A sprawling social novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, The Cider House Rules is the story of a doctor who considers it his life’s mission to provide women with safe abortions and the story of an orphaned boy who becomes the doctor’s spiritual son. Along the way, author John Irving touches on issues of sexuality, drug addiction, women’s rights, domestic violence, race, and class.
Like Dickens’s David Copperfield, Irving’s character Homer Wells is an orphan struggling to find his place in the world. For Homer, this place turns out to be the place he can be “of use.” He grows up in St. Cloud’s, a remote Maine orphanage where a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy can get a safe abortion, if she chooses, or can give birth knowing that her child will be raised in the orphanage until adopted. Even though Homer has been adopted several times, he always returns to St. Cloud’s; the orphanage seems to be his true home.
The Cider House Rules, Irving’s sixth novel, is considered one of his most celebrated and also one of his most controversial works. It attained the number one spot on The New York Times best-seller list, was widely reviewed, inspired a play and an Academy Award-winning 1999 motion picture, and has remained in print since its first publication in 1985. While some critics praise the book for its complex plot and Dickensian scope, others find it excessively long and believe that the difficult topic of abortion is oversimplified.
At a time when many writers had been looking inward and focusing on experiments with narrative and prose style, Irving deliberately modeled his work after the nineteenth century novels of his own favorite writer, Dickens, who wrote of society and its ills. Irving borrows some Dickensian narrative techniques, such as a broad cast of characters and a complicated plot that sometimes relies on coincidence; he even uses one of Dickens’s signature topics, orphans. In another nod to his favorite author, Irving has Dr. Wilbur Larch and Homer read Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-1850, serial; 1850, book) to the orphans as a bedtime story.
Irving, like Dickens, is critical of the rich, particularly those who ignore or dismiss the troubles of the poor. He also is critical of people who see life in terms of moral absolutes. In an early scene in the novel, a hospital colleague questions Larch about the note that reads “shit or get off the pot” that is found pinned to Mrs. Eames’s dying daughter’s dress. Larch says that the daughter is angry at him because he had refused to give her an abortion; the colleague self-righteously congratulates Larch for his stance. As he watches the young woman die from her botched abortion, Larch wonders why his refusal is considered a good thing. From that moment on, he offers women what they want—an orphan or an abortion—and refuses to judge others for their choices.
A sense of moral complexity, even ambiguity, underlies The Cider House Rules. The characters are multidimensional, and almost...
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