One of the most important literary devices has traditionally been considered setting, because it is namely by providing an appropriate background for the development of literary work’s plot that author is able to instill readers with a proper cognitive mood.
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For example, one of the reasons why Shakespeare’s tragedies were able to gain such an immense popularity with contemporaries is because the themes of love, treachery and revenge, contained in them, had been explored amidst clearly Italian settings. While referring to the role of settings in Shakespeare’s tragedies, Jones (1970) states: “Italian settings function as one of the allusions through which the world of Elizabethan plays is created, but Italy is not the world of these plays” (251).
The role of setting in Anthony Burgess’s dystopic novel A Clockwork Orange can be defined in a similar manner – even though it does not immediately affect the way in which novel’s characters address existential challenges, it nevertheless make it easier for the readers to gain a better insight into the workings of characters’ psyche. In our paper, we will aim at exploring this thesis at length.
The foremost reason as to why A Clockwork Orange is being commonly referred to as dystopia is that Burgess’s description of a futuristic society features the elements of capitalism and communism organically interwoven with each other.
On one hand, people in Burgess’s society appear to pursue with consumerist mode of existence, while taking a particular pleasure in being exposed to different forms of mass-entertainment, but on another – even the private aspects of their lives appear being controlled by the government, which in the novel serves the function of suppressing people’s ‘anti-social’ anxieties. Nevertheless, unlike what it is being the case in Orwell’s 1984, in A Clockwork Orange the government seems to be controlling citizens rather indirectly. This, however, does not weaken the extent of government’s oppressiveness.
In his article, while referring to the particulars of Burgess’s vision of dystopian future, Waterman (1984) states: “In Burgess’s dystopia, it is not the State which holds direct power over the individual, but rather labor unions to whom one owes allegiance… Only criminals and the insane would choose not to identify with the collective” (106). Thus, the foremost function of setting in A Clockwork Orange can be best defined as creating a proper perceptional framework for the readers to be able to affiliate themselves with ideas, promoted throughout the novel.
For example, while describing the Korova Milkbar, author had made a point in making this description utterly reminiscent of the way in which many today’s semi-legal bars in Western countries operate: “The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto… They had no license for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko” (10).
Thus, the very fact that Alex and his ‘droogs’ used to attend Korova Milkbar, despite being minors, and the fact that this bar was never closed down by police, despite its shady practices, creates an illusion that novel’s plot unravels in some rather Liberal society.
This impression is being strengthened even further by the way in which Burgess goes about describing the appearance of Alexe’s room: “Here was my bed and my stereo, pride of my jeezny, and my discs in their cupboard, and banners and flags on the wall…” (37).
The description of Cat Lady’s house also implies its owner being of rather individualistically-sophisticate kind – someone, who could only feel comfortable while living in intellectually liberated society: “In the room you could viddy a lot of old pictures on the walls and starry very elaborate clocks, also some like vases and ornaments that looked starry and dorogoy” (59).
After having been exposed to these settings, readers most likely to conclude that Alex’s real problem simply had to do with the fact that he never experienced any hardships in his life, which in its turn, caused him to grow predisposed towards indulging in anti-social behavior.
Nevertheless, there is an apparent dichotomy between how author portrays Alex’s sophistically flamboyant lifestyle and socio-political realities of the ‘street’, as he implies an essentially Socialist nature of these realities.
For example, the following description of a scene with the drunkard, leaves very little doubt as to the fact that it was namely Burgess’s time in Soviet Union, which had inspired him portray this drunkard in the way he did: “When we got outside of the Duke of New York we viddied by the main bar’s long lighted window, a burbling old pyahnitsa or drunkie, howling away at the filthy songs of his fathers and going blerp blerp in between…” (21).
Just as it used to be the case in just about every Socialist country, the existential mode, on the part of most people in Burgess’s novel, simply did not correlate with what governmental propaganda implied it should have been.
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There is another memorable scene when, before walking into his parents’ apartment, Alex gets to observe a municipal painting on hallway’s walls: “In the hallway was the good old municipal painting on the walls – vecks and ptitsas very well developed, stern in the dignity of labour, at workbench and machine with not one stitch of platties on their well-developed plots” (36).
Thus, the settings that are being featured in A Clockwork Orange, provide readers with the clue as to what was the actual nature of Alexe’s behavioral inadequacy – apparently, on subconscious level, he was well aware that there can be no ‘dignity’ in labor, as Marxists used to believe.
As we are well aware of from the lessons from history, it is namely those endowed with high intellect, which used push forward cultural and scientific progress. And, one’s heightened intellect reflects his or her lessened willingness to indulge in physical labor.
In its turn, this explains why in the novel, the government’s visual propaganda of ‘dignity of labor’ appears being always supplemented by graffiti-like add-ons that ridicule such propaganda. And, just as it has always been the case in Communist countries, in A Clockwork Orange the government does its utmost to eliminate even the traces of people’s visually expressed discontent on buildings’ walls, even though it can never do it promptly, due to its Socialist inefficiency.
In the scene where, after being ‘corrected’ by an application of Ludovico’s Technique, Alex walks back into his parents’ apartment building, he gets quite surprised on the account of government’s unusual promptness in taking care of rebellious graffiti: “What surprised me, brothers, was the way that had been cleaned up, there being no longer any dirty ballooning slovos from the rots of the Dignified Labourers, not any dirty parts of the body added to their naked plotts by dirty-minded pencilling malchicks” (128).
Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the role of setting in Burgess’s novel is being primarily concerned with exploring the metaphysical inconsistency between a variety of rationale-based social theories, aimed at ‘reengineering’ people, and the innermost essence of these people’s psychological anxieties.
Although, at the beginning, novel’s settings appear to underline the absurdist subtleties of a portrayed dystopia, by the time main character undergoes the ordeal of being ‘mentally corrected’, the role of setting changes to emphasize the sheer extent of Alex’s psychological fragility.
The validity of this statement can be well explored in regards to the scene, in which Alex is being examined by the consilium of psychiatrists, so that Dr. Brodsky would be able to prove the effectiveness of Ludovico’s Technique: “Curtains had been drawn in front of the sinny screen and the frosted glass under the projection holes was no longer there, it having perhaps been pushed up or folded to the sides like blinds or shutters” (118).
Despite the fact that, while providing readers with the glimpse into the setting of this particular scene, author did not specify much of details, it nevertheless did not deprive the scene of its situational intensity. Apparently, in A Clockwork Orange Burgess had made a point in trying to establish setting in a manner that would not disrupt the unraveling of the plot.
This, however, does not mean that the role of setting in Burgess’s novel is being underemphasized, as Soheback (1981) had suggested in her article: “There is relatively little description of places and objects in Burgess’ book.
The first-person narrator, Alex, is more interested in describing action and people, in describing his own feelings and the textures of music” (94). Even though Burgess never expounded on the subject of surroundings in every particular scene, as many inexperienced authors do, he was still able to turn setting into semiotically significant element of the novel.
The earlier articulated arguments, in regards to the role of setting in A Clockwork Orange, substantiate the validity of our initial thesis. Just as it being the case in Shakespeare’s Italia-based tragedies, in Burgess’s novel setting does not strongly affect the way in which plot unravels.
Nevertheless, this setting is quite indispensible within the context of defining novel’s overall semantic content, as the exposal to setting in Clockwork Orange helps readers to get a better understanding of characters as three-dimensional beings, rather than stereotypically depicted good and wrong doers. The following is the summary of conclusions, regarding the role of setting in Burgess’s novel, to which we had come earlier:
- In A Clockwork Orange, the specifics of how author went about establishing setting, are being reflective of his intention to add plausibility to his description of simultaneously semi-Socialist and semi-Capitalist future.
- In Burgess’s novel, setting helps readers to gain a better insight into particulars of characters’ mentality, as it subtly promotes the idea that it is namely the essence of surrounding socio-political realities, which can be partially blamed for these characters’ often clearly defined behavioral abnormality.
- One of the foremost characteristics of setting in A Clockwork Orange is that, despite the fact that it helps to establish a proper psychological atmosphere, it nevertheless remains semantically non-intrusive, for as long as the actual action is being concerned.
Burgess, Antony. A Clockwork Orange. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.
Jones, Robert “Italian Settings and the ‘World’ of Elizabethan Tragedy”. Studies in English Literature 10.2 (1970): 251-268.
Soheback, Vivian “Decor as Theme: A Clockwork Orange”. Literature Film Quarterly 9.2 (1981): 91-96.
Waterman, David “Bill the Symbolic Worker: Forced Syndicalism, Opposition and the Self in Anthony Burgess’s 1985”. Atenea 24.1 (2004): 105-118.