Free Study Guide: The Cider House Rules by John Irving

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CHAPTER 1 - The Boy Who Belonged to St. Cloudís


The Cider House Rules opens in the boys division of the St. Cloudís orphanage in Maine in the 1920s. Dr. Wilbur Larch circumcises the male children and Nurses Edna and Angela name them. These given names are only used among those at the orphanage. Once the boys are adopted, those names are forgotten for Dr. Larch believes in a new name for a fresh start. However, Homer Wells, named by Nurse Angela, kept his name for he often came back to the orphanage. After four failed foster homes, Dr. Larch decided Homer belonged to St. Cloudís.

According to self-appointed historian Dr. Larch, in his diary, A Brief History of St. Cloudís, the Ramses Paper Company was the enemy of St. Cloudís, killing the land and maiming its people for its insatiable desire for paper. And then, when there were no more trees, the Ramses Paper Company closed down the mill and moved downstream, leaving only aged prostitutes and their orphaned children. A literate prostitute wrote a letter to the state board of Maine asking for a doctor, school, policeman, and lawyer for the helpless women and orphans of St. Cloudís. This letter reached Dr. Larch when he was a young man. He eventually created a state-supported orphanage. He left St. Cloudís only once, during World War I. And by the 1920s, when Homer Wells was born, Nurses Edna and Angela had given him the pet name Saint Larch, and it was Saint Larch that allowed Homer Wells to stay at St. Cloudís as long as he was useful.

Homer was nothing if not useful. Homerís first foster parents returned him because of his unusual ability to be silent and placid. His second foster parents responded to his silence by beating him in order to make him cry. When Homer saw that his foster parents wanted him to cry, thatís what he gave them, tears and wailing, wholeheartedly. The news of Homerís crying became legendary in the town of Three Miles Falls. When the news reached St. Cloudís, the nurses were alarmed, knowing it was unusually for Homer. At the nursesí insistence, Dr. Larch retrieved Homer. It took the nurses almost a year before Homer stopped screaming whenever someone approached him. But, the nurses were probably more permanently scarred then Homer, and Dr. Larch, who had placed him with the family, never recovered. Whenever he thought about peopleís ambiguity in their feelings for children, he remembered the fear in the faces of Homerís foster family when he came to take Homer from them.

Dr. Larch believed in abortion. He believed that no one should ever make a woman have a baby she did not want to have. For those who spoke against abortion, he told of Homerís 6 weeks with the family that made him cry. It was not until Homer was 4 that he no longer awoke screaming in the middle of the night to the nightmares caused by that family.

Homerís third foster family, the Drapers, were just too good, too predictable, too routine, and to able to oversimplify life. Professor Draper, a college teacher, taught a lesson at every turn, and Mom, was more of a Mom than any other woman. At first, Homer loved the routine. Orphans appreciate things that happen daily and on schedule. As Dr. Larch would say, every child understands a promise, and if promises are kept, they looked forward to the next one. By doing so, Dr. Larch slowly built security for the orphans. But at the first Thanksgiving with the Drapers, Homer stopped liking the routine of the Drapers. He no longer felt of use as he had been at the orphanage. At Thanksgiving at the orphanage, Homer had responsibilities, at the Drapers, he had none. The Draperís Thanksgiving ended with Professor Draper and his three married and grown children drunk, and the grandchildren breaking every house rule. To make himself sleep, he forced himself to recall a very sad memory of St. Cloudís. He remembered women waiting for the coach to the train station in the dark from the hospital. They were shy and ashamed. The men and women getting off the coach to work at the hospital seemed arrogant and superior. One of the women made a remark to the leaving women that drove them away from the coach. Even the usually friendly coach driver said nothing to these women. They boarded silently. Homer remembers seeing some of them with their faces in their hands, while others sat stonily because if they didnít they would lose all control. It was more meaningful that Homer saw them leaving rather than arriving full-bellied and undelivered of their problems. Homer knew that when they left they did not look delivered from their problems.

On this night, remembering these women, Homer boarded the coach and the train with them. He singled out his mother and followed her home. It was hard to imagine what she looked like and even harder to imagine his father. Like other orphans, he often imagined his parents, and as a child, and even as an adult, Homer was embarrassed to be caught staring at adults, wondering if they were his parents. On this night, Homer almost found his real parents before falling asleep only to be awakened by one of the grandchildren, an older boy, who he was to share his bed with.

The older boy told him to keep his pecker in his pants and not to try and bugger him, a term for anal intercourse. Homer did not know what buggery was, and the boy then tried to bugger Homer. Homer screamed, as he had in Three Mile Falls, bringing Mom to the door. The older boy told Mom that Homer tried to bugger him and that he let Homer have it. Homer trying to control himself didnít know that grandchildren were believed before orphans. Mom hit Homer as hard as that family from Three Mile Falls had hit him. She banished him to the furnace room and made him kneel down and say that he was vile and abhorred himself. Homer, 10 years old, put on some winter clothing, left, and made his way back to St. Cloudís.

Upon returning, Homer told Dr. Larch that he had felt of no use at the Drapers. He also told him of the drinking and the odd prayers. When the Drapers told Dr. Larch of the buggery incident, Dr. Larch explained what buggery. He then wrote a note to the Drapers telling them to repent and that they should abhor themselves. It took Dr. Larch 3 years to find Homerís fourth foster home.

Dr. Larch wrote in his journal that there was only one problem at St. Cloudís and that problem was not that there were orphans, that their budget was small, that women didnít have the right to abort, or that there were unwanted babies; the problem was that St. Cloudís had become Homerís home. Homer had the run of St. Cloudís and knew all the comings and goings of the people.

Homerís fourth foster family was athletic. They did various outdoor sports from canoeing to sea diving to camping. The Winkles were born rich. Their business of taking people on outdoor adventures didnít make any money, but they didnít need any. This didnít impress Dr. Larch. What did impress him was that they were deliriously happy. The Winkles were to take Homer on a few trips, moose watching and white water rafting. Dr. Larch felt that this would give Homer a chance to see whether the Winkles would bore him to death.

They cramped into the cab of their safari vehicle, Homer sitting on Mrs. Winkleís lap, and began their journey to the mountains. They pitched camp, and the Winkleís told Homer adventure stories, and Homer read to them from Charles Dickensí Great Expectations before falling asleep. The next morning the Winkles arose with tremendous energy. They decided to swim in the raging stream. They erected an elaborate system of safety ropes and survival lines and bounced in the strong rapids. Suddenly, Homer felt the earth shake. Too late, he and the Winkles realized that the Ramses Paper Companyís log drive was coming from upstream. Fear etched on their faces, the Winkles struggled to get to safety, and Homer fled to the road. Homer turned in time to see the logs surge by and take the Winkles with them. It took the Ramses Paper Company 3 days to find their bodies.

Homer hitched a ride back to St. Cloudís on a Ramses Paper Company truck. After he told Dr. Larch what happened, Dr. Larch decided that St. Cloudís would become Homerís permanent home. Dr. Larch told Homer that he expected him to be of use, which for Homer Wells was easy.


Irving sets a picture of an isolated, abandoned town whose only inhabitants are aged prostitutes and the residents of the orphanage. It is ironic that the enemy of St. Cloudís was named the Ramses Paper Company. Ramses was an Egyptian pharaoh famous for greed, enslavement, and arrogance. The paper company greedily took the land never replanting the trees it took. The company also enslaved its workers and the prostitutes that served them, using them only as long as they served their purpose then closing down the mill. In the present day, Ramses is also a popular brand of condom. Birth control was not readily available to or practiced by the women who came to St. Cloudís.

One important inhabitant of St. Cloudís is the protagonist, Homer Wells. In this chapter, we learn of Homerís life from birth to 12 or 13 years of age. During this period, he had four foster families; a testament to the difficulties in finding children good homes. We also learn of Homerís most dominate quality--his need to be of use. Homer attempts to be of use to each of his foster families. He was such a good, silent baby (something most parents would wish for) that his first family returned him. His second family wanted him to cry, and he accommodated him by becoming the townís most legendary screamer. He tries to be of use to his third family by listening and following their advice but leaves when he realizes that he was not of use to them. And for the one night he is with his fourth family, he reads to them. Finally, Larch decides that St. Cloudís is Homerís home, and Homer does whatever he can to be of use there.

Dr. Larch as founder and director of the orphanage makes all the decisions. The nurses respect and admire him. They also admire the work he does as an obstetrician and as an abortionist. None of them see abortion as the Devilís work. Larch has firm beliefs, and his actions speak louder than his words. Despite abortion being illegal, his belief that women have the right to choose, allowed him to deliver them. He also attempts to provide the orphans in his care with routine, security, and a reason to trust.

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