The Right to Choose
The major theme of A Cider House Rules is the right to choose—specifically, the right of a woman to choose whether she wants to have a child. “I thought that freedom of choice was obviously democratic—was obviously American!” rails Dr. Larch in a letter to President Roosevelt. “Is it a democratic society that condemns people to the accident of conception?” (376). The point of Irving’s novel is not to prove whether abortion is right or wrong, but to assert that women must be given the right to choose for themselves.
Since women are not free to choose,†Dr. Larch†and Homer have no choice either.†Whether they agree in principle with abortion, they find themselves morally bound to help women†who want†abortions, lest these women seek help elsewhere†and die from botched procedures. As Larch points out to the reluctant Homer, who opposes abortion on moral grounds:
Because abortions are illegal, women who need and want them have no choice in the matter, and you—because you know how to perform them—have no choice either. What has been violated here is your freedom of choice, and every woman’s freedom of choice, too. If abortion was legal, a woman would have a choice—and so would you. You could feel free not to do it because someone else would. But the way it is, you’re trapped. Women are victims, and so are you (488–489).
The message the book conveys is that when freedom of choice is limited for some, it affects the whole society. As expressed in the popular bumper sticker axiom, “No one is free when others are oppressed.”
Race and Class in Society
A major theme addressed in The Cider House Rules is the way race and class affect a person’s chances for happiness in life. As an orphan, Homer is part of the lowest social class. Candy and Wally are shocked to learn that he has never been to a drive-in movie. The children at the orphanage were deprived of such experiences. But at as Homer finds, African Americans have even fewer opportunities than he does. The apple-pickers at Ocean View do not know what a Ferris wheel is, and it does them no good to find out, since racism prevents them from enjoying themselves at amusement parks. When Mr. Rose rides the Ferris wheel with Homer, he attracts a jeering crowd and has to defend himself with a knife.
The lower class, which includes many African Americans, is hit the hardest by the anti-abortion laws. “Couples who are well-to-do usually want their babies,” he writes in a letter to President Roosevelt. “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE POOR? Forty-two percent of the babies born to parents living in poverty are unwanted” (380). Thanks to his early experiences among the poorest neighborhoods of Boston, Dr. Larch sees how unwanted pregnancy impacts the desperately poor. To him, the right to an abortion is a social issue.
Breaking the Rules
As evident from the title of the novel, rules (and the following or breaking of them) are a central theme in The Cider House Rules. The message of the book is that slavish adherence to rules is dangerous. When young Dr. Larch refuses to perform an illegal abortion, the prostitute who requested it meets a squalid death in a back-alley abortion clinic. Similar stories are repeated throughout the novel, showing that in Irving’s view, the law against abortion leads to more harm than good. In order for Larch—and later, Homer Wells—to do what is right, they must break the rules.
Home and Family
A central theme of A Cider House Rules is the need for people to find a home and family of their own. All the orphans at St. Cloud’s long to find a family to adopt them. Some are not adopted, but must go out into the world to find or create their own families. Irving shows that families need not fit one perfect mold, but can take all kinds of forms—from the makeshift family at St. Cloud’s Orphanage, with Dr. Larch as a father figure and the nurses as mothers, to the lesbian partnership of Melony and Lorna, to the triangle of love formed by Homer, Candy, and Wally, all of whom share custody of the child, Angel.