Reflections on The Cider House Rules

The Cider House Rules was a film that caused some considerable buzz in its day. It may be largely forgotten now, but it remains one of my favorites. I recommend the film to any who may not have seen it and thus will attempt to explain my admiration for the work without divulging too much of the story.

Now to make full disclosure I will confess to being an avowed Anglophile and for this reason I will find myself enamored of any picture that features Michael Caine in its cast. I’ve yet to see a role that he has performed that I did not like. Even with that admitted bias I believe it is still fair to say that The Cider House Rules was one of his most powerful performances. Caine was nominated for and won the Oscar for best supporting actor in his role as Dr. Larch.  From his voluminous portfolio this should stand as one of his greatest roles.

The film is based upon the John Irving novel of the same name and was billed as ” a story about how far we must travel to find the place where we belong.” Never one to shy from controversial topics or themes Irving confronted one of the great moral quandaries of our time in this tale, that of abortion. This was only one of many questions dealt with in the story, but it’s inclusion is significant not only for the tremendous profile given to the history of abortion in America.  The treatment of this topic fits very well into the theme that is encapsulated in the title.

Dr. Larch is the director of an orphanage set in Maine in the early forties.  In addition to his kindly mission of taking and providing care to the orphaned and unwanted, striving to find good homes for them with a family, he also offers distressed young women the choice of terminating their pregnancies.  The performance of abortions was still illegal in that time. This occurred in a time and place that the people were uncomfortable to acknowledge even the existence of such things.  It is the sober recognition that any law may be passed to prohibit certain acts or behaviors, but where there is a demand for these that demand will always be met by someone, law or no.

Dr. Larch is a secondary character in this tale, the main protagonist being Homer Wells, an orphan, portrayed by Tobey Maguire in the film.  Homer was twice placed in a home and twice returned to the orphanage, after which Dr. Larch takes the youth on as a protege.  Again with a view towards not divulging too much of the story I’ll provide no further detail of their relationship.  It is later in the story that young Homer gains an opportunity to experience the world outside of the orphanage and lands a job at an apple orchard working alongside of migrants.  This entails housing as part of the compensation, in a bunkhouse on the estate known as the Cider House.

Though never formally educated Homer is the only one present among the workers who is able to read. Posted within the house are what are titled “The Cider House Rules”, a list of do’s and don’ts for the residents. Homer reads these aloud for the other workers when they are curious what the notice says. Even though they are illiterate and uneducated the workers have enough sense to understand something very profound. They observe that these are rules that are made without the consent of the occupants by people who do not live there and are thus not subject to the same rules. The workers quite logically conclude that as these rules were made by those who do not have to live there or live under the same rules, the rules are to be ignored.

Hence the title and this is the theme that makes the story and the film memorable. Of course the broader theme is, as it is billed, finding one’s way in life. Taking that journey to ultimately find where one belongs. These themes meet in conflict in the story just as they do in real life. There is the path that may be found by those bold enough to seek it. There is the path that may be followed at the direction of those who deem themselves fit to give it yet do not themselves walk in the same shoes.

I can not say if this was Irving’s intent by including abortion as a part of the story, but I can see clearly how it relates to the theme.  I usually like to steer clear of the debate that rages around the subject of abortion.  I am convinced that much of the fury from both sides of the argument are puffed up, exaggerated solely as a tactic. I may well be wrong about that but those are my thoughts nonetheless.  I am by sentiment of the pro-life camp. I am by reason pro-choice. The Cider House Rules provides a good illustration for why.

In the story there are young women who find themselves in difficult circumstances. We don’t know all of the specifics of their individual cases. Some may have found themselves left with child by a lover who had upon the news abandoned them. Some may have found themselves in the condition as a result of rape or incest. Or in many instances, as I suspect is still true today, these young women found themselves in a position where they were confronted with the prospect of having to raise and care for a child all by themselves and not having the means or support to do so. These were women, or more correctly mere girls in many cases, facing these daunting prospects in an era where the social stigmas were still very much at work. For right or wrong the reality was that they and their children were faced with distinct disadvantages well beyond those of an economic nature. The young mothers to be in this tale were among the fortunate few who could connect with a qualified physician who could and would perform the procedure in a sanitary and clinical environment. In that era there were many who were not so lucky.

When rules and law on abortion are made by those unable to wear the same skin as those facing that choice it becomes just like The Cider House Rules.  Making rules for others that one does not have to abide by themselves.  One does not have to approve of the act and is certainly free to offer counsel against it, but to turn it back as a point of law I think would be unwise.  As long as human beings possess reproductive functions and are left free to engage in these there will be inconvenient and/or unwanted pregnancies. There is no right or wrong to it, that is just a fact. Where these conditions exist there will continue to be, just as there always has been, a demand for the service.  Any question of legality aside where there is a demand for anything there will be someone able and willing to meet that demand.  Far better this be left where it may be answered under safe, sanitary and transparent conditions.

I don’t believe that The Cider House Rules was penned as a morality tale about abortion. Irving chose to treat the subject for whatever motives he may have had.  This theme encapsulated in the title has much broader application.  We find ourselves living under The Cider House Rules every day.  Bureaucrats from a myriad of federal agencies, nameless and faceless beings under the guise of their agencies’ authority, make and enforce rules upon others in places where they don’t have to live.  That same nameless, faceless class of beings populate the EU congress in Brussels. They make rules and issue proclamations for some distant Cider House that they have never set foot in and likely never will.  There seems to be an inevitable tendency amongst those in authority to practice the rule of “do as I say, not as I do”.

Whether by a seizure through force of arms in an autocratic society, or by guile and deception as exercised through some construct of democracy, those in positions of authority are there because they sought it. The very nature of such a personality should be viewed with suspicion. Within a democracy we have the opportunity and the responsibility to apply this. This requires being informed and employing critical thinking when examining the information available. If one does not make their own effort to separate fact from fiction then they are vulnerable to all manner of manipulation.

If uneducated and illiterate migrant workers could see and reject the hypocrisy of The Cider House Rules the overlords of the estate would have good cause for concern. That is an aspect that was not dealt with in either the novel or the film, but we see this at work in our real world Cider House today.  The establishment, i.e. career politicians, mainstream media analysts, the academic community, these are the parties who have penned life’s Cider House Rules. They are the smart people who know best, the ones who write the rules but don’t have to follow them.  Somehow all of those illiterate, uneducated migrant workers, i.e. the electorate, have awakened and called bull shit on their game. We reject your rules, we reject what you have been feeding us.

Their reaction to events tells it all.  They carry on with the narrative that the people have succumbed to ignorance, seduced by populism.  They mouth the words, more to convince themselves I believe, that this current political climate has emboldened the bigots and reactionaries. The racists feeling their grip slipping are staging one last gasp against the inevitable progressive tide of history. Make no mistake that this is precisely what these people believe. It is what they believe about themselves and what they believe about all of us. When Mrs. Clinton uttered those now unforgettable words “basket of deplorables” that was no error. She meant every bit of it. This is how the elite class sees us. That we should ever wise up and reject them could not possibly be their fault. Nothing ever is their fault.

And sadly, in a sense, it isn’t. It’s our own fault for allowing it to go on.  It is going to take more than one set of elections before these people will go away. They are rooted deeply in many parts of our society. They are like dandelions on your lawn. It does not do to go along and just randomly pick them off here and there. If you want to be rid of them they must be ripped up by the roots.

The Cider House Rules is a good metaphor for the current state of our politics. It is an even better film. If you’ve not seen it I recommend that you do so. Hopefully once you have that scene will come back to you again and again as you hear someone reading you rules that they don’t have to live by.



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