The Cider House Rules by John Irving

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(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 St. Cloud’s atmosphere in which he was raised, and the “cloud” of his belonging to the orphanage is temporarily raised. When he and his lover, Candy, go back to the orphanage to have the baby Angel, he has returned in yet another capacity to the place of his own birth. He subconsciously wonders if he is in fact “wanted” on this earth, a perennial fear of most orphans and of those abandoned intentionally by their parents.

Clearly discussing the problem of the morality of abortion, Irving is at the same time examining kinds of freedom. The orphans, while not exactly prisoners or animals in a zoo, are locked into their situation (the fact of...

(The entire section is 1,366 words.)