Study Guide

The Cider House Rules

by John Irving

The Cider House Rules Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 less than ideal life of the orphan and the ruin of the mothers (especially those suffering from incest), compared with the very real deaths of the fetuses. By contrasting Dr. Larch with Homer and showing both as sympathetic characters, Irving manages to create a dynamic about the controversy. Especially compelling is the series of scenes in which Dr. Larch chooses to offer antiseptic, safe abortions as a defense against those obtained in the abortion dens that cause more suffering than they alleviate.

One of the orphans, Homer, starts to learn the doctor’s trade. Homer’s gradual education about the ways of orphanages and about birth and death leads to a kind of apprenticeship with Dr. Larch, one which eventually will result in a false doctorate for Homer so that he can succeed Dr. Larch, who dies accidentally while inhaling ether—a habit he formed when trying to relieve his own gonorrhea.

Homer was born and raised in the orphanage and, through a series of “aborted” adoptions, has grown to be a part of the orphanage—to be “of some use.” The story moves toward and away from a reconciliation of the basic premise—saving mothers or saving fetuses—and Homer himself is an example of a “saved” baby. It is a difficult and complex argument that brings Irving toward this fictional reconciliation and which gives this novel the sense of a polemic in a way that no other of his novels achieves.

At the center of Homer’s argument against abortion rights is the idea that everything should be wanted, that a child not wanted is a contradiction in terms. Into maturity, he finds a couple to live with in a sunny part of Maine, conceives a child called Angel, and eventually returns to St. Cloud’s under the fictitious name of Dr. Stone to continue the work of Dr. Larch. The sunny seaside where Homer goes with a young couple is the antithesis of...

(The entire section is 1366 words.)

The Cider House Rules Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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 guided by a moral compass that is set firmly in accordance with a higher law. Surrounded by faithful, adoring associates—Nurse Angela, Nurse Edna, and Mrs. Grogan—Larch struggles with the nearly impossible task of giving every orphan an opportunity to find a family built on love and respect.

The obstacles he faces are epitomized by his attempts to train Homer Wells, an orphan who can never completely settle into a life beyond the orphanage, to be his successor and the carrier of his legacy of care and encouragement. While Larch knows instinctively that Homer, like himself, will find his truest satisfaction in service at St. Cloud’s, he understands that Homer must discover this for himself. The central narrative design of the novel thus...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

The Cider House Rules Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 eccentric Dr. Larch, who devotes himself entirely to his medical work and the orphans he calls princes of Maine, kings of New England.

Despite his habit of sampling the ether used for surgeries, Larch is a competent doctor, and he manages to find homes for most of his orphans, with the exception of Homer Wells. After a series of failed adoptions, Larch decides to keep Homer at the orphanage and train him in medicine, in the hope that he will someday inherit Larch’s place as a doctor. Homer is bright and willing to learn all that Larch can teach him, with one exception: After seeing an aborted fetus, Homer refuses to have anything to do with performing abortions.

By the end of his teenage years, Homer is a skilled obstetrician, though without formal education. He has delivered babies and saved a woman’s life, but his knowledge of the world outside St. Cloud’s is limited. He has a half-hearted sexual relationship with Melony, a tough, heavy-set orphan who makes Homer promise that he will never leave St. Cloud’s without her. Homer breaks his promise when Candy Kendall, a lobsterman’s daughter, and Wally Worthington, part of a wealthy apple-growing family, come to the orphanage, dazzling the orphans who imagine that the beautiful young couple have come to adopt someone. In fact, Candy, still in high school, has come for an abortion. When Candy and Wally leave, Homer leaves with them, ostensibly to pick up some apple trees Wally has offered to donate to the orphanage, but in reality, he wants to start a new life.

Homer is too old to be adopted, but he is taken in by Wally’s family like a foster child. He learns how to grow apples and make cider...

(The entire section is 1286 words.)