Chapter 1: The Boy Who Belonged to St. Cloud’s
Chapter 1 opens in the 1920s at St. Cloud’s Orphanage, located in the former logging camp and mill town of St. Cloud’s, Maine. Many of the first orphans to be left at the home were offspring of prostitutes who served the loggers and millworkers. The lumber having been depleted from the area, the town is now deserted and depressed, but the orphans are still plentiful.
Dr. Wilbur Larch, the head doctor at St. Cloud’s, delivers unwanted babies and, in secret, performs illegal abortions. His nurses, Nurse Edna and Nurse Angela, support him loyally in both duties, thinking of Larch as the “saint” in St. Cloud’s. The nurses tend to the women and name the unwanted babies, giving them such whimsical names as Fuzzy Stone or Snowy Meadows. The names are only temporary, as the orphans receive new names once they are adopted.
One orphan, however, proves unadoptable. Homer Wells is sent to four foster homes, only to come back to St. Cloud’s each time. His first adoptive parents reject Homer because he doesn’t cry enough. The second family abuses Homer until he cries loudly and constantly. The grandson of the third family attempts to molest Homer. When Homer’s fourth foster family is killed in a freak accident, Dr. Larch accepts Homer as a permanent resident of St. Cloud’s, telling him only that if he stays, he must be “of use.” Young Homer begins reading to the orphans each night from the nineteenth-century novles by Charles Dickens, Great Expectations and David Copperfield.
Chapter 2: Princes of Maine, Kings of New England
Chapter 2 moves backward in time to give the background of Dr. Wilbur Larch. Having contracted gonorrhea from a prostitute during his first sexual experience, Larch vows never to have sex again. He becomes passionately interested in medicine, particularly in the study of bacterial infections. He also develops what will become a lifelong addiction to ether, an anesthetic that dulls the pain of his venereal disease. Educated at Bowdoin College and Harvard Medical School, he works as an obstetrician in the poorest areas of Boston.
While working as an obstetrician, he comes face to face again with the prostitute who infected him, a Mrs. Eames. She has tried to abort a pregnancy by drinking a potion sold on the street. The solution has damaged her internal organs, and Dr. Larch is unable to save her. She dies in the hospital. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Eames’s daughter, also a prostitute, comes to Dr. Larch seeking an abortion. He refuses, and later learns that she too has died as a result of a botched back-alley abortion.
Wracked by guilt, Dr. Larch visits the filthy back-alley abortion clinic where Mrs. Eames’s daughter died. Waiting there is a girl of thirteen, a victim of incest who is carrying the child of her own father. Dr. Larch’s eyes are opened, and he performs his first abortion. He performs his second abortion on a girl from a wealthy Boston family, and realizes that the problem is widespread throughout social classes. Larch realizes he cannot resist his calling any longer. He makes up his mind to become an obstetrician and an abortionist. He will deliver babies, and he will also deliver women.
Soon after, Dr. Larch is sent up to St. Cloud’s, Maine, where he founds an orphanage. He leaves only once, to serve in World War I. The doctor who works at St. Cloud’s in his absence refuses to perform abortions, calling them “the Devil’s work.” Larch protests that he has seen the Devil’s work in the trenches of the war. He writes his nurses: “Tell that fool [the doctor] that the work at the orphanage is all the Lord’s work—everything you do, you do for the orphans, you deliver them!” (76)
In the 1920s, Homer Wells is born. At the age of thirteen, Homer Wells finds the remains of an aborted fetus. Dr. Larch knows it is time to teach the boy right from wrong. It is time to teach Homer about his work.
Analysis of Chapters 1–2
The first two chapters establish the setting, characters, and central message of Irving’s book. The setting is a bleak, economically depressed ex-milling town populated by prostitutes and orphans. Dr. Larch emerges as a saintlike, though imperfect, figure who has come to help the community by providing a safe haven for abandoned children—and for women who wish not to give birth to their children. Larch views his service as a response to a simple fact of life. He writes in his memoirs:
Perhaps we can look ahead to a more enlightened time, when women will have the right to abort the birth of an unwanted child—but some women will always be uneducated, will always be confused, will always be frightened. Even in unlightened times, unwanted babies will manage to be born. (34)
Irving has described The Cider House Rules as a didactic novel; that is, a novel with a clear central message, or moral. That message, as will become clearer as the story continues, is that when abortion is illegal, women suffer. Whatever the moral arguments against abortion, Irving argues, it must be safely available to women who choose it, or they will choose to have unsafe abortions in back alleys, and many will suffer the fate of Mrs. Eames and her daughter. And if they do not manage to get an abortion, they bring into the world an unwanted child, who may or may not ever be adopted.
In the afterword and notes to the Ballantine Books edition of his novel, Irving explains how he developed the work. Irving chose to set the story in an orphanage because he realized, in his research, that women seeking an abortion when it was illegal in the United States (from 1846 and 1873) would be likely to visit an orphanage hospital, where doctors might prefer to give a woman an abortion rather than see one more orphan left behind. Irving’s paternal grandfather, Dr. Frederick C. Irving, was an obstetrician and author of books including The Expectant Mother’s Handbook and A Textbook of Obstetrics. Irving drew upon the information in these older texts in order to write some of the medical information in the earlier chapters.
While the setting and plot of A Cider House Rules may seem serious and even depressing, Irving injects his story with a healthy dose of comic relief. Homer’s failed attempts at being adopted are darkly comic, as is the depiction of Mrs. Eames’s doomed daughter challenging an indecisive Dr. Larch, “Shit or get off the pot.”