The Cider House Rules by John Irving
There are so many characters, morals, social issues, life lessons and perspectives contained within this novel that I just know I will miss something if I try to cover them all – so I won’t. What I will do is give a brief overview of the two main characters, Homer Wells and Wilbur Larch, touch on the issue of abortion and the importance, or unimportance as the case may be, of rules placed on us by others.
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” – David Copperfield
The above quote is extremely significant, it essentially sums up the journey we are to take with Homer Wells, an orphan of St Cloud’s who wishes to ‘be of use’, does not believe in abortion, seems to succumb to others’ ‘rules’, has a father son relationship with Wilbur Larch and comes to the realisation whilst reading Jane Eyre that, “I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon.” He was caged and needed to be released, needed to live his own life making choices for himself instead of doing what he thought others wanted him to do. He needed to leave ‘home’ in order to find home.
It is said that orphans crave routine, which is understandable. Homer can only take so much routine before he wants to experience a different life, a life outside of St Cloud’s. This different life comes with its own problems, its own tests and its own lessons. Homer goes to the drive-in one night and watches a movie which begins with a Bedouin in the desert. He learns the meaning of the word Bedouin and feels himself to be a wanderer with no home. He has homes where people love him and he is of use but feels that he is missing something. “You can take Homer Wells out of St Cloud’s, but you can’t take St Cloud’s out of Homer Wells.”
Wilbur Larch ends every night by saying to the orphans, “Good night you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England.” I believe he does this to offer a routine to the orphans but also because he truly believes they can leave St Cloud’s and accomplish whatever they want, they can be princes, they can be kings. He tries to give them hope when in some cases all hope may be lost or they believe hope to be lost. Larch has big plans for Homer, he wishes him to put his medical expertise to use at St Cloud’s. Homer does not hold the same values as Larch; Homer is pro-life, Larch is pro-choice. Throughout the novel you witness the father son relationship with Larch and Homer. There is conflict between the two, as in most father son relationships, and no conflict is more obvious than the one to do with abortion. They mightn’t say it often enough but these two love each other dearly; there is a strong bond that ties them together.
Larch is getting on to be an old man, he has an ether addiction, writes past and history as he sees fit in “A Brief History of St Cloud’s” and also medical documents, altering facts as he goes along to benefit himself and the orphanage but ultimately, as he believes, to benefit the orphans themselves. He believes in the right to an abortion and says such things as the women who go to St Cloud’s go there to leave an orphan or to have an abortion. In essence, to leave a life at the orphanage or to leave the orphanage with their life.
St Cloud’s is an isolated orphanage and the women who go there go there alone; they themselves are isolated. Abortion is at the forefront of this story, be ready to read some details you may not have known before, descriptions you wish you didn’t read and all the while questioning yourself about the topic. Abortion is illegal at the time this story is set and Larch feels he is doing the right thing by giving the women a choice, if he doesn’t they would end up having backyard abortions and possibly losing their lives. It is said later in the book that if abortions were legal then they would not need to be performed at St Cloud’s, someone else would be able to do them. It’s about choice and Larch would like to offer that choice.
Rules are very prominent in the story, most notably Larch’s rules and Candy’s rules. Candy is someone Homer becomes acquainted with and her often repeated rule is “wait and see”. Whilst she is waiting and seeing she is hoping the decisions will somehow be made for her, she procrastinates and leaves things up in the air, which is unnerving for the parties involved. Larch on the other hand does not wait and see, he sees and then acts, whether it be by performing medical procedures, falsifying documents, losing himself in ether so he no longer has to see, Larch avoids the whole wait and see process. In Larch’s business he cannot operate under the “wait and see” rule, he needs to act immediately when a woman arrives at St Cloud’s and when adopting out the orphans he does his homework and places them with homes he trusts will be beneficial to the children, there is no “wait and see” in that process. John Irving said, “The Cider House Rules is a symbolic title, to anyone familiar with the story, Larch’s rules are the rules that apply,” and this is true to the extent of running the orphanage but it is tested throughout the novel.
Larch and Candy are characters close to Homer and he is in the middle of both rules really, he doesn’t want to wait and see and he doesn’t like feeling as if he has to abide by Larch’s rule – which is really a want, Larch wants Homer to be like him, to be better than him. We go on a journey with Homer who teeters upon waiting and seeing, whilst all the time Larch is persistent in trying to sway Homer to his set of rules.
There is much I can say about rules, choices, abortion, violence against women and the many various different characters in this story but I think I’ll just leave it there. To do any justice to this remarkable book I would have to write a full blown essay many, many pages long.
The book is a fantastic read, although somewhat slow going but only because the details are so well thought out and produced on page by Irving. Irving really is a master at this; he makes you feel as if you know the characters, as if you’re a character in the story yourself. I love Irving for this. Some may think it is the long way to go about it but not me, every time I picked up the book I was lost in the words, I was right there. Ultimately I left this book with the knowledge that we make our own rules. I know others make rules and hope we live by them but in the end we rule our own life, or we can if we’re strong enough. For those that have read the book you will know that rules being displayed, or made, can go unnoticed and everyone just makes their own anyway.
***After reading this I watched the movie. Wow, there is just so much missed. It was a great movie but I felt more for the characters in the book. Obviously Irving could not include everything because the movie would last for hours and hours. He has done a great job and the movie is good but please, if you’ve seen the movie and loved it then read the book, you will not be disappointed.
To read the blurb of The Cider House Rules click here