First published in 1985, The Cider House Rules is set in rural Maine in the first half of the twentieth century. The novel tells the story of Dr. Wilbur Larch—saint and obstetrician, founder and director of the orphanage in the town of St. Cloud’s, ether addict and abortionist. This is also the story of Dr. Larch’s favorite orphan, Homer Wells, who is never adopted.
Praise for The Cider House Rules
“ [Irving] is among the very best storytellers at work today. At the base of Irving’s own moral concerns is a rare and lasting regard for human kindness.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“ Superb in scope and originality, a novel as good as one could hope to find from any author, anywhere, anytime. Engrossing, moving, thoroughly satisfying.”—Joseph Heller
“ An old-fashioned, big-hearted novel . . . with its epic yearning caught in the nineteenth century, somewhere between Trollope and Twain.”—Boston Sunday Globe
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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 2, 1942
Place of Birth:Exeter, New Hampshire
Education:B.A., University of New Hampshire, 1965; also studied at University of Vienna; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1967
Read an Excerpt
The Boy Who Belonged to St. Cloud’s
In the hospital of the orphanage-the boys’ division at St. Cloud’s, Maine-two nurses were in charge of naming the new babies and checking that their little penises were healing from the obligatory circumcision. In those days (in 192_), all boys born at St. Cloud’s were circumcised because the orphanage physician had experienced some difficulty in treating uncircumcised soldiers, for this and for that, in World War I. The doctor, who was also the doctor of the boys’ division, was not a religious man; circumcision was not a rite with him-it was a strictly medical act, performed for hygienic reasons. His name was Wilbur Larch, which, except for the scent of ether that always accompanied him, reminded one of the nurses of the tough, durable wood of the coniferous tree of that name. She hated, however, the ridiculous name of Wilbur, and took offense at the silliness of combining a word like Wilbur with something as substantial as a tree.
The other nurse imagined herself to be in love with Dr. Larch, and when it was her turn to name a baby, she frequently named him John Larch, or John Wilbur (her father’s name was John), or Wilbur Walsh (her mother’s maiden name had been Walsh). Despite her love for Dr. Larch, she could not imagine Larch as anything but a last name-and when she thought of him, she did not think of trees at all. For its flexibility as a first or as a last name, she loved the name of Wilbur-and when she tired of her use of John, or was criticized by her colleague for overusing it, she could rarely come up with anything more original than a Robert Larch or a Jack Wilbur (she seemed not to know that Jack was often a nickname for John).
If he had been named by this dull, love-struck nurse, he probably would have been a Larch or a Wilbur of one kind or another; and a John, a Jack, or a Robert-to make matters even duller. Because it was the other nurse’s turn, he was named Homer Wells.
The other nurse’s father was in the business of drilling wells, which was hard, harrowing, honest, precise work-to her thinking her father was composed of these qualities, which lent the word “wells” a certain deep, down-to-earth aura. “Homer” had been the name of one of her family’s umpteen cats.
This other nurse-Nurse Angela, to almost everyone-rarely repeated the names of her babies, whereas poor Nurse Edna had named three John Wilbur Juniors, and two John Larch the Thirds. Nurse Angela knew an inexhaustible number of no-nonsense nouns, which she diligently employed as last names-Maple, Fields, Stone, Hill, Knot, Day, Waters (to list a few)-and a slightly less impressive list of first names borrowed from a family history of many dead but cherished pets (Felix, Fuzzy, Smoky, Sam, Snowy, Joe, Curly, Ed and so forth).
For most of the orphans, of course, these nurse-given names were temporary. The boys’ division had a better record than the girls’ division at placing the orphans in homes when they were babies; too young ever to know the names their good nurses had given them; most of the orphans wouldn’t even remember Nurse Angela or Nurse Edna, the first women in the world to fuss over them. Dr. Larch made it a firm policy that the orphans’ adoptive families not be informed of the names the nurses gave with such zeal. The feeling at St. Cloud’s was that a child, upon leaving the orphanage, should know the thrill of a fresh start-but (especially the boys who were difficult to place and lived at St. Cloud’s the longest) it was hard for Nurse Angela and Nurse Edna, and even for Dr. Larch, not to think of their John Wilburs and John Larches (their Felix Hills, Curly Maples, Joe Knots, Smoky Waterses) as possessing their nurse-given names forever.
The reason Homer Wells kept his name was that he came back to St. Cloud’s so many times, after so many failed foster home, that the orphanage was forced to acknowledge Homer’s intention to make St. Cloud’s his home. It was not easy for anyone to accept, but Nurse Angela and Nurse Edna-and, finally, Dr. Wilbur Larch-were forced to admit that Homer Wells belonged to St. Cloud’s. The determined boy was not put up for adoption anymore.
Nurse Angela, with her love of cats and orphans, once remarked of Homer Wells that the boy must adore the name she gave him because he fought so hard not to lose it.
Reading Group Guide
1. The rules posted on the cider house wall aren't read or understood by anyone living there except Mr. Rose, who makes and breaks his own set of rules. What point is John Irving making with the unread rules?
2. What rules, both written and unwritten, do other characters follow in the novel? Did most characters violate their own rules? Who stays the most true to his or her rules?
3. Dr. Larch makes the interesting statement that because women don't legally have the right to choose, Homer Wells does not have a moral claim in choosing not to perform abortions. Do you find Larch's argument compelling? Do you think Homer was ultimately convinced or that he needed an escape from Ocean View?
4. In order to set future events on what he believes to be the correct path, Larch alters the history of the orphanage to create a false heart murmur for Homer and changes various school transcripts to create Dr. Fuzzy Stone. What other doctoring of history does Larch do? Do you think Homer, as Dr. Fuzzy Stone, will continue the tradition?
5. St. Cloud's setting is grim, unadorned, and unhealthy, while Ocean View is healthy, wide open, and full of opportunities. In what ways do the settings of the orphanage and the orchards belie their effect on their residents? What did you make of Homer bringing the apple trees to St. Cloud's?
6. As you were reading, what did you expect Melony to do to Homer when she finally found him? Though Homer forgets about Melony for many years, do you think she had more of an impact on his future than Candy did?
7. Larch's introduction to sex comes through a prostitute and her daughter, and his introduction to abortion is given by the same women. Sex with Melony, the picture of the pony, and abortions performed by Larch introduces Homer to the same issues, yet Homer doesn't maintain sexual abstinence as Larch does. Why do you think this is? Do you think Larch substitutes ether for sex?
8. Violence against women forms a thread throughout the novel; Melony fights off apple pickers, Grace receives constant beatings from her husband, and Rose Rose suffers incest. Does the author seem to be making a connection between violence and sex? How do the women's individual responses to violence reflect their personalities?
9. The issues of fatherhood are complexas seen in Larch's relation-ship with Homer, and Homer's relationship with Angel but being a good father or good parent is stressed throughout. According to the novel, what are some of the ingredients that make a good father? Is truthfulness one of them?
10. Candy's "wait and see" philosophy contrasts with Larch's constant tinkering with the future to suit his desires. Based on his personality, is Homer better suited to waiting or to working?
11. Herb Fowler's sabotaged condoms are one example of how people and rules in Ocean View are actually the opposite of what they seem. What other examples can you recall?
12. 12. Near the end, Homer's meeting with Melony is a turning point, spurring him to reveal the truth about Angel's parentage and to return to St. Cloud's, where he can be "of use." While reading, did you want to learn more about Melony's adventures during the intervening years or less? Which character do you think drove the novel's momentum?
13. If you saw the film adaptation of The Cider House Rules, discuss the aspects of the story that you think were stronger in the novel, and the portions of the film that were especially potent. What are your feelings about film adaptations of novels in general, and about the adaptation of this novel in particular? 14. What did you find to be particularly effective or well done in Irving's writing? If you've read other Irving novels, name some of the themes that he carries over from novel to novel.