Cider House Rules: Essay & Questions

1. Outline the arguments for or against abortion as presented in The Cider House Rules. What is Dr. Larch’s side of the argument, and what is Homer’s? Who wins the argument at the end of the novel?


Author John Irving describes The Cider House Rules as a didactic novel—that is, a novel with a message. The central message of the novel is that anti-abortion laws are unjust and unreasonable, as they lead to the death of women who, regardless of the law, will seek to end their pregnancies by any possible means. 


Dr. Larch’s work as an obstetrician in Boston exposes him to the violence done by unskilled back-alley abortionists. Women are poisoned, pierced by crochet needles, their uteruses subjected to electric shock or suctioned out violently. He sees women die of botched abortions, and comes to the conclusion that he must help them. As Larch writes to the Roosevelts, he believes that in a democratic society, people must have the right to choose whether or not to bring a child into the world. Since the law does not allow it, he breaks the law in order to offer women a choice. 


Larch believes that a fetus is not truly alive inside the mother’s womb because it cannot live independently. Therefore, abortion to him does not mean ending a life, but ending the potential for life. Homer, however, disagrees. He thinks that a fetus has a soul. Although he doesn’t condemn Larch for doing what he believes is right, he himself does not want to perform abortions. He feels it is his right to choose whether to perform them or not.


Larch wins the argument at the end of the novel, when Homer returns to St. Cloud’s to continue the older man’s work—both delivering babies and performing abortions. Homer never does change his mind regarding whether or not a fetus has a soul, but he accepts that as long as women have no choice, he has no choice, either. Since he knows how to perform abortions safely, he is morally obligated to help women who cannot otherwise procure one. 


2. Throughout much of the novel, Dr. Larch attempts to lure Homer back to St. Cloud’s to become his replacement, but Homer resists. What finally bring Homer Wells back to St. Cloud’s?


Three events combine to bring Homer back to St. Cloud’s at the end of the story. First, Melony appears at Ocean View Orchards. Her assessment of him—that he is living a cowardly life of lies—forces him to see that it is time for a change. He can no longer go on living in a love triangle with Candy and Wally; he can no longer live a life of “wait and see.” He is determined to do something meaningful and decisive.


While Homer is in that frame of mind, he learns of the unwanted pregnancy of Rose Rose. Rose Rose’s situation—she is abused, both physically and sexually, by her father—shakes up Homer’s feelings about abortion. Clearly, this is a girl who should not be having a child. Still, he at first is reluctant to take responsibility on himself. Even though he knows how to perform abortions, he does not wish to. 

Homer plans to send the girl to Dr. Larch at St. Cloud’s, but then he learns that the elderly doctor has died of an ether overdose. With Dr. Larch gone, the responsibility falls on Homer. He performs the abortion for Rose Rose. The experience resolves his moral confusion about the issue of abortion, as he realizes that if he doesn’t provide this service, many women will have no other choice. He returns to St. Cloud’s to continue Dr. Larch’s work. 


3. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Explain how this quote from David Copperfield applies to the life of Homer Wells. How does he succeed in becoming the hero of his own life, and what does that mean?


The Cider House Rules may be described as a coming-of-age story in the tradition of nineteenth-century tales like David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. Coming-of-age tales follow a main character from childhood to adulthood, throughout his or her moral education, until the hero finds his or her place in life. The true hero of a story is one who acts, who takes decisive action to determine his or her fate. Part of growing up and becoming an autonomous adult means making decisions for oneself. Dr. Larch wants Homer Wells to follow in his footsteps as a doctor, but he knows that Homer must see the world first, and learn more about himself, before he can really choose who he wants to be and what he wants to do in life.


Homer’s first decisive action is to leave St. Cloud’s to explore a new life, in an apple orchard by the sea. Apples in the Bible are symbolic of temptation and knowledge. By running away to Ocean View, then, Homer is leaving the innocence of childhood and seeking worldly knowledge. As an adult, he undergoes temptation—in the form of Candy, his best friend’s girl—and faces other moral decisions which help him mature. 


Throughout much of the book, Homer Wells is passive. He follows Candy Kendall’s motto of “wait and see,” and allows life to happen to him, rather than creating his own destiny. It is not until the end of the novel that Homer Wells ends his years of youthful wandering and assumes adult responsibility. By choosing to use his knowledge to help Rose Rose and other women like her at St. Cloud’s, he becomes the hero of his own life.


4. Give examples of violence or injustice against women as presented throughout the novel. Why do you think these examples are presented?


The novel The Cider House Rules presents various examples of violence toward women, creating a picture of a sexist society in which women are often victimized. Grace Lynch suffers regular beatings at the hands of her brutish husband, Vernon. Although the abuse is known to all, nobody steps in to help Grace. Rose Rose is physically and sexually abused by her father, Arthur Rose. The other pickers stand outside and do nothing as Mr. Rose rapes his daughter. They know it is wrong, but again, fail to intervene. 


As a child, Melony is sexually abused in foster homes. She learns to take care of herself by developing a tough outer shell. When she is attacked by would-be rapists after leaving St. Cloud’s, Melony beats the men severely and steals their truck. Melony is an example of a woman who has learned that if she doesn’t protect herself, nobody else will. 


Another type of violence toward women comes in the form of unsafe abortion procedures. Women seeking abortion allow themselves to fall victim to uneducated or unscrupulous “doctors” who use electric shock, water flushing, suction, and even poison. Dr. Larch places the ultimate blame for such victimization on the U.S. government, which makes abortion illegal and leaves desperate women with no choice. 


5. Describe the significance of the book’s title. What are the cider house rules, and how do they serve as a metaphor in Irving’s novel? What message is presented regarding rules, and the breaking or keeping of them?


The cider house rules are a list of rules posted for the apple pickers at Ocean View Orchards. The rules include such safety precautions as no smoking in bed and no drinking on the roof (because of the danger that someone may fall off). The apple picking crew, however, ignores the rules. “We got our own rules,” explains Mr. Rose, the picking crew boss.  For fifteen years, it is Homer’s responsibility to write and post the rules. They do not change much over the years, but sometimes Homer tries to make them sound friendly, rather than just cold commands. But it does not make any difference. The paper on which the rules are written gets tattered and is used for other things, such as a grocery list. No one takes any notice of these rules. 


The rules posted at the cider house stand as a metaphor for the rules of society. Regardless of what the official rules of society are, people will inevitably break them and bend them as they make their own moral decisions in life.


Homer learns this lesson for himself when he begins breaking the law to perform abortions. Although abortion is illegal, he knows that some women will always seek it out, and many will die victims of botched procedures. The lesson is that sometimes a person must break the rules in order to do what is right. Rather than blindly follow the rules imposed from the outside, people need to make their own rules to live by.