thought or action makes him a mechanistic creature – a Clockwork Orange.

Back in the free world, Alex has to face a new situation. People who used to be Alex’s victims take revenge now because they know about his conditioned defencelessness. Alex’s suffering and solitude become so excruciating that he attempts to commit suicide. As he awakens in hospital, he realises that he can bear violence in thought and fantasy. This experience marks the beginning of a new life for Alex which is characterised by a free and conscious choice against violence.

This paper is an attempt at analysing the religious aspects of ACO in order to gain an understanding of Burgess’ message of freedom. It will be argued that his novel is a religious warning and an insistent call to the individual reader and the Christian Church: Freedom is permanently threatened and freedom can only be obtained when the freedom of moral choice is guaranteed.

In this paper, the examination of religious themes and a comparative analysis serve as tools to outline the religious aspects of ACO. In the novel, the philosophical and religious problems that are inherent in Alex’s spiritual fall and rise clearly demonstrate that the Christian faith and the Bible inspired Burgess’ work. These problems can be categorised into four major themes: Freedom and bondage, violence and suffering, the relationship between man and God, and innocence and guilt. The implication of these themes in ACO will be discussed in the first part of this paper.

However, the reference to religion and Christianity in ACO is not confined to these general themes. On another and more specific level, the story of Alex can be viewed as an analogy to the life of Jesus Christ as it is narrated in the Bible. This is why the second part of this paper, a comparative analysis of these two ‘narratives’, will be provided. The three major connections that will be discussed are the structure of the Alex’s concept of thinking in comparison with the teachings of Christ, the common experience of betrayal and interrogation, and the application of Alex’s story to the Passion of the Christ. They will be supplemented by a fourth argument that is not strictly related to the biblical narrative but to Christian history after the death of Jesus: The parallels between Alex’s restoration and that of the Christian community in the fourth century.

For this purpose, biblical and Christian terms like ‘disciples’ and ‘glad tidings’ will be used occasionally in reference to Alex. This terminological transfer does not imply that Alex’s persuasions are identical with those of Christ. As a matter of fact, the deeds and intentions of the two figures are rather contrary in terms of their moral impetus. Therefore, it is not the moral differences but the structural similarities which will be analysed.

1 Religious Themes in A Clockwork Orange

1.1 Freedom and Bondage

Burgess’ novel is about human freedom that is taken away from the individual. The loss of freedom is already expressed in the title A Clockwork Orange. Burgess refers to European translations of his novel which interpret the meaning of A Clockwork Orange as “the application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism oozing with juice and sweetness.”[3] Descartes might provide another explanation of ‘clockwork’. He describes the animate human body as a clock that has been wound up. This energy is what causes the motion of the body.[4] Descartes’ mechanistic view assumes God to be the master of the clockwork or God as the almighty clockwork itself.[5] Burgess replaces God by the Almighty State.[6] Scientists, on behalf of the state, are able to manipulate the ‘free-moral-choice-module’ of human beings with the help of the so-called Ludovico technique. This technique turns people into creatures that are unable to choose evil. It is the creation of A Clockwork Orange.

The freedom of moral choice is one of Burgess’ main themes. In his autobiography, he says “that humanity is defined by its capacity for St Augustine’s liberum arbitrium […].”[7] Burgess must have been familiar with ecclesiology, since he speaks of Augustine’s concept of free will. According to Augustine, evil results from each man’s personal will.[8] Good deeds, in contrast, require the grace of God.[9] The Pelagians, another school of thought, rejected this belief. They said that “even a wicked man can do good by his own free will [and that] the soul is without sin, because man’s nature is wholly good” [S.C.].[10] Finally, these significant differences between Augustine and Pelagius lead to trend-setting events in ecclesiology.[11] The synods of Carthage in 411 and 418 were intended to contain Pelagianism and emphasised the inevitable need of baptism and grace. However, the Pelagian heresy remained powerful. Semi-Pelagian monks from France asserted that man’s freedom had to be involved in finding access to faith. It was only the third event that put a stop to this resistance – the synod of Orange.[12] Burgess designed A Clockwork Orange to point out the theme of freedom.

Another indicator of freedom is a bird. Burgess uses this motif in Chapter Three to foreshadow Alex’s imprisonment in the second part of the novel:

[I]t was like for a moment, O my brothers, some great bird had flown into the milkbar, and I felt all the little malenky hairs on my plott standing endwise and the shivers crawling up like slow malenky lizards and then down again. Because I knew what she sang. It was from an opera by Friedrich Gitterfenster called Das Bettzeug, and it was the bit where she's snuffing it with her throat cut, and the slovos are 'Better like this maybe'. Anyway, I shivered [S.C.].[13]

The bird is a woman in the Korova Milkbar who functions as messenger.[14] Burgess couples the motif of the bird with the German term ‘Gitterfenster’ which can be associated with prison. This connotation is strengthened by the content of the song “where she’s snuffing it with her throat cut,” expressing that the woman or the ‘bird’ dies. When Alex beats Dim because he feels annoyed by Dim’s remarks during the musical performance, the first major breach between Alex and his ‘disciples’ occurs. It leads to Alex’s betrayal and arrest which he anticipates at the end of the fifth Chapter: “I led my three droogs out to my doom.”[15] The motif of the bird as “harbinger[…] of doom” [S.C.][16] appears again in conjunction with the ‘Gitterfenster’ motif in the sixth Chapter. When Alex and his droogs try to burglar a manse, the final evidence is provided: “The window had iron bars in front of it, like the house was a prison […],”[17] Alex explains and he discerns an old woman or a “starry ptitsa,”[18] which means old bird, rendered from Russian. When Alex kills the ‘old bird,’ he commits a crime and a sin.[19] He is caught by the police and loses his freedom.

It is the upcoming fourteen years of physical captivity that make the fourteen days of the Ludovico treatment a tempting alternative to Alex. During the treatment, Alex is forced to watch films which contain extreme violence. The regular repetition of the film show, combined with special drug injections, conditions Alex’s body and he begins to feel sick when he watches, thinks of or tries to commit evil deeds. During the show, Alex’s head, feet and hands are tied to a chair and a special device prevents him from closing his eyes. When he notices a recurring sickness, he tries to escape twice but there are “bars on the window”[20] and the door of his room is locked.[21]

Back in the free world, Alex meets people who take revenge on him and he finds out that there is no place where he can go, since his parents replaced Alex with another person during his absence. These circumstances stimulate serious thoughts of suicide, which cumulate in a real but unsuccessful attempt at the end of the 19th Chapter.[22] He regains consciousness in a hospital:

I came very slow back to knowing who I was and I was all bound up in white and I could not feel anything in my plot, pain nor sensation nor any veshch at all. All around my gulliver was a bandage an there were bits of stuff like stuck to my litso, and my rookers were all in bandages and like bits of stick were like fixed to my fingers like on it might be flowers to make them grow straight, and my poor old nogas were all straightened out too, and it was all bandages and wire cages […].[23]

In these bandages, Alex is dependent like a newborn. This state of helplessness can be associated with the birth of Jesus Christ: “In the NT the earthly life of Jesus begins in a humble stable in the symbolic bondage of swaddling wraps for the Word made flesh (Luke 2:7; John 1:14) […].”[24] It is this temporary bondage which is the beginning of Alex’s new freedom. He regains the freedom of moral choice.


[1] In all further references to the novel, A Clockwork Orange will be replaced by the abbreviation ACO.

[2] As an active musician, Burgess wrote his novel like a sonata with Exposition (A), Development (B) and Recapitulation (A). Ray also mentions the ‘Da capo Aria’, a tripartite Italian opera of the 18th century (cf. Ray, Philip E.: “Alex before and After: A New Approach to Burgess' A Clockwork Orange,” Modern Fiction Studies 27(3) 1981: 479-487).

[3] Burgess, Anthony: A Clockwork Orange, New York, 1995: x.

[4] Hirschberger, Johannes: Neuzeit und Gegenwart (vol. 2), Geschichte der Philosophie, Freiburg im Br. 2000: 113.

[5] Ib.

[6] Burgess similarly describes it as a “clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State” (loc. cit. Burgess, ACO: ix).

[7] Burgess, Anthony: You’ve had your time, London 2002: 61.

[8] Evans, Gillian R.: Augustine on Evil, Cambridge et al. 2000: 137 ff.

[9] Ib.: 130.

[10] Ib.: 138.

[11] Concerning the object of this paragraph, this picture is intentionally simplified. In the fifth century, also the Manichees played an important role. They “deny that it is from a man’s free will that evil takes its beginning” (loc. cit. Evans, Augustine on Evil: 138).

[12] Wagner, Harald: Dogmatik, Stuttgart 2003: 240.

[13] Loc. cit. Burgess, ACO: 27.

[14] “As messengers of the gods birds spoke sometimes through their flight patterns, and so arose the immemorial art of bird-augury, where an auspex (Latin, from aui -‘bird’ + spek -‘watch’) decided whether or not the patterns were ‘auspicious’” (Ferber, Michael: A Dictionary of Literary Symbols, Cambridge 2000: 26).

[15] Loc. cit. Burgess, ACO: 56.

[16] Jeffrey, David Lyle (ed.): A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, Michigan 1992: 89.

[17] Loc. cit. Burgess, ACO: 57.

[18] Ib.: 57.

[19] “The killing of a bird might be a great sin […] or it might symbolize the death of a person” (loc. cit. Ferber: A Dictionary of Literary Symbols: 27).

[20] Loc. cit. Burgess, ACO: 111.

[21] Ib.: 119.

[22] Alex says: “’I want to snuff it,’ I said ‘I’ve had it, that’s what it is. Life’s become too much for me’” (Ib.: 143). His later suicide attempt is caused by F. Alexander who tries to take revenge on the rapist and murderer of his wife.

[23] Ib.: 169-170.

[24] Loc cit. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature: 292.

Excerpt out of 33 pages


The Religious Clockwork. Religious Themes and the Passion of Christ in ‘A Clockwork Orange’
Martin Luther University  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
A Clockwork Orange
1,0 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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"A most interesting paper which entails a number of unconventional points which are convincingly put forward and well argued. Readable and digestible, creative and reflected." (lecturer's comment)
a clockwork orange, freedom, anthony burgess, religion, passion of christ, violence, bondage, suffering, god, innocence, guilt, betrayal, literature, english, state, totalitarian, jesus, alex, novel, analysis, comparision, history
Quote paper
Sascha Conrad (Author), 2004, The Religious Clockwork. Religious Themes and the Passion of Christ in ‘A Clockwork Orange’, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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