My latest read is The Cider House Rules by John Irving. I read a few of Irving’s books when they were first published, but this one never made my reading list. It was on sale recently, so I added it to my Kindle list. The story is set in rural Main over a forty year period in the twentieth century. It is told primarily from the perspectives of two primary characters, Dr. Wilbur Larch, an obstetrician who runs a orphanage and also performs abortions, and Homer Well, one of the orphans.
Many readers probably see abortion and other social issues like racial inequality that Irving uses in the story as its primary “theme.” While Irving certainly reflects his own views on these issues in how he developed the characters and plot, I agree with those who see the real theme of the novel being about how a person develops a moral compass and the “rules” that guide them in life. In the story, a set of “rules” for the migrant apple pickers is posted in the titilur cider house every year. While the purpose they are written is primarily to keep the workers safe, the reality is that none of the workers except the crew boss can actually read them. The crew has its own set of “rules” that they follow. This same dichotomy is reflected between the “public rules” and the private ones that Dr. Larch and Homer use to guide their lives.
Both characters are presented as sympathetic and heroic because of the choices they make to do what they saw as the “right thing.” While you can understand this, I think it also reflects the underlying hypocrisy of those who believe their view is the only “right” one that has become so prevalent in our culture. While you can understand, and may even even applaud, Larch’s courage in helping the women who came to him by performing a safe abortion, he also put the orphans and staff that were dependent on him at extreme risk every time he performed one. Larch has a father’s love for Homer, yet spends years building a false legal persona for Homer and using guilt to “force” Homer into taking over his work despite the personal, moral, and legal implications for Homer. Perhaps if Larch invested as much energy in making sure that Homer was well prepared for life, received a formal education, and had the life experiences so that Homer could chose what was best for him, we would have seen a real hero in the Larch character.
I had much the same reaction to the choices that Homer makes in his own life. When he leaves St. Cloud’s to go to Ocean View for a “short trip,” he is really not honest with those at the orphanage or himself. While the need to escape and have a chance for a “happier” life is understandable, the inability of the character to face and acknowledge his own choices, to tell and acknowledge the truth, is a fatal flaw that changes the course of his life. It takes away his chance to build a life of his own. I don’t know if that is what Irving expected us to take away from the book, but that is the clear “moral” of the story for me.
The Cider House Rules
By John Irving
First published in 1985, The Cider House Rules is John Irving’s sixth novel. Set in rural Maine in the first half of this century, it tells the story of Dr. Wilbur Larch—saint and obstetrician, founder and director of the orphanage in the town of St. Cloud’s, ether addict and abortionist. It is also the story of Dr. Larch’s favorite orphan, Homer Wells, who is never adopted.
Published June 1985
560 pages (print)