"The Cider House Rules"

Director: Lasse Hallström
Book author / Screenwriter: John Irving
Released: 1999
With Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire, Charleze Theron, Delroy Lindo, and others

The first part of the story takes place at the orphanage of St. Cloud’s in rural Maine. St. Cloud's is a somewhat gloomy place. The introductory images of the place show us the muddy yard of the small railroad station, a dark landscape covered by an early snow, and the aging Victorian brick buildings of the orphanage and clinic that could easily serve as the location for a conventional horror movie. By voice-over we are informed that this is a place of abandoned children and unhappily pregnant women. Once in a while visitors stop by--either to leave yet another orphan behind, or to adopt one. Neither event is necessarily a happy affair. Women who leave an infant behind are often tortured by contradictory feelings, and when potential adoption parents walk along the row of youngsters to make their selection, we see the desperation in the eyes of the children who try hard to look attractive, but who know that most likely they will not the ones who are chosen.

If St. Cloud's is a place that inspires the desire to leave, it is not because it is badly run. Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) is in charge of the institution, and he administers it as best as he can within the limits of rather scarce resources--with the help of two nurses who are lovingly devoted to the children and their boss. These three staff members care sincerely for every youngster--comforting them in distress, consoling them in disappointments, and arranging for their entertainment and happiness whenever that is possible. Dr. Larch insists that the vulnerable orphans be treated as if they came from royal families. That is why he ends every day by cheerfully telling his wards: "Good-night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England."

Work at the orphanage is exhausting. Staff members do it out of a sense of moral duty, or because it is part of a religious life. Nurse Edna (Jane Alexander) always ends the day with Cardinal Newman's famous prayer: "O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us safe lodging and a holy rest, and peace is at last." Dr. Larch, by contrast, seeks comfort and relaxation by occasionally inhaling moderate amounts of ether. To enhance the experience he sometimes plays a wobbly phonograph record of a song about some Ukulele Lady from Honolulu Bay. Nothing underlines the melancholy atmosphere of St. Cloud's more movingly than this longing invocation of a distant, exotic paradise.

Early on we are also introduced to a special orphan: Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire). Homer is one of the orphans who could not be permanently placed with any parents. The first couple who adopted him brought him back because as a baby he "never made any sounds." "Homer was too happy a child to ever cry," Dr. Larch commented at the time. The second couple had to be relieved of Homer because with them he never stopped crying--because he was savagely beaten by them. After that Homer stayed at the orphanage, and a sort of father-son relationship developed between him and Dr. Larch. By the time the viewer gets to know Homer Wells he has become an accomplished young man who is thoroughly trained as an obstetrician and gynecologist, even though he never attended as much as a high school. "He has learned to take care of abandoned children and to deliver unwanted babies," we are informed by voice-over, and he takes care of his share of bed time reading at night in the dormitory for boys. "Homer, if you are going to stay at St. Cloud's," Dr. Larch had told him, "I expect you to be of use." Homer definitely is of use at the orphanage. He conscientiously fulfills his sundry duties, and the rest of the staff are as fond of him as the flock of the orphans.

While their relationship is generally one of respect and deep love, Homer and Dr. Larch disagree on one important point. Dr. Larch, as a result of having been confronted with the misery of countless women and orphans in the big cities, is a physician who performs abortions if asked by women to do so--even though the procedure is illegal at the time of the story, 1943-1945. Dr. Larch has encountered too many painful fatalities as a result of back-alley abortions, and he is too keenly aware of the typical fate of unwanted children to obey a law that is accepted by a widely uninformed and often thoughtless majority. Homer, however, after once looking at a fetus that he was asked to carry to the incinerator, has decided not to engage in that practice. While Dr. Larch concedes to him the right to make up his own mind about the matter, he nevertheless tries to persuade his student (and potential successor at the orphanage) to reconsider his stand. There is something like a running argument between the two.

When once two women needed their attention--one for a delivery, the other for an abortion--Dr. Larch with a tinge of sarcasm remarks to Homer: "I presume you'd prefer handling the delivery." "All I said was that I don't want to perform abortions. I have no argument with you performing them," Homer replies. "You know how to help these women," Dr. Larch insists. "How can you not feel obligated to help them when they can't get help anywhere else?"

One day the orphans find an extremely young and sick woman (Kaysey Berry) crouched beside the warm incinerator. She is shivering, delirious, and in great pain. When she is brought to the operating room, Dr. Larch can see that the girl is dying. Her uterus is punctured; there is an unexpelled fetus and an object that looks like a crochet hook. Before she loses consciousness she informs them that someone who had pretended to be a doctor had attempted an abortion.

"Homer, I want you to see this," Dr. Larch tells his student. Homer gets sick at the sight of the suffering girl and the result of the botched abortion. "If she had come to you four months ago and asked for a simple D and C, what would you have decided to do?" Dr. Larch shouts at him. "Nothing? This is what doing nothing gets you, Homer. It means that somebody else is going to do the job--some moron who doesn't know how!" For a moment Homer seems shaken in his conviction, but there is no indication that he is changing his mind.

While they are burying the girl in the orphanage’s cemetery, Buster (Kieran Culkin), one of the orphans who helps with the digging, asks: "What did she die of?" "She died of secrecy, she died of ignorance..." Dr. Larch rants. After a while he adds for the benefit of Homer: "If you expect people to be responsible for their children, you have to give them the right to decide whether they want to have children or not. Wouldn't you agree?" "How about expecting people to be responsible enough to control themselves to begin with?" Homer replies. "How about this child?" Dr. Larch shoots back, pointing to the coffin. "Do you expect her to be responsible?" "I don't mean her. I am talking about ... adults," Homer replies. "You know who I mean."

When they get back to the orphanage they meet a handsome young couple who have just arrived: Candy (Charlize Theron) and Wally (Paul Rudd). They are here to get Candy an abortion. Their appealing appearance and their luxurious convertible remind Homer of a life that he has never lived, and that occasionally he dreams about. During the hours of the couple's stay Homer decides to leave the orphanage and to start a new existence somewhere "in the world." He has never laid eyes on the ocean; he has, in fact, never left St. Cloud's since the failed adoption attempts. Wally and Candy agree to give him a ride to the coast, where they live.

Homer's sudden decision comes as a shock to the orphans, many of whom feel abandoned by him. For some it even feels like a betrayal. For Dr. Larch Homer's departure is so painful that he is unable to see his student to the car. To assuage his disappointment Nurse Angela (Kathy Baker) points out to him that this was bound to happen one day: Homer is a young man who has to find his own life and station in the world. Suppressing his tears Dr. Larch insists that at this point Homer is still just "a boy."

The second part of the story depicts Homer's new life as a picker in the apple orchards of Wally's mother. He lives in the cider house, together with the regular black pickers who migrate from the South to Maine every year. The mixing of races is unusual for the time. "I believe we are making history," Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo), the crew boss, remarks as he welcomes the only white picker to the small cider house community.

When it is discovered that Homer is the only one in the cider house who can read, he is asked by one of the hands to read aloud a set of typewritten rules that are pinned to a post in the bunkroom. Homer reads that there is no smoking in bed, and that persons who have consumed alcohol are not to operate the cider press. The pickers laugh at the rules. Some of them are smoking in bed while listening to Homer's reading, and they all find the rules "outrageous." Before Homer can continue his reading, Mr. Rose gruffly tells him to stop it: "They aren't our rules. We didn't write them. I don't see no reason to read them."
While Homer learns during the next weeks, under the guidance of Mr. Rose, to be a diligent apple picker, a warm friendship develops between him and Candy and Wally. Wally, however, is scheduled to fly 24 B Liberator planes between India and China; he has volunteered for this especially dangerous service in the Army Air Corps out of a sense of adventure. When he leaves for Asia, the relationship between Homer and Candy intensifies. "I am not good at being alone," Candy remarks. "Why did Wally volunteer?" It is only a matter of time before Homer and Candy become sexually intimate.

Homer enjoys his new life. In spite of being considerably "overqualified" as an apple picker, he is happier at the orchards than he has ever been before. He keeps up a correspondence with Dr. Larch, who urges him to come back to the orphanage--because at St. Cloud's he has a moral obligations to be useful, and because he would have significantly more fulfilling work among the needy women and children than among the apple trees. But Homer is deeply in love where he is; and he seems to have lost all desire to ever work as a physician.

There are important developments at St. Cloud's. The medical board that supervises the institution is intent on finding another head for the orphanage. Dr. Larch senses correctly that this new physician will eventually be his replacement. Some board members want a doctor who adheres to a more Christian code of ethics than the present free spirit in charge. Although not mentioned directly, the abortion issue looms large in the back of some board members' minds.

Dr. Larch handles the situation in his own way. He has produced a set of false records that will one day provide Homer Wells with enough diplomas and recommendations to make it possible for him to assume the top position at the orphanage. Dr. Homer Wells, according to these records, is a highly accomplished obstetrician who at present works as a Christian missionary in India. Dr. Larch presents these records to the assembled board, but also pretends that he does not like the holder of these diplomas. He knows very well that his very opposition to Homer Wells as a candidate for the position will prompt the board to overrule him. At the end of Dr. Larch's machinations nothing is needed for Homer to take over at St. Cloud's except his willingness to give up his happy life on the coast and his return to the orphanage.

The nurses are somewhat aghast at the unconventional procedures of their boss. "But the records are illegal," Nurse Angela exclaims at first. "Don't you be holy about the law to me," Dr. Larch tells her. "What has the law ever done for us around here?" In the end the nurses play along with Dr. Larch's game. They know that their boss is a good man, that his work and purposes help desperate people; and they know that Homer is as well trained in medical matters as the best of medical students. They have, after years of work with Dr. Larch and his student, compelling evidence for the conclusion that their own illegal practice is far more humane and morally better than that prescribed by existing law.

For Homer a second season at the orchards has begun. The old crew from the South is back, but something grave seems to have happened. Homer and Candy gradually find out that Rose Rose (Erykah Badu), the daughter of the crew boss, is pregnant, and that her own father is the father of the child. Homer confronts Mr. Rose with these facts, but the crew boss tells him to mind his own business. "You have your own mess to take care of, Homer. Don't you?" The entire crew is aware of Homer's relationship with Candy, and Mr. Rose does not think that Homer is in any position to preach morals. Did Homer not "break the rules" by betraying his friend Wally, the man who took him in, and who is now risking his life for their country, while his fiancée is having an affair?

One night Rose Rose tries to leave. Her father discovers her and begs her to stay. Homer overhears their desperate quarrel, and he offers his help. Rose Rose is in despair. She does not want the incestuous baby, and Homer decides to part with his old principle and to perform the abortion. Dr. Larch had sent him a doctor's bag with the necessary instruments--as a standing invitation, as it were, to eventually assume his proper role in life by becoming the head of the orphanage. Homer successfully performs the procedure.

Once more the cider house rules come into view. As in previous years they are pinned to the post in the bunkroom, and they remain an object of curiosity and irritation to the crew. "Why don't you put them damn rules in the wood stove?" Muddy (K. Todd Freeman) suggests to his fellow-picker Peaches (Heavy D). "I want to hear what they say, first," Rose Rose demands. Thus Homer reads once more about not smoking in bed, not sitting on the roof for lunch, not climbing on the roof while under the influence, and so forth. Again Mr. Rose angrily denounces their irrelevance: "Who live here in this cider house, Peaches? Who grind them apples, who press the cider, who clean up the mess, and who just plain live here... just breathin' in the vinegar? Somebody who don't live here made them rules. Them rules ain't for us. We the ones who make up them rules. We makin' our own rules, every day. Ain't that right, Homer?" "Right," Homer replies, and he burns the sheet with the rules in the stove.

Homer and Candy never quite know what to do about their affair. They are in love with each other, but it is also clear that Candy is Wally's when Wally comes home. Homer and Candy have taken a "wait and see" attitude: They just do not know what to decide in the matter, and they have deliberately lived just one day at the time. But the day comes when a decision is due. Major Winslow of the Army Air Corps (Colin Irving) informs the family that Wally's plane has crashed, and that Wally will soon return home as an invalid; the daring young flier is paralyzed from the waist down. Candy feels it to be her duty to stay with her fiancé, even though she would prefer to be with Homer. The carefree happiness of the lovers has come to an end.

Around the same time a letter arrives from St. Cloud's. When, after a lengthy delay, Homer reads it, he learns that Dr. Larch has died from an accidental overdose of ether. Nurse Angela, who wrote the letter, hopes that Homer will take over Dr. Larch's vacant post. While Homer is thus pushed toward making important decisions, the story of the incest in the Rose family comes to a conclusion as well. Homer finds Mr. Rose huddling under a blanket, slowly bleeding to death. Rose Rose has stabbed her father and taken to the road. Instead of calling for an ambulance and the police, Mr. Rose accepts his demise as punishment for his incestuous transgression. He wants Rose Rose to get away and start a new life, and he obliges the pickers to tell the police that he killed himself--in desperation over the loss of his daughter.

The film ends with the arrival of "Dr. Wells" at St. Cloud's. The other pickers had invited Homer to come with them to the warm South, and thus to experience yet another part of the world. But Homer now knows what his life is to be. Everything he has learned will be of use and come to fruition among the staff and the orphans who are most happy to see their former helper and fellow-orphan come back.

Moral Autonomy

"The Cider House Rules is a didactic novel," John Irving writes in his My Movie Business: A Memoir. The story, in other words, is not just a piece of sentimental entertainment, but is intended to teach the reader a lesson—a moral lesson at that. The same can be said about the film. During the transformation of the story into a movie Irving tried to impress on the director that the argument concerning abortion was to remain the primary focus of the drama, that the moral discussion should, for example, not be drowned out by the romantic love story between Homer and Candy (which would be the more typical drift in a Hollywood film). What, then, is the moral drama around which the movie turns? And what is the philosophical lesson that emerges from it?
At first sight the main theme of the film seems to be, of course, the specific problem of abortion. Dr. Larch is in favor of having the procedure available to women who want it, while Homer does not want any part of it. The two men argue about it for a long time. "Dr. Larch's argument with Homer Wells is polemical, and Larch wins the argument in the end," Irving writes in the above memoir. "Larch is a polemicist raging against an entrenched doctrine of his day.” Upon closer inspection, however, the discussion offered by the story is about more than just abortion. It is about morality in general, about the ultimate basis and validity of all moral judgments.

The aspect of Dr. Larch's ethics that stands out most clearly is his moral autonomy--autonomy in Kant’s sense. The head of St. Cloud's is obviously no obedient believer in authorities or a thoughtless follower of established rules. He is, in fact, a deliberate breaker of the law--an outright criminal in the eyes of many. He also violates any number of common ethics rules if he finds it necessary for serious reasons. He performs, that is, not only illegal abortions, but also falsifies records, forges documents, deceives his board of supervisors, lies to the orphans, and regularly uses a medical substance as a recreational drug. At first sight, in other words, the free-wheeling doctor is anything but a plausible representative of sound moral conduct.

Yet, few people will get the impression, by watching the film, that Dr. Larch is a morally reprehensible person. On the contrary, most people will probably be inclined to believe that he holds the moral high ground in his unorthodox dealings with the world. And this is not without good reason. To start with his lying to the orphans: When young Fuzzy Stone (Erik Per Sullivan) succumbs to the many infections that constantly besiege him, Dr. Larch tells the other orphans that the boy has been adopted by a family that can take car of him better than the financially strapped orphanage. This version of what happened will be less depressing for the youngsters than the announcement of the death of an orphan. Dr. Larch's lying, in other words, serves a benevolent purpose. The peace of mind of the young and vulnerable orphans, in Dr. Larch's compassionate judgment, is more important than following an abstract moral rule of the "never tell a lie” variety. Or: Telling a lie is not always bad. It can actually be good if the circumstances are such that telling the truth would cause senseless suffering in innocent people.

The same presumably holds true with respect to Dr. Larch's other violations of moral rules and established laws. By making Homer Wells a certified physician he only helps people who desperately need help--without doing any harm to other people. He knows that Homer is as competent as he himself is, and he has reasons for hoping that Homer will eventually use his skills to benefit the women and children at an orphanage that does not attract many or any highly qualified candidates. Whether the diplomas are genuine is simply not relevant as far as giving effective help to the people at St. Cloud’s is concerned.

With regard to the main point of contention, abortion, Dr. Larch clearly has the delivery of women from excruciating pain and extensive suffering in mind, as well as the long-term well-being of children. In a society where unwanted pregnancies inevitably lead to botched operations in back-alleys, and where unwanted children meet a most uncertain fate as far as their proper care and upbringing is concerned, it seems outright cruel and immoral to make abortions illegal. And should, the film asks, a young woman like Rose Rose be forced to carry a child that is the result of incest and rape? Dr. Larch knows from his daily experience that the opinion expressed in established law is to a large extent based on ignorance or a willful disregard of the enormous suffering that this law creates under the circumstances in question.

In the course of human history, laws have often been stupid, cruel, or blatantly unjust, and with hindsight law-breakers have often been celebrated as trail-blazers and heroes once a new era was ushered in. The head of St. Cloud's has pressing reasons for disagreeing with the anti-abortion laws of his time, and he is by no means mistaken if he assumes that most informed and thoughtful persons would eventually agree with his stand. Considering the circumstances under which Dr. Larch labors, breaking the law could, indeed, well be seen as the duty of any moral person, and obeying the law the equivalent of moral cowardice (just as being a law-abiding citizen under Hitler often was a sign of moral cowardice, not of good citizenship). In the novel Dr. Larch describes a candidate for his position in just such terms: "One of the usual cowards who does what he's told, one of your typically careful, mousy, medical men--a little law-abiding citizen who will be of absolutely no use."

The film is called "The Cider House Rules." This means that the secondary story of the apple pickers and their relation to rules and the law is taken to be a guiding metaphor for the primary story of Dr. Larch and his relation to law and morality. The main point that Mr. Rose made with regard to the cider house rules is that they are irrelevant because they were written by people who do not live in the cider house. Obviously it is the idea of autonomy that is the issue here: People should not live by rules made by others, but only by rules that they make for themselves—rules based on their own will and reasoning. It is the Enlightenment principle of self-determination, in other words, that connects the part of the film that deals with Dr. Larch and that which deals with the pickers in the cider house.

That it is the principle of self-determination that emerges as the highest value in the ethics of "The Cider House Rules" is indirectly emphasized by the fact that the rules pinned up in the bunkhouse are not necessarily senseless in themselves. Smoking in bed is not infrequently the cause of fires that claim innocent lives, and operating a cider press while being drunk may be dangerous as well as costly in terms of material damages. Climbing on the roof may not be good for the shingles, and falling off that height because of drunkenness may cause injuries and legal hassles. It may, in other words, not be stupidity or gratuitous authoritarianism that led to the posting of the rules in the bunkhouse. If Irving's story nevertheless treats the rules as "outrageous" and "irrelevant," then the plausibility of the pickers' attitude can be understood only on the basis of the democratic principle that no person or group of persons should ever be required to live by rules that are not made or agreed to by themselves. Even sensible rules are not good if they are imposed on people without their considered consent.

It is clear that this has implication for the anti-abortion laws that were in effect in the 1940s. Those laws had been passed by almost exclusively male legislatures, and then imposed on that part of the population that had to bear the main consequences of their enforcement. They represented a clear case of legislation without representation, and thus a flagrant example of undemocratic oppression.

It is also worth noting that the cider house crew’s disregard for the cider house rules does not necessarily indicate irresponsibility or lawlessness. When during the first year of the story one of the crew members did manifest irresponsible and destructive behavior by throwing a cigarette butt into the cider mash, Mr. Rose came down hard on him, and eventually made sure that this particular worker would not work anymore at the orchards. And when Mr. Rose finally confronted his own inexcusable conduct and the pain he had inflicted on his daughter, he punished himself as severely as any official law might have done. The crew that worked for Wally’s mother was not a gang of reckless scofflaws, but a self-governing body that basically did not need any outside governance to function rationally and with justice.

There are other, more subtle, ways in which the idea of autonomy is placed into the center of the story as well. Both Dr. Larch and Homer like to read to the boys in the orphanage the story of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield--particularly the weighty words at the beginning of that novel: "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." The hero of a story is its protagonist, its most important actor. If in the course of the story this central figure does not really take any decisive action, if he or she is weak, passive, only reacting to others and external events, and in the end incapable of assuming control of his or her life, then the central person of such a story is not a genuine hero or heroine. Someone or something else than the protagonist will play that role, someone or something that makes all the important decisions, and that effectively controls the failed hero's life. Most classic novels live, indeed, out of the tension that exists between the protagonist's attempt to become the hero of his or her life and the possible failure of that attempt.

To become the hero of one's life is much the same as becoming an autonomous person. The decisions that Homer makes at the end of the film both make him the hero of his own life, and change him into the kind of autonomous adult that Dr. Larch had been. Throughout Homer’s coming of age the abortion issue had remained a question for him. He had no objection to Dr. Larch’s performing the procedure, because he clearly saw that his mentor was helping people in desperate need. But he also could not bring himself to do likewise, because he knew how closely a fetus can resemble an infant. His encounter with the case of Rose Rose forced him out of his ambivalent feelings, it prompted him to make a fundamental decision. By making that decision, by performing the abortion, he assumed an adult’s responsibility—his moral autonomy. He also set an end to his years of wandering and growing up: he consciously determined his station in life and thus defined himself as the genuine hero of his own story.

Some viewers of “The Cider House Rules” may balk at the contention that Dr. Larch’s philosophical position is Kantian. Kant did, in one of his least plausible arguments, not only maintain that one should never lie under any circumstances, even if telling the truth might hurt innocent people, but he is also generally known as a rigorous moralist who stands for following rules of ethics like a clockwork. Dr. Larch, by contrast, does not think much in terms of rules; his approach to moral decisions is guided by compassionate considerations and situational needs. His repeated emphasis on “being of use” may even suggest that philosophically he is some kind of Utilitarian who is most concerned with the consequences of moral actions--their impact on people’s happiness or unhappiness. Although deeply moral, Dr. Larch is not a typical moralist—a person who follows and glorifies moral rules as a way to be moral.

Although it is true that Dr. Larch does not share certain features that are typically associated with a Kantian moralist, he nevertheless represents what is most essential in Kant’s thinking: the insistence on moral autonomy and personal responsibility. Kant is an Enlightenment thinker, and his definition of enlightenment as “release from self-incurred tutelage” postulates that adult persons use their own reason in making moral decisions—instead of just obeying the law, conforming to prevailing opinion, or heeding the decrees of the powers that be. Dr. Larch is Kantian in “The Cider House Rules” by courageously defying law and prevailing opinion—not recklessly and arbitrarily, but after careful consideration of relevant facts and possible alternatives. He indeed is the paragon of rational self-determination and moral autonomy that Kant envisaged foremost in his Enlightenment philosophy.

(From Jorn K. Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies )

Kant: Self-Determination in the Age of Reason

Philosophical Films: A Special Topics Course