What is the Meaning of the Title “A Clockwork Orange”

Anthony Burgess May Have Been Thinking of a Slot Machine as a Metaphor for Alex Gambling With His Soul

Jon Hopwood
4 min readNov 12, 2021

Anthony Burgess, the author of the novel A Clockwork Orange, said that he wrote the book in three weeks. After Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation, it became his most famous work, which irked Burgess.

The novel by the lapsed Catholic, conservative monarchist Burgess is a stalwart defense of the doctrine of free will and an attack on the conditioning of B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists. Conditioning via aversion therapy, in the view of Burgess, strips a person of free choice, and thus, strips them of their humanity.

A self-mythologizer, Burgess once claimed that A Clockwork Orange was one of a half-dozen novels he wrote in a short period in the very early 1960s after he was incorrectly told he was suffering from a terminal illness. It was the period in which he had returned to his native England after serving as an education officer in Malaysia during the 1950s.

Upon returning to England, he took note of the rise of youth culture, which coalesced around rock ’n’ roll music.

During WWII, his wife was assaulted by four American GIs during the blackout, which caused her severe gynecological problems that plagued her for the rest of her life. She eventually drank herself to an early death.

The rape of his wife was fictionalized in the brutal assault on the writer and his wife by Alex and his three “droogs,” and the event can be considered an inspiration for the novel.

What’s In a Title?

When asked about the title, Anthony Burgess claimed that he heard the phrase “as queer as a clockwork orange” in a London pub in 1945. His contention that it was was an East London (Cockney) phrase is disputed, as there are no references to such an expression before the Burgess novel was published in 1962. Most philologists agree that he made it up.

In interviews, Anthony Burgess pointed out that the Malay word for man is “orang” (the word “orangutan” means “man of the jungle”); thus, a clockwork orang would be a clockwork man.

“You must take your chance, boy. The choice has been all yours,” Dr. Brodsky tells Alex

If “orange” in the novel is actually a cognate of the Malay word orang, it’s the only Malay word in the novel. NADSAT — The slang spoken by Alex and his droogs (“friends” from the Russian) — is based on Russian. (The Russian word for orangutan is орангутан, the exact same in Russian as in English, other than being spelled in the Cyrillic alphabet. Is Alex a man of the urban jungle?)

At other times, Burgess explained his title as being a juxtaposition of the living, the sweetness of life (sladkaya zhizn means “sweet life” in Russian, the equivalent of the “good life” in English) with the sour, the deadness of machines.

Through conditioning, Alex becomes a wind-up toy (a clockwork) to be wound up by God, the Devil, and the State.

This explanation seemingly refutes his contention that the phrase “a clockwork orange” was something he found, rather than made up.

Gambling With One’s Soul

Dial of slot machine depicting fruit including oranges

A British slang expression for a gambling device is a “clockwork fruit” or “fruit machine,” due to the depictions of fruit on its dials. The anthropomorphic look of a “fruit machine” (thus, its name “one-armed bandit” in the USA for its roughly man-sized shape and “arm” giving it a humanoid appearance) may well have given rise to the term “clockwork orange” in Burgess’ fertile mind, as Alex, through conditioning, is turned into a robotic clockwork man.

Vintage “fruit machine” with lemons, cherries and oranges

Gambling is a game of chance and Alex literally is gambling with his soul. During his conditioning, Dr. Brodsky tells Alex to take his chance and be free in a fortnight. A fortnight is the time period of a vacation in Blackpool, the most popular slot machine resort in Britain.

Cover of 1st edition (Wikipedia Commons)

This article originally appeared as a “Trivia” entry in the Internet Movie Database’s page on “A Clockwork Orange”