Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Told in an omniscient style, The Cider House Rules is a Dickensian novel about the disenfranchised; it is unusual for Irving in that he does not make use of his “props”—Vienna, bears, and motorcycles. It is also an examination of the family from an entirely different perspective—an orphanage—and the abortion discussions in the book are another example of the violence inherent in the world as Irving sees it. It is a novel with a frankly social point of view, a “polemic,” as some critics claim, yet Irving’s actual stand on the issue of abortion rights is not clear at the end of the book. Dr. Larch, assigned to an orphanage in the small town of St. Cloud’s, tries to prevent the pain and dangers of illegal abortions by performing them himself to “save the mothers.” Many of the abortions are the result of incest, of girls being raped by their fathers or brothers. Dr. Larch is both obstetrician and abortionist; his protégé, Homer Wells, eventually takes a different view of abortion rights, and the novel’s dynamics emerge from the contradiction.
The graphic descriptions of abortion and birth, together with fetuses and physical after-effects of the two processes, make this book a difficult one to read without some guidance. It is not so much a polemic in favor of a certain procedure as it is a frank, if fictive, discussion of the subtle consequences of both sides of the abortion rights controversy—a graphic description of the...
(The entire section is 1366 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Written as a tribute to the decency and dedication of the most impressive practitioners of the medical profession, The Cider House Rules is a multigenerational chronicle covering the life of Wilbur Larch, who as a young doctor is drawn by compassion and judgment to forge a career as an obstetrician and abortionist. Accepting an appointment as the director of St. Cloud’s, an isolated, under-equipped orphanage in Maine, Larch struggles with the moral questions, medical challenges, and social difficulties involved in helping desperate, frightened, and usually penurious women whose pregnancies require, in his estimation, either termination or an expert, comfortable birth. His acceptance of the obligations involved in providing a proper home, either within or beyond the orphanage, for the children he delivers is the burden and blessing of his long life as a man who, in the spirit of the practical New Englander, wants to be of use to humanity.
Larch moves almost incidentally toward his life’s work through a series of circumstances arising from accidents of timing and his upbringing. Once settled at St. Cloud’s, he commits himself completely to his task as healer and symbolic father to an extended family of life’s victims. His own experiences with social hypocrisy and human frailty have convinced him that social conventions are often detrimental to people’s most fundamental needs, but his choices to work beyond the legalities of society are...
(The entire section is 905 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The history of the orphanage in St. Cloud’s begins with Wilbur Larch, a doctor from Maine whose experiences with poor and desperate women had convinced him that women have the right to a safe, legal abortion. As a young medical student, Dr. Larch had been sexually initiated by a prostitute, Mrs. Eames. He later meets her in the Boston hospital where he works. Her uterus is disintegrating from the effects of a drug she had taken to induce an abortion. Dr. Larch tries to save her, but she dies.
Eames’s daughter, also pregnant, approaches Dr. Larch and asks him to give her a medical abortion. He considers her request but refuses. Later, she is found in front of the hospital, unconscious and burning with fever. Like her mother, she dies as a result of an illegal abortion. A note pinned to her dress, addressed to Dr. Larch, tells him to “shit or get off the pot.” This is a turning point for Larch: He visits the office of a doctor who performs illegal abortions, sees the unsanitary conditions and the medical ignorance that women risk, and meets a girl who has been impregnated by her father. Larch offers to give her a safe, medical abortion.
Soon after he returns to Maine, Larch takes a position in the small town of St. Cloud’s and establishes an orphanage that offers a judgment-free haven for women who need to terminate a pregnancy or find a home for their children. St. Cloud’s becomes its own small kingdom, ruled by the benevolent but...
(The entire section is 1286 words.)