THE CIDER HOUSE RULES
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
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
rules are burned. I don't want to say that the Apple Farm is the Garden
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
Candy, and Mr. Rose and Rose Rose. Even the female names are
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.
don't know what to say about these except that the solution to each
situational. Isn't that the way humans deal with all situations
absolute moral prohibitions have been violated? We can burn the
house rules or destroy the ten commandments but don't we still need
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
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
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,
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