John Irving’s The Cider House Rules is an example of the evolutionary nature of the creative process of writing something as complex as a novel. Inspired by Victorian literature in general and the novels of Charles Dickens specifically, the novel originated with the idea creating a modern day tale of life in an orphanage. While conducting the research into that topic, Irving discovered a remarkable hidden fact of the reality of orphanages in those days that manage to escape most of the popular fictional indictments: abortions were far more routine than the sight of orphans dancing in the streets of London and singing about being part of the family.
Abortion took on an increasing significance, and the original concept was soon shelved by Irving as his novel became a coming-of-age tale about an orphan named Homer Wells; his association with the orphanage in St. Cloud, Maine, begins in the early 20th century, but eventually this orphanage becomes the home to which it is said everyone tries to return after he grows up. The return of Homer is prompted by the replacement of the long-standing physician, Wilbur Larch, who is both addicted to ether and revealed to be an abortionist.
The return of Homer and the personal issues of Dr. Larch are both intricately tied to the greater symbolic of words written on a piece of paper that give the novel its title. The literal “cider house rules” are posted in order to keep the migrant workers in line while employed by the cider house. The symbolic meaning with which they are infused is realized in the difficulty that the character face when trying to apply a rigid code of behavior to every specific instance to which they might apply. Ultimately, the focus of The Cider House Rules is really about neither orphanage nor abortion, but the much larger and prickly issue of attempting to impose unambiguous standards of morality upon an irredeemably ambiguous world.
The 1985 novel was adapted into a film of the same name in 1999, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and took home two: Michael Caine for Best Supporting Actor as Dr. Larch and John Irving himself for adapting his novel into screenplay form.