By Chet Yarbrough
By: John Irving
Narrated by: Grover Gardner
John Irving frightens and enlightens reader/listeners with a story about companionship rules. Irving, in The Cider House Rules, methodically reveals pro-choice arguments for abortion. The laboratory for his pro-choice argument is an imagined orphanage, run by a doctor named Wilbur Larch. However, “The Cider House Rules” is as much about companionship alternatives and rules as it is about pro-choice arguments.
Dr. Wilbur Larch is characterized by Irving as a pragmatic humanist, with a drug addiction. Larch is an obstetrician that chooses to become an abortionist in the 1930s after seeing how unwanted children and abused women are victimized by society’s neglect. Larch starts an orphanage to care for abandoned children, with a sideline as an abortionist.
In the circumstance of a mother with an unwanted pregnancy, Larch offers women a choice; i.e. either deliver their babies in his orphanage, or have an abortion under his supervision. If a baby is at an advanced stage of fetal development, Larch will not abort the fetus but offer the mother obstetrics service at the orphanage for a donation, in any amount they can afford.
Homer Wells is one of Larch’s orphans. Wells is an orphan of an unknown mother that leaves him at the orphanage. Though adopted several times, Wells’ adoptions never work. Wells grows into his teenage years at the orphanage. He becomes a protégé of Larch with the skill to deliver babies. However, Wells says he will not abort a fetus. An obvious inference is Wells would not have been born if abortion were an option. At the same time, Wells does not condemn Larch’s abortion practice. Their abortion positions are a companionship rule. Larch becomes like a father to Wells; i.e. Wells’ first close companionship.
Wells develops a second companionship with Melanie. Melanie becomes Wells’ first sexual relationship. Melanie is characterized as unattractive, muscular, and somewhat mannish. Melanie is a bully but, like most bullies, insecure. She makes a pact with Wells that offers sex to him if he agrees to never leave the orphanage without her. This is a second companionship rule for Wells; i.e. you give me something, and I will give you something.
Irving introduces the characters of Candy and Wally. They are in love. Their love comes from mutual physical attraction and a childhood association with each other. This is a third companionship rule inferred by Irving; i.e. proximity and familiarity engender attraction. They plan to marry but Candy becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Wally suggests they get married in spite of their youth. Candy feels it would be better to have an abortion. Candy pragmatically explains they are too young; they have no jobs, and both plan to go to college. Wally hears of the orphanage and drives Wally’s Dad’s company car to see Dr. Larch. Larch agrees to provide the abortion.
Wally and Candy are attractive companions. Wally is the son of a successful apple orchard owner; Candy is the daughter of a lobsterman, who is also a mechanic for the orchard owner. When Wells meets Wally and Candy, he seizes an opportunity to leave the orphanage to work at either Wally’s or Candy’s parents’ businesses. A companionship develops between Wally, Candy, and Wells. This is a new and different companionship. Wally’s, Candy’s, and Wells’ relationship sets the circumstance for a more complicated set of companionship rules; i.e. a ménage à trois .
This breaks the companionship rule of parent to child (Larch to Wells) and Wells protégé relationship with Larch. Wells leaves the orphanage without Melanie: i.e. another broken companionship rule. Melanie runs away from the orphanage to find Wells. Melanie is obsessed with Wells and angry for his abandonment. In that anger is a foreshadowing that is suspenseful and frightening. Suspense comes from Melanie’s departure. Fright comes from Melanie’s obsession and past behavior at the orphanage.
In Melanie’s travels, she develops an intimate relationship with a young woman. This seems to abate Melanie’s anger. Melanie’s new companionship rule is exclusive intimate partnership. That rule is also broken when Melanie’s female partner, after fifteen years of life together, becomes pregnant. Melanie’s partner is thrown out and Melanie’s anger toward Wells is rekindled.
Irving weaves companionship rules into a tight, foreshadowing, and cohesive story that explains how people find a way to love, hate, obsess, neglect, and hurt each other. Irving is writing about how people find their way in life. Irving illustrates how a big part of life is waiting and seeing what happens, rather than planning and expecting life to turn out as expected. The Cider House Rules is a well-crafted story. Irving brilliantly outlines companionship rules that have frightening and enlightening consequences.