The Cider House Rules is John Irving’s most profound exploration to date of the human condition. Wonderfully realistic yet strongly symbolic, the novel (Irving’s sixth) is richly textured with character and incident; its themes are the nature and consequences of mankind’s disposition in a world fallen from grace. Once again Irving examines the great themes of individual identity and community, of creativity and creation on both biological and intellectual levels, and of taking responsibility for one’s actions—complex issues turning on the vexing questions of abortion and freedom of choice. Spanning a hundred years, the novel primarily focuses on the lives of Dr. Wilbur Larch—abortionist, obstetrician, and ether addict—and his successor, Homer Wells, in a period between 1920 and the early 1960’s (Irving purposely leaves the dates imprecise). Set largely in backwoods Maine at an orphanage in the village of St. Cloud’s and at the apple orchards on the coast of Maine known as Ocean View, the action of The Cider House Rules finds its moral center in its movement between the St. Cloud’s orphanage and the Edenic world of Ocean View.
The complexity of Irving’s design becomes abundantly clear in examining the architectonics of chapter 5, the structural center of the eleven chapters that constitute this novel. In its handling of the details of scene and in its initiation of the larger movements in the novel between Ocean View and the orphanage, the chapter comprises twenty-four hours of concentrated incident, some of it symbolic, all central to the plot. Entitled “Homer Breaks a Promise,” it opens with the railroad stationmaster of St. Cloud’s, a moronic, lonely “victim of mail-order catalogues and of an especially crackpot mail-order religion,” being awakened at night by the rising wind. Improbably motivated by his fears of distressed spirits roaming the earth in search of lethargic bodies to invade, the stationmaster arises, goes for a brisk walk, and suffers a fatal heart attack at the sight of inexplicable shadows flickering on a hillside behind the orphanage. He falls into the weeds by the delivery entrance to the boys’ division, where he lies undiscovered until the next day. The shadows have been cast by Homer and Dr. Larch, two insomniacs backlit by a light from Nurse Angela’s office, Larch’s “window on the world.”
The next morning, the orphan Melony is watching from her window as two women approach the orphanage; they have come for an abortion. Another woman, in labor, is about to deliver. Larch asks Homer to prepare a fetus for an autopsy. In preparing the fetus, Homer reaches the decision that abortion is wrong, that he, like Dr. Larch, has the right to make his own moral choice in the matter. As he tells Dr. Larch of his decision, one of the orphans, Curly Day, creates a disturbance, for he has discovered the stationmaster’s body, and Homer and Dr. Larch go out to bring the body in. Meanwhile, Wally Worthington and Candy Kendall, high school sweethearts, arrive at the orphanage in Wally’s Cadillac for an abortion. Homer returns, and Melony reproaches him, and he thinks to himself, “Let me leave.” Then: the stationmaster’s body is arranged in the waiting room; Larch performs the abortions on the two women while engaging Homer in a dialogue about choice that is at the heart of the novel’s theme; Homer delivers a baby; Wally and Candy pass out jelly to the orphans; Melony steals Little Dorritt from the seat of the Cadillac; Homer falls in love with Candy; Larch performs Candy’s abortion. Two autopsies, one death, one birth, three abortions, one argument, one theft, several acts of generosity, one falling in love, one broken promise—it has been a busy day at St. Cloud’s. As the Worthington Cadillac leaves St. Cloud’s, Homer is seated within it, returning with Wally and Candy to Heart’s Rock and Heart’s Haven on the coast of Maine, the beginning of a long detour in the apple business. The chapter is typical of Irving’s talent for orchestrating complex movements.
The opposing settings of orphanage and apple orchard are emblematic of the tension between the orphan-abortion theme on the one hand and the themes of love and redemption through responsibility on the other. As in all of Irving’s novels, strong elements of fatalism and coincidence derive from such tension and the human inability to see clearly the consequences of human actions. In Irving’s earlier work, efforts to reconcile the angelic aspirations of mankind with its fallen state find expression principally in wry, if not bitter, aphorisms: Beware of the undertoad; Keep passing open windows; Sorrow floats. In this novel, the aphorism is more optimistic—“I want to be of use”—a phrase straight out of New England’s theological history (though never acknowledged as such). It encapsulates the terms possible for Irving when facing a human condition devoid of any other redemptive possibilities. Other, and for Irving, less successful attempts to find redemption involve “rules” and guides to behavior. When Homer Wells leaves the orphanage at St....
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