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The Cider House Rules

by John Irving

The Cider House Rules is a fiction novel written in 1985 by John Irving, who was born in New Hampshire in 1948. He published his first book at age twenty-six, and has gone on to publish 13 novels, 9 of which have become international bestsellers. The Cider House Rules is set in rural Maine in the 1940s. The story centers on Homer Wells, who was born and raised at St. Cloud’s orphanage under the care and supervision of Dr. Wilbur Larch and his nursing staff. In addition to managing adoptions and other affairs at the orphanage, Dr. Larch provides birthing care and illegal abortions to women in need. In his words, the women who arrive at St. Cloud’s always procure “an orphan or an abortion.” Under the training of Dr. Larch, Homer gains a proficiency in obstetrical care. Homer supports a woman’s choice in having children, but refuses to perform abortions himself. After he moves away from St. Cloud’s as a teenager, Homer is forced to confront this moral dilemma in order to secure his future and the future of St. Cloud’s orphanage.  

Overall Rating: 

Speed of Reading: Slow

Story Complexity: 3 out of 5

Language Density: 3.5 out of  5

Fun and Humor: 2 out of 5

Characters: 4.5 out of 5

One of the best qualities of The Cider House Rules, in my opinion, is the sense of soft nostalgia gained from reading it. The visual descriptions of life on the east coast, from oceans to apple orchards to bitter wet winters, completely envelope the reader in the landscape. The characters throughout the novel are multi-faceted and complex, with struggles and desires separate from those of the main character. Every character struggles with morality on an individual and deeply human level. The story, while slow-moving at times, keeps the reader’s interest with its beautiful scenery and moments of irony and absurdity (e.g. the stationmaster’s visit to St. Clouds). Throughout the story you’ll also find profound moments of speculation which are incredibly relevant to discussions of women’s rights still today. Here are some of the my favorite clips: 


“Men who believe in good and evil, and who believe that good should win, should watch for those moments when it is possible to play God.”


 “And with this discovery - that a fetus, as early as eight weeks, has an expression - Homer Wells felt the presence of what others call a soul.” 


“He wasn’t blaming Dr. Larch either. Homer felt there was nothing as simple as anyone’s fault involved; it was not Larch’s fault - Larch did what he believed in… but whatever you call it, it’s alive. And whatever you do to it, Homer thought - and whatever you call what you do - you’re killing it.” 


“These same people who tell us we must defend the lives of the unborn-they are the same people who seem not so interested in defending anyone but themselves after the accident of birth is complete! These same people who profess their love of the unborn's soul-they don't care to make much of a contribution to the poor, they don't care to offer much assistance to the unwanted or the oppressed! How do they justify such a concern for the fetus and such a lack of concern for unwanted and abused children? They condemn others for the accident of conception; they condemn the poor-as if the poor can help being poor. One way the poor could help themselves would be to be in control of the size of their families. I thought that freedom of choice was obviously democratic-was obviously American!”


“He had heard her say, so many times, that a society that approved of making abortion illegal was a society that approved of violence against women; that making abortion illegal was simply a sanctimonious, self-righteous form of violence against women- it was just another way of legalizing violence against women, Nurse Caroline would say.”


“Here is the trap you are in.... And it's not my trap—I haven't trapped you. Because abortions are illegal, women who need and want them have no choice in the matter, and you—because you know how to perform them—have no choice, either. What has been violated here is your freedom of choice, and every woman's freedom of choice, too. If abortion was legal, a woman would have a choice—and so would you. You could feel free not to do it because someone else would. But the way it is, you're trapped. Women are trapped. Women are victims, and so are you.”


“Wilbur Larch would have told him there was no such thing as playing a little God; when you were willing to play God - at all - you played a lot.”  


The continuous theme or moral of The Cider House Rules is especially poignant today, with the resurgence of discussion on women’s rights and Roe v. Wade. The clips mentioned above do an excellent job of framing the delicate discussion of abortion using the words of characters who wrestle with morality, but who are not monsters. The story takes a neither-here-nor-there approach to abortion, highlighting both sides of the debate, but ultimately concluding with a person’s right to bodily autonomy. 


If I must mention some critiques of the book, my first would be that the chapters are quite lengthy and the story can be a bit dense to read in general. My second opinion is that Candy’s character was one of the only characters to fall flat, despite being a main character. She does not express much desire for anything in life except for the love of Homer, Wally, and Angel. She attends school, but the reader is not nearly so informed of her desires and dreams as we are with Dr. Larch, Melony, Homer, or Wally. Despite having the opportunity to divulge more about Candy’s inner life, the third-person omniscient perspective does not seem to include her. Perhaps this avoidance is intentional. While the story is written in third-person omniscient perspective, we mostly view Candy through the lens of Homer’s mind. She is idealized to him and to us, in this way. She remains above and aloft, a virginal mother and madonna, until the end of the story where their paths finally diverge. 


The conclusion of the story is satisfying, if somewhat predictable. All loose ends are neatly tied and the reader has a sense of finality. Towards the middle of the story, we start to question Homer’s wholesomeness and innocence, as he has become deceptive towards Wally, but in the final chapters he is redeemed with a little push from an old friend. In summary, The Cider House Rules certainly makes the list of memorable books I’ve read. It forms excellent political and social commentary without distracting from the story. I believe the novel perfectly balances fiction with reality, all captured in the wonderfully dreary environment of rural New England. 

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