You'll be shocked to learn that I have not seen Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel (or maybe not depending on how much you care) and so came to read it with an open mind. I at once felt I was in cahoots with Burgess after reading his scathing introduction explaining that the US version had the final section cut off at the request of the publisher, which entirely changed the meaning of the novel and the subsequent film (which he doesn't think an awful lot of either). I'm tossing up whether it is safe to talk about the ending here. I'm going with yes, because Burgess talks about it himself in the introduction (talk about a plot spoiler) and because it is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Stop reading after the third paragraph from the end if you wish.
It is a difficult novel because there is not a single character there for you to like. Alex is a brutal self-indulgent thug, the State brain washes 17 year old murderers, parents are emotionally absent, pensioners prone to brutal retaliation, political activists self-serving as always, police barely distinguishable from the criminals they beat into submission. Everyone uses everyone else, everyone, from parents, to political activitsts to prison chaplains, just wants to get what he can for himself. Throughout it all there is the language, which is a veil to keep characters apart from each other and the reader. We are all alone in our choices, Burgess is saying, we are free to make them on our own and we alone will face the consequences.
It is a terrible indictment on people's suggestibility and the notion of conformity, through peer pressure, expedience or subtle brain manipulation. The novel is telling us that free will is the most important gift humans have - preserving our ability to choose is the ultimate good, even if the choices we make are not. But underneath it all is the desire people have to overpower each other, whether in the street or in the jail cell. It is about power by force or stealth and it suggests there is no solution.
Burgess says the missing final chapter in the US version overlooks the character's growth, he says, which is what allows his novel to say that life is something other than brutish and short. Personally however, the final chapter read to me like an afterthought. Alex has his epiphany awfully quickly. He looks to find a wife, settle down, have a child. These are the aspects of society that enforce restraint on all of us in reality: jobs, marriage, insurance, superannuation, mortages. Did the State plant that idea in his head? Did our parents put it in ours? Is conformity a tool to control us? So, really what is important is not that we have a choice, but that we believe we have a choice when in reality we're following our social conditioning?
Alex admits he will fail to control his child, his child will be the same monster he was, until he has a child of his own who he will try to control, but will fail. And the cycle goes on. Which really is the most terrifying vision because it suggests that our lives aren't just brutish and short, but they will also be played out over and over again indefinitely.