1 Maran

Cider House Rules Film Analysis Essay

In John Irving’s THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, Garp writes a novel about rape, of which a reviewer says: “The women’s movement has at last exhibited a significant influence on a significant male writer.” Although written about his fictional alter ego, Garp, the statement is true about Irving himself.

In THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, Irving again tackles a central issue of the women’s movement--abortion--treating it with great sensitivity and insight. The novel is not a polemical essay but a typical Irving story of zany characters caught up in bizarre events. In the early 1900’s, Dr. Wilbur Larch founds an orphanage in St. Cloud’s, Maine, but soon discovers that caring for unmarried pregnant women involves him in performing abortions. For Dr. Larch, abortion is not an abstract issue but an agonizing dilemma faced by real women in desperate situations. He respects their personal choice: “I’m just the doctor. I help them have what they want. An orphan or and abortion.”

The main character is Homer Wells, a orphan groomed by Dr. Larch as the heir-apparent, compassionate abortionist of St. Cloud’s. Homer, however, deciding that abortions are immoral, refuses to perform them and leaves the orphanage. He goes to a world of apple picking and cider making, which appears to be governed by a simple set of rules tacked to the cider house wall. Homer, however, discovers that his apple-orchard Eden is neither innocent nor simple and that all of his relationships to people--the woman he loves, his son, his best friend, the...

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The Writing’s on the Wall Regarding Abortion in The Cider House Rules

By Carolyn Stine

[1] When I first saw The Cider House Rules in 1999 when it came out in movie theatres, I was eleven years old and thus did not completely understand or pick up on the thematic content of the abortion issue in the film. I focused instead on how touching Homer's quest for self-recognition and meaning was, how he had to go out into the world and have his eyes opened to new experiences in order to realize where he truly belonged. However, upon making the decision to do my Reel American History project on The Cider House Rules, I was forced to look at the film in a completely different context and examine the nuances of the narrative in a much more targeted manner. I came to find, after looking at the movie through the lens of its Roe v. Wade and abortion context, that there was so much more to this subject matter within the film; it was not a mere subplot. In The Cider House Rules, we observe how the issue of abortion is interwoven with Homer's quest for identity and meaning and with how Dr. Larch seeks to impart his views on protecting life and "being of use" to Homer. There is also a parallel drawn within the film between the issue of abortion and the rules that are posted in the literal cider house on Wally's estate and how Arthur Rose instructs Homer that there is no generic set of rules that govern human life. We must forge our own paths and create our own set of rules, which Homer eventually does in his decision to perform abortions after so many years of protesting against it. In The Cider House Rules, we witness how John Irving has taken his own, pro-choice beliefs that were imparted to him throughout his life and woven them into a film that wholly encompasses these beliefs and succeeds in creating an indelible image about the issue of abortion on the mind of the viewer.

[2] The topic of abortion is principally dealt with in The Cider House Rules in the setting of the St. Cloud's Orphanage. As Dr. Larch narrates the beginning of the film, we hear him describe it as a place where life is either initiated or destroyed, a place to give birth to an unwanted child or to have an abortion and get rid of an unwanted fetus. Dr. Larch immediately tells us that we should not presume that he is some sort of hero for having dedicated his life to helping children and their mothers who did not want them. He articulates instead that he is simply doing what needs to be done; he is a trained obstetrician and gynecologist and knows how to perform abortions, and thus he feels that he must utilize these skills to be of use, and this is gratifying for him. Larch himself likens his practice of abortion procedures at St. Cloud's to playing God. He describes to Homer in a letter, "Men and women of conscience should seize those moments when it's possible to play God. There won't be many. Do I interfere when absolutely helpless women tell me they simply can't have an abortion--that they simply must go through with having another and yet another orphan? I do not. I do not even recommend. I just give them what they want." In this quote, we see clearly how Dr. Larch feels that performing abortions, when it is the decision of the mother, is merely a service that he is able to provide in order to help the mothers of unwanted children, to "give them what they want." He feels obligated to "play god" in order to assist those in need, and an auxiliary result of these abortions is that they help to keep children out of sad lives in orphanages, such as the one that Dr. Larch presides over.

[3] In Homer Wells, we see a foil to Dr. Larch's strong feelings of obligation to perform abortions. Although Homer has been thoroughly trained by Dr. Larch to be a gynecologist and obstetrician and knows both how to deliver babies and perform abortions, Homer objects to the latter. He claims that he has not argument with Dr. Larch performing abortions and thus condones the practice in this way, and yet time after time, Homer refuses to do them when asked. Dr. Larch questions Homer's judgment on this subject repeatedly throughout the film, and at one point even says to Homer, "You know how to help these women; how can you not feel obligated to help them when they can't get help anywhere else?" Homer replies that he will not perform abortions because they are illegal and also because he is not a formally trained doctor and did not ask to be taught this procedure -- Dr. Larch just decided to do so. Although Homer is able to give voice to his objections about abortions in this way, it is clear that he is still unsure about how to deal with this issue. Homer has grown up in this orphanage, and he has seen many children exist there unwanted, which could have been remedied by their mother's having abortions. During early parts of the film when Homer is refusing to perform abortions, we see that he has yet to be able to succinctly define why he objects to abortion and is still figuring out who he is as a person and what his role is in the orphanage, and in life. All Homer knows is that, unlike Dr. Larch, he has no interest in "playing God."

[4] An interesting undercurrent in the abortion narrative of The Cider House Rules is the fact that so much of the film revolves around the setting of St. Cloud's as a literal place where unwanted children exist, the byproduct of women who did not have abortions. As we are introduced to characters who were abandoned by their mothers and left at St. Cloud's under the care of Dr. Larch, we are presented with the clear downside of women choosing adoption over abortion. Two great examples of children who express their disappointment and anger at being left at the orphanage are Buster and Curly. Buster is one of the older orphans who is closer in age to Homer, and he laments to Homer that he wishes he was able to show his parents how he could cook, or drive a car, and he even says that sometimes he wants to find them and kill them for leaving him. Here the viewer is meant to be sympathetic to Buster and the many orphans who were left behind by their mothers. Again, we witness this sentiment through the eyes of Curly, one of the younger orphans at St. Cloud's. Through Curly's story, we see the trajectory of how orphans get their hopes up every time a prospective husband and wife come to the orphanage to adopt a child -- and is so often disappointed. During one such experience, because he wants to have a family so very badly, Curly even packs up his bags in anticipation of being adopted and tells the prospective couple that he is the "best one" at the orphanage. After that couple decides to adopt another child, Curly is devastated and tells Homer, "No one ever wants me." We see in this way how the film utilizes the setting of the orphanage to reinforce the point that this sad and lonely fate is what awaits children when their mothers decide not to have abortions.

[5] In addition to the narrative about children at the orphanage, we do see specific instances of women coming to St. Cloud's for abortions. The most significant of these examples is when Homer and Dr. Larch find a young girl in a semi-conscious, extremely ill state outside of the orphanagel. Upon closer examination, Dr. Larch realizes that she has previously had an abortion, but the procedure was performed by a doctor who clearly had no idea what he was doing. Dr. Larch sees that this "doctor" attempted to give the girl an abortion by using a crochet hook to expel the fetus but instead punctured her uterus and left the crochet hook inside of her -- which results in the girl being in extreme pain and on the verge of death. Dr. Larch laments to Homer that had this girl come to him, a trained physician who knows what he's doing, this never would have happened. He uses this as an example to Homer as to why he is obligated to perform abortions: because he knows how to do them correctly. Because abortion was illegal in the United States essentially until the 1970s, women who sought abortions often fell prey to scams such as what the girl at St. Cloud's experienced, when someone would masquerade as a doctor in order to make money and perform a dangerous and often deadly attempt at an abortion (Faux). This scene in particular reinforces Dr. Larch's notion that one must be of use in his life, and how he feels that he and Homer are compelled to perform abortions because they know how to in a safe and efficient manner.

[6] After Homer decides to leave the orphanage and go out into the world, we witness how he comes face to face with the issue of abortion that he sought to distance himself from by leaving St. Cloud's. While Homer is working at Wally Worthington's apple orchards, he comes into contact with Arthur Rose and his daughter Rose Rose, who are migrant apple pickers, and he finds out that Arthur has gotten his daughter pregnant. Because Homer is such a skilled physician, he recognizes her symptoms right away, and recommends that she go to St. Cloud's to have a safe abortion so that she doesn't need to have her baby -- a product of incest. However, the possessive Arthur will not allow his daughter to leave him, and so Homer is faced with the decision of whether to let Rose find an abortionist on her own, which could prove to be incredibly dangerous, or to perform the procedure himself, which he knows how to do in a safe way. Homer finally admits to Arthur and Rose that he is a trained physician, which he has never told anyone after he leaving St. Cloud's, and performs an abortion on Rose. We see in this event how Homer is faced with a difficult decision about performing an abortion and does not have Dr. Larch there to do his dirty work for him, and he ultimately chooses to be of use to Rose and Arthur and to "play God" by performing an abortion. As a result of this, Rose is able to break free from her incestuous relationship with her father because she is unencumbered by her pregnancy, and she is able to go out into the world and start anew. Also, after Homer thinks long and hard about whether to perform an abortion on Rose, and eventually does so, he realizes that what he did was right and good, and in this way grows up and finds himself, which leads him back to St. Cloud's to assume Dr. Larch's position upon his untimely death.

[7] A big thematic aspect of Homer's decision to perform the abortion, and his subsequent decision to return to St. Cloud's and continue to perform abortions there as the resident physician, is the subplot of the cider house rules themselves. Upon arriving at the cider house, where the migrant workers live together during the picking season, Homer observes a list of rules posted on the wall that were put there by the Worthingtons. This list consists of petty rules such as "Do not smoke in bed" and "Do not operate the grinder or press if you've been drinking." The workers, and Arthur in particular, reject these rules. Arthur tells Homer, "Well someone who don't live here made those rules. These rules ain't for us. We supposed to make our own rules. And we do. Every single day. Ain't that right, Homer?" The idea of the cider house rules, for which the film is titled, encompasses Homer's quest for his own set of rules, his own clearly defined principle about what is right and what is wrong. At the beginning of the film, Homer is a bit lost and confused, he sees Dr. Larch performing abortions safely and sees the positive results of this action, yet he refuses to perform them himself, which he claims is because he is not a "real" doctor and because it is illegal. It is clear that Homer has not found himself yet and is unable to give voice to his opinions on the subject or define how he morally feels about it. However, after Homer leaves the orphanage and goes out into the world and is faced with the difficult decision as to whether he should help someone who desperately desires an abortion, Homer is forced to take a stance. He has to make his own rules. In this way, we see how Homer decides to take responsibility and use his medical skills to perform abortions, in order to ultimately be of use, which he finally feels is the right thing to do.

[8] Because this film dealt so much with the issue of abortion and how it impacts people's lives, we are compelled to examine how those who created the film felt about the issue and how they wanted it represented. John Irving, who wrote the novel The Cider House Rules and adapted the screenplay for the film, is quite vocal about his pro-choice stance and frequently speaks publicly about his inclusion of this viewpoint in the film. Irving relates his stance on abortion to the historical context of the issue and how abortion was always legal in the United States up to the stage of "quickening," when the baby began to move. It was in the late nineteenth century that abortion was perceived as negative and laws were enacted against it, which Irving perceives as being an aberration, an abnormality in a culture that had previously embraced abortion as a decision for the mother to make herself. Irving also credits so much of his pro-choice sentiment to his mother, who was a nurse's aide while he was growing up and thus told him stories about how so many of her patients were young, pregnant girls who were victims of incest and rape, yet were unable to obtain abortions because they were illegal. Irving's mother instilled in him the idea that abortion should be legalized so that they could be performed in a safe manner when necessary (Michniewicz).

[9] When writing The Cider House Rules, Irving cites that, while he was doing research on the history of New England orphanages, he came across a great deal of information about how orphanages, being sympathetic to their abandoned children who often grew up there and became wards of the state, would often perform abortions. He was more than happy to weave this idea into the plot of the novel and later the film in an historically accurate manner, which, he states ,"gave the story of the novel an emotional and political edge." In this way, we see how Irving sought to create a film that both encapsulated his approval of a woman's right to choose whether or not she has an abortion and also to convey this opinion with the accurate context of the history of the issue in the United States (Michniewicz).

[10] Because Irving chose to include abortion as a significant plot in The Cider House Rules, there was a great deal of backlash both to the novel and the film. Although Irving's initial aim was to create a novel about a father and son relationship, his research unearthed so much information about abortions within the orphanage setting that he decided to include it, especially because it coincided with his pro-choice beliefs. Because he chose to include this subject matter, both the novel and book are frequently labeled as pro-choice works, and therefore political works, and many reviews approached them as such. Irving frequently discusses how, when reviewing the film, writers were often dishonest about their dislike of the movie, citing other reasons instead of simply coming out and saying that they did not agree with Irving's pro-choice stance. One such example that he cited was Roger Ebert's review, which professed to not liking various aspects of the film, but in a letter to the Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein detailed how he was prejudiced against the film because the film's abortion politics differed from his own. Thus, we see how a film that contained abortion as part of the plot has come to be known as, and often disliked because of, its label as a political movie about abortion (Michniewicz).

[11] It is very significant to point out the differences between the novel and film versions of The Cider House Rules and how these differences reflect on the portrayal of the abortion theme. One of the most important subplots that was included in the novel but not the film was the flashbacks to Dr. Larch's childhood and adulthood before he came to St. Cloud's. In the movie, we never learn anything about Dr. Larch's past before his work at the orphanage, yet in the book this is vividly dealt with. In the novel, we learn that Dr. Larch had an unfortunate incident with a prostitute in his youth, which led him to turn away from sex and women and to instead dedicate his life to helping women with their unwanted pregnancies. This is significant information, as it helps to tell the story to the reader of how Dr. Larch began practicing abortions and brought this to St. Cloud's. Also, in my opinion, some of the most valuable parts of the book, where Homer and Dr. Larch are fighting about their differing views on the subject of abortion, were not included in the film. There is one scene in the book in which Dr. Larch says to Homer, "You think what I do is playing God, but you presume you know what God wants. Do you think that's not playing God?" I thought that this quote, even though it is so small, did a fantastic job of elucidating Dr. Larch's belief system behind his practice of abortion and thus, tangentially, John Irving's belief system as well (Mohr).

[12] In The Cider House Rules, we see how the conflict between traditional and cinematic histories that so often exists is ultimately dissolved. One of John Irving's principle aims when producing this novel and film was to create a portrayal of abortion that was true to its time and its history and to make a statement about the subject of abortion that was bolstered by its historical accuracy (Michniewicz). It is clear that Irving's pro-choice leaning is woven throughout the film and very much espoused through the characters that he created. Irving has stated many times that he wanted readers and viewers to come away from The Cider House Rules with the feeling that, despite the fact that Dr. Larch lied to Homer about having a bad heart so he could avoid going to war, Homer really did have a good heart and so did Dr. Larch. Irving ultimately makes the argument that one can practice abortion and still be a good and useful person, can still have a good heart. At the end of the film, we see how Homer and Dr. Larch truly are the "princes of Maine" and "kings of New England" that they christen the orphans as when they say goodnight to them each evening. The Cider House Rules tells the story of how, by writing one's own rules and making one's own choices, which Homer learns to do by the end of the film, one can lead a gratifying life and truly "be of use," which reflects John Irving's stance on abortion and how human beings should ultimately be able to make their own decisions about their bodies.

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