An observation by Carroll Engelhardt

I have been thinking about The Cider House Rules as a meditation on moral codes and moral behavior, and the question:  "Are moral rules absolute or situational?"

"The Rules," of the title are written by "someone who doesn't even live here," and make about
as much sense to the residents of the bunk house as "thou shall not eat the fruit of this tree" must have made to Adam and Eve.  There is something about moral prohibitions that seems to attract us to what is prohibited.  Hence we see the workers on the roof a great deal after the rules are burned.  I don't want to say that the Apple Farm is the Garden of Eden but Homer seems as innocent as the original Adam and Eve must have been, and there is a lot of "eating of forbidden fruit" going on--Homer and Candy, and Mr. Rose and Rose Rose.  Even the female names are suggestive of temptation (not that I think Eve was to blame, you understand).

In terms of absolute moral prohibitions the film examines the following:
1.  Thou shalt not kill!
Yet Paul (the pilot) goes off to WW II; Dr. Larch and Homer perform abortions; Rose "kills" her father in self-defense against incest; and Mr. Rose "kills" himself so that his daughter will not be charged with his murder.  We see the Orphanage as both the repository of unwanted life (the children) resulting from unterminated pregnancies, and the place where Dr. Larch terminates life. If this seems a moral contradiction, it is. Faced with this dilemma, Dr. Larch weighs his options and makes his choice that abortion is the lesser of two evils because he can save the lives of the mothers. But he does not rest easily: he is dependent on ether to help him sleep.

2.  Thou shall not commit adultery (or fornication)!
But there is a lot of it going around in this film:  Paul (the pilot) and Candy, Candy and Homer, and Mr. Rose and Rose Rose.  I don't know what to say about these except that the solution to each relationship is situational.  Isn't that the way humans deal with all situations after absolute moral prohibitions have been violated?  We can burn the cider house rules or destroy the ten commandments but don't we still need rules to guide our lives and activity?  Even Mr. Rose knows that.  He knows the rules for making apple cider (no butts in the cider), he knows not to pick next year's apples, he loves his daughter and would never hurt her (but does and gives his life for hers in the end).

3.  Thou shall not lie!
Dr. Larch lies to the board, lies to the children about the bronchial child's death, and forges Homer's medical credentials.  How can these acts be justified?  Dr. Larch says, "your life  should be of use."  Is he suggesting a utilitarian morality that promotes the greatest good for the greatest number?  In the film, this good seems to be defined as that which promotes the greatest happiness and the least pain. That seems to me to be  how Dr. Larch leads his life.  Similarly, both Homer and Candy chose to lead useful lives. Homer assumes Dr. Larch's position at the orphanage and Candy remains with her paralyzed fiancÚ.  Such useful actions are in keeping with the situational ethics also evident in the film. Once absolute moral prohibitions have been broken, how do humans deal with the consequences?  The film suggests that the moral act (the choice of the greater good) is situational. 

As the film nears its end, we the spectators are ourselves caught in our own moral dilemma. Do we want Homer to return to the orphanage and, by implication, continue Dr. Larch's work?  We have only to view Homer's reception by those "unwanted" children to know where John Irving the screenwriter stands. Do we stand with him?


Dr. Engelhardt is a Professor Emeritus of American History at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.

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