Free Study Guide: The Cider House Rules by John Irving

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Major Theme

The major theme of The Cider House Rules is that individuals define their own rules by which to act and live despite societal dictates. In the case of this novel, these rules contextuallize the difficult issue of abortion.

Several of the characters define their own rules, breaking societal norms and legal regulations. The most obvious of which is Dr. Larch’s rules regarding abortion. Larch’s rules allow him to determine when to deliver a baby and when to "deliver a mother" (abortion), despite the fact that "delivering a mother" (abortion) is illegal. Larch also has rules regarding the orphanage. He has ruled that records of birth mothers should not be kept. He has ruled that the best thing for orphans is routine and a sense of security.

Homer also has his own rules, though not as explicitly stated as Dr. Larch’s rules. The one rule that dictates all of Homer’s behavior is that he must be of use. In fact, this rule to be of use is one of the reasons why Homer leaves one of families that adopted him. For the majority of the novel, Homer follows his rules regarding abortion rather than adopt Larch’s rule.

Two other characters of note also live by their own rules, Mr. Rose and Candy. Mr. Rose differentiates between the rules of the black pickers and the rules of their white employers. Mr. Rose rules by the knife, that is, fear and intimidation. Mr. Rose also rules over his daughter’s body. Candy dictates the rules of the family she, Wally, Homer, and Angel create. It is Candy who rules that she will marry Wally but that she and Homer will hide from Wally and Angel the truth. Candy also has rules on how she and Homer will be intimate over the 15 years they live together as a family.

Minor Theme

Two minor themes exist in this novel. The first is the theme of choice or lack of choices. Homer has very few choices at St. Cloud’s. On the other hand, Candy and Wally have always had choices open to them. Throughout the novel, Irving shows how characters have and do not have choices upon which to act.

The second theme is that people themselves can define their own families. For example, the triangular family in which Candy, Homer, and Wally live. There is also Melony and Lorna, who live together as lovers.


Throughout the novel, there is a mood of melancholy isolation and seriousness. The novel opens with a lengthy description of the isolation of St. Cloud’s. A town perpetually covered by a gray mist, inundated with sawdust with a winter season and a muddy season. This sense of isolation follows Homer when he leaves St. Cloud’s. Despite, being a part of the Worthington and Kendall families, Homer stills feels like a Bedouin, a wandered with no home.

Additionally, despite what one would consider a happy ending, The Cider House Rules is not a feel good novel. It is a novel that addresses the serious issue of abortion and the complexities of that issue. These complexities result in a serious undertone throughout the novel.

John Irving - BIOGRAPHY

John Irving - The Cider House Rules Free Study Guide/Notes/Summary
John Irving

John Winslow Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire. He attended the Universities of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), Vienna (Austria), and New Hampshire. He taught at Windham College in Vermont and later became an Assistant Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. His first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1968. He became known with the success of his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, which was published in 1978 and turned into a motion picture (1982), for which he wrote the screenplay. The success of this novel allowed Irving to leave teaching and become a full-time writer. The World According to Garp was nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The Cider House Rules, published in 1985, is Irving’s sixth novel. He wrote the screenplay for The Cider House Rules, and it was turned into a motion picture in 1999. For this work, he won an Oscar for best-adapted screenplay.

John Irving currently lives in Vermont and Toronto. His latest and tenth novel, The Fourth Hand, was published in 2001.


The central issue in The Cider House Rules is that of abortion. Dr. Larch believes that the state should not regulate abortion and that woman should have the right to choose. Homer, on the other hand, believes that abortion is the killing of human life. The abortion debate is too long and complex to discuss here. However, some knowledge of the history of abortion and the social and ethical issues surrounding it in the United States is appropriate.

Abortion is the termination of pregnancy before birth. There are two types of abortions spontaneous and induced. A spontaneous abortion, commonly known as a miscarriage, is unintentional. An induced abortion is performed because a pregnancy is unwanted or presents a risk to a woman’s health.

Laws banning abortion appeared in the 1820s in the United States, supported by physicians and legislators. Doctors were concerned about the competition from abortionist and the safety of the abortions performed. Illegal abortions tend to be performed by untrained people and in unsanitary conditions. The notion of state authority, rather than family or religious authority, allowed legislators to gain more and more control over peoples’ lives. By 1965, laws prohibiting abortion existed in all 50 states.

Women had been attempting to control reproduction in various ways. By the early 19th century, condoms were being used to prevent pregnancy in addition to the preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. However, religious reformers concerned about prostitution connected birth control and abortion with immorality. The Comstock Law of 1873 declared birth control and abortion information obscene. States also passed laws banning contraception. Another reason birth control was banned was the fear of immigrant groups. Immigrant groups tended to have larger numbers of children. It was feared that eventually a large immigrant population would dominate native-born white Americans if birth control was allowed. A few people, however, spoke out in favor of birth control, including Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.

The Comstock Law was declared unconstitutional in 1938, but state laws remained. In 1965, the Supreme Court struck down state laws against contraception for married people and extended those rights to unmarried persons in 1971. In 1973, with the Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme declared most existing state abortion laws unconstitutional. Later, the Court ruled that states could restrict abortions during the final three months of pregnancy. Since these decisions, states have enacted laws to regulate abortion. For instance, some states require parental consent or notification. Some states regulate who can pay for an abortion, where an abortion can be performed, and what information women seeking abortions must be given.

John Irving incorporates some of this history into The Cider House Rules. In his book, My Movie Business, Irving writes about his research on orphanages and orphanage hospitals. He states he realized that, when abortions were illegal, a woman would be more likely to find a physician to perform a safe abortion in an orphanage hospital because he would know what happens to the many children who were abandoned or given up for adoption. As a result, he made Dr. Larch, an orphanage doctor, an abortionist.

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