The Cider House Rules

I believe The Cider House Rules is the third John Irving novel I have read, and although the story is quite different to what I remember of The World According to Garp or The Hotel New Hampshire, there is something about it that is still very classically Irving. I think the best word for it is “unapologetic”. He really lays the story out — guts and all — and doesn’t sugarcoat or censor anything.

The other very Irving thing about TCHR and the other novels is that although the events seem rather bizarre and absurd at times, the characters feel so real, and so the events surrounding and involving them also feel real. I think it also has something to do with how fluid his writing is. The story flows effortlessly so that I’m turning the page before I have time to question the plausibility of what is happening. All I want is to keep reading.

[Spoilers ahead — you have been warned]

Although TCHR was written in the 1980s, the story spans the decades from the late 1800s up to somewhere in the 1950s. It was interesting (and a bit sad) to see that there were many issues in those times that are still relevant today — abortion, domestic violence, racism, homophobia, sexism, and so on and so forth.

Abortion, in particular, is brought up a lot throughout the novel. Within the timeline of the novel, abortions are illegal. However, one of the main characters, Dr Wilbur Larch, secretly performs abortions at the hospital in St Cloud’s because he feels it is wrong to turn away a woman who requests one, no matter her reasons for wanting an abortion. Furthermore, he feels that poverty should not be a barrier to access to healthcare, so he doesn’t charge any fees for these procedures (he only asks that they make a donation to the adjoining orphanage if they can afford it).

Dr Larch is also motivated by the memory of the one woman who died as a result of a botched abortion carried out by an untrained individual — a death he could have prevented when she first came to him asking for an abortion.

With the help of Nurse Angela, Nurse Edna, and Mrs Grogan, Dr Larch also oversees the St Cloud’s orphanage. If a woman is too far into her pregnancy to have an abortion, he tells her that he can deliver the baby, and she can leave it at the orphanage.

His apprentice of sorts, the un-adoptable orphan Homer Wells, learns these obstetrical procedures — delivering babies and performing abortions — from Dr Larch. However, Homer eventually decides that he cannot personally perform abortions because he believes a foetus still has a soul, and it would be wrong to kill it. He doesn’t oppose Dr Larch performing the abortions, but refuses to personally participate. 

The counter-argument put forth by Dr Larch is quite compelling. He asks Homer to consider the pregnant women — what of their well-being and their life? Dr Larch is firm in his stance that it’s not his place to judge; he simply gives the women what they want — an orphan or an abortion. Furthermore, because it is illegal (in the time and place of the story), he has even greater moral obligation to continue performing abortions. If not to St Cloud’s, where would these women go? Who would help them?

Anyway, I’m not sure what I expected from this novel, but I certainly didn’t expect all this stuff about abortions. I’m thinking it’s not a bad book to recommend to someone who is opposed to abortions, if you want to open their minds a bit. (But this is coming from someone who was already accepting of this, so perhaps I underestimate people’s stubbornness…)

The thing that sort of gets Homer Wells to come around, and accept that he needs to perform these abortions, is an overarching need to “be of use”. His need for purpose and his need to be needed because he is useful outweighs consideration for his personal happiness. But I suppose having this purpose to his life would make him happy, so his personal happiness is not completely cast aside. Something to think about.

There were also frequent mentions of Great Expectations and David Copperfield throughout TCHR, which really made me want to re-read those novels, so perhaps that will happen at some point in the next few years.


4 thoughts on “The Cider House Rules

  1. I read this book a gazillion years ago and I remember nothing about it. Whether that’s a reflection on me or the story I don’t know. Thanks for your review.

    [I’ve had difficulties leaving comments on your blog because up until today WP has not offered me anywhere to comment. If you have previously closed your comments that’s cool, but today was the first time I saw this box.]

    • I suppose if you remember nothing about it, that probably means you didn’t hate it (?) so that’s something. I find that John Irving writes good books, but they’re not the type that I’d read again, so I’ll probably forget what happened in a few years too 😉

      [Yes, comments were kind of turned off accidentally because I couldn’t figure out how to turn them on/off for specific posts, but I think they are back to normal now *insert awkward smile emoji*]

      • Sharon, I feel a little bit of responsibility having suggested you turn off commenting for a(ny) post that felt too vulnerable. I too noticed I couldn’t comment recently.😊 So I looked at my own blog to figure out the commenting business. When I’m in editing mode on a specific post, there’s a heading under the area where you choose Tags, Categories, etc called “Discussion” where you can check or uncheck “Allow comments.”

        • I think I was going to change commenting options anyway, so don’t worry about it!
          Actually I realised I’m not fussed about people commenting / not commenting, so I’ll just leave it “on” now. But thanks for figuring it out for me! I’ll remember if I ever want to turn comments off again 🙂

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