In 1985, John Irving published his sixth novel and third bestseller, The Cider House Rules. By May of 1985 it had reached both the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists, and it was a Book of the Month Club Selection (Campbell 107). Until his publication of The World According to Garp, John Irving was a relatively unknown author even though his first two books were reviewed positively. After Garp was published, his life was immediately changed due to the novel's immense popularity. Garp was widely hailed as a dynamic work, considered by many critics to be a work of literature rather than simply a piece of popular fiction. This popularity paved the way for Irving's success with his next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, a follow-on bestseller that lacks the psychological and emotional depth found in Garp. It is difficult to say whether The Cider House Rules is yet another follow-on bestseller, dependent on Irving's previous popularity or whether it would have been accepted by the public for its own merit. Due to its continued popularity, it is safe to say that Irving's sixth novel is in part so loved because of its intrinsic qualities -- its departure from John Irving's usually scattered plots and cute devices, its Dickensian feel and its exploration of the abortion issue.
Though The Cider House Rules may fall into the category of a follow-on bestseller, it is also something of a departure novel, since it shows a true difference in style from Irving's two previous novels. The Cider House Rules is written in a more linear fashion than Garp or Hotel, which both jump back and forth in time throughout the lives of the main characters. For some, this stylistic choice makes the novel easier to follow and more engaging, but for others it is "a little too plain for nearly 600 pages" (Burgess). Irving also writes this novel in the third person omniscient voice, departing from his recent use of the first person, giving the novel a different feel and allowing it to focus on more characters. It still delivers John Irving's signature wackiness and sentimentality the made his other novels so successful, but it is portrayed in a different way, thus appealing to more people and different tastes. Irving's "weakness for the cute and trendy" is still evident in The Cider House Rules, he does not rely on his usual gimmicks found in Garp and Hotel, and even in his later bestseller, A Widow for One Year (DeMott). Dr. Larch and Homer Wells characteristically reflect the sexual defectiveness of all of Irving's main characters (both men are virtually celibate much like Frank in Hotel), and both men have their own catch phrases like those of TS Garp and Frank. Larch's "Wait and see" and "I expect you to be of use," however, are not as ubiquitous or as ominous as the common sentence in Hotel, "Keep passing the open windows." Neither is there a single dancing bear or a trip to Vienna in the entire novel, as there is in The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire or even in Irving's later novel, A Widow for One Year. Thus, The Cider House Rules succeeds in being a departure novel without leaving behind all of what the public loves about Irving -- it still retains his sense of familial love and his sentimentality. Though it stirs some criticism for its differences, with Newsweek referring to it as a "thick brick of a book," it expands its audience while retaining most of its old members (Lewis).
In exploring a new style, Irving also draws heavily on a previously established writing style -- that of Charles Dickens, and to a lesser extent, that of Charlotte Bronte. "Irving plots The Cider House Rules with the care, complexity and attention to detail of the nineteenth-century novels he loves," focusing specifically on the idea of the orphan as hero and setting the first part of his novel in an orphanage in the early twentieth century. Irving even gives an open nod to Dickens as he makes him Homer's favorite author:
Wilbur Larch was being cautious. He didn't fear for Homer's mind. A boy who has read Great Expectations and David Copperfield by himself, twice each -- and had each word of both books read aloud to him, also twice -- is more mentally prepared than most (39).
Not only does Irving acknowledge his Dickensian influence, he also writes his novel to play out in a similar, though updated, manner to that of a Dickens novel. The Cider House Rules possesses comparable tribulations for its main character, Homer Wells, the boy who is never adopted. With those families who attempt to adopt Homer, he encounters extremely difficult situations -- with the first family, he is severely abused because he will not cry, and with another family, his new parents die in an unfortunate rafting accident several days after having brought him home. As a result of these repeated misfortunes, he is returned to the orphanage, St. Cloud's, several times, and he grows to an age at which he is no longer attractive to prospective parents. Like Jane Eyre or David Copperfield, Homer waits to adulthood to thrive in one place. Much of his personality is based around the fact that he is an orphan -- it is the life that he has known and the live to which he eventually returns. This idea is common to successful novels of the nineteenth century, as is the idea of sentimentality. The very idea that Homer returns to his orphanage to take the place of Dr. Larch, also dubbed St. Larch, the obstetrician and abortionist -- the very first chapter of The Cider House Rules is entitled "The Boy Who Belonged to St. Cloud's" -- is extremely sentimental, almost ad nauseam. However, all of these characteristics that made the nineteenth century novel popular, particularly the novels of Charles Dickens, work to make this book appealing in the same way. We read the novel for the feel-good quality of Dr. Larch's fatherly love for Homer Wells, boy who finally realizes that he belongs not to the cider house where he was lured by love and the promise of family, but to St. Cloud's, where he grew up. This very sentimentality makes the novel appealing, right down to the emotional description of Dr. Larch's death:
It was a new, full can of ether; perhaps he jabbed the safety pin too roughly into the can, or else he wiggled it around too impatiently. The ether dripped onto the face mask more freely than usual; his hand kept slipping off the cone before he could get enough to satisfy himself. He turned a little toward the wall; that way, the edge of the windowsill maintained contact with the mask over his mouth and nose after his fingers relaxed their grip (515).
Irving goes on to describe how Larch's death simply meant he was no longer of use to the orphanage, not disgraced in its sight, "And a man of use, Wilbur Larch had thought, was all that he was born to be" (516). Like the death of David Copperfield's first wife, Dora, in David Copperfield, this scene is meant to move its readers to tears. Just as Dickens wrote to a certain audience to render certain emotional reactions, so Irving writes in a similar manner to elicit similar emotions. He uses the influence of Charles Dickens, an extremely popular author of his own day, to recreate a comparable novel. This type of a novel tends to still be popular, and as a result, Irving's novels with this quality, particularly The Cider House Rules, thrive in the same way that David Copperfield of Great Expectations did and still does. In this way, The Cider House Rules is also a bestseller of nostalgia -- not a historical nostalgia such as in The Virginian by Owen Wister, but rather, a literary nostalgia for a simpler, more sentimental style of writing.
Unlike any novel by Dickens, The Cider House Rules is also important among bestsellers because of its discussion of the abortion issue. The World According to Garp similarly explores the issues of the sexual revolution -- single motherhood, rape and issues of sexual identity. This political topic is, however, somewhat outweighed by the story of Garp's family. Unlike Garp, The Cider House Rules makes a political issue its subject, although it was originally not intended to be that way:
In one interview, he spoke of how the subject fit, and how he came to make Dr. Larch ? an abortionist as well as an obstetrician and pediatrician: "[W]hat doctor would be most sympathetic to performing abortions but the doctor who delivered unwanted babies, then cared for them in an orphanage?" (Campbell 107).
Though Dr. Larch is an ardent backer of the pro-choice stance, his chosen protégé, Homer Wells, is, at first, absolutely not. When Larch asks Homer to take his place after his death, Homer replies with a note saying, "1. I AM NOT A DOCTOR. 2. I BELIEVE THE FETUS HAS A SOUL. 3. I'M SORRY" (513). Homer of course ends up in keeping with the sentiment of the novel, that of "delivering mothers" as Larch says so many times, when he has to deal with a case of incest in the cider house. The pregnant daughter of one of the cider house workers, Rose Rose, comes to him as her last hope. It is at this point that he decides he has no choice but to deliver her from the pain she will know if she delivers a child who is a product of her father's rape. As he begins the operation, he recites the beginning lines of David Copperfield, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." (529). He draws on his medical expertise and aborts the child, leading to his replacement of St. Larch at the orphanage where he truly belongs. Interestingly, it takes him 529 pages to come to this point in his life, showing his reluctance to give into the idea of a woman's choice over a fetus' soul. This makes the novel approachable for both those who are comfortably set in the idea of a woman's right to choose as well as for those who have reservations about the state of a fetus' soul. Through Larch and Homer, Irving explores both sides of the abortion issue, eventually resolving on the side of pro-choice, but not without a lot of intelligent thought beforehand.
Why does such a wishy-washy discussion of abortion make for a popular novel? The answer is simple -- people all over America had were mulling the issue over in their minds in 1985, and still struggle over it today. In 1985, not fifteen years after Roe v. Wade, Ronald Reagan was president and was ardently against abortion. Many Americans feared the retraction of the Supreme Court decision and were hotly arguing about the topic during those years. In The Cider House Rules, John Irving does not attack those who would support Reagan, but gives them something of an ally in Homer who truly believes that abortion is wrong, but, in the end, strives to do the right thing. Irving also plays out detailed, intelligent arguments on the subject between Larch and Homer, working to reflect the quarrels of the day in an intellectual manner. This political issue made the novel interesting not only to Irving fans, but also to those interested in the issue of abortion -- and Irving was able to show it from both sides:
Responsive to the ideals and passions that drive both parties - pro-life, pro-choice - the author does not tease himself with delusions that a sunny negotiated accord waits just down the road?. But Mr. Irving draws readers close, in the space of his imagination, to an understanding of essential links ? between factions now seething with hatred for each other. I have to record ? that the novel's potential political consequence - as an approach to reconciliation based on clarification of shared moral objectives - moved me to gratitude as I read (DeMott).
The Cider House Rules is a difficult novel to push into one category or another as a bestseller. It could be classified as either a follow-on novel or as a departure novel, drawing on the sentimental qualities of Dickens to give his readers a good cry and a warm smile. However, the "potential political consequence" of The Cider House Rules tended to be, and still is, the main draw for its readers. This is also one of the main reasons why the novel has so endured, in combination with Irving's continued popularity and location on the bestseller list. Though the book has sustained its fair share of negative criticism, from its questionable literary quality to its pro-choice standpoint, the novel has endured and has recently transitioned into an Academy Award winning movie.