Reflections on the Movie "The Cider House Rules"

Bernice Hill explores the key message of Lasse Hallström's 1999 film: the rules we live by have to be forged in the unconventional crucible of the human heart.

Reflections of the Movie “The Cider House Rules”
by Bernice H. Hill, Ph.D.

For some reason this movie would not leave me alone.  I was still mulling it over when I read the local movie critic’s review.  He gave it two stars and a commentary, which ended with “while there is a  sense of intelligence to this movie, what is it all about and where does it lead?  It seems to be all process and no destination!”  With that, the Jungian fish that swims in my soul was hooked.

The story, based in Maine in the early 1940’s, revolves around a rumpled, insomniac doctor who, with great caring, manages a seedy, never-quite-repaired orphanage.  As he is a gynecologist, he is often called upon to do abortions as well as deliveries.  Crying women are seen leaving the orphanage pale and relieved.

One of the unwanted babies is Homer, a boy marked from the beginning as unique.  Homer was adopted, but unsuccessfully and returned.  His second adopted parents abused him. The rage that Dr. Larch feels about that is revealed in his flying coat as he snatches the crying Homer from the second parents.  He promises that this will never happen again.

So Dr. Larch decides that Homer will grow up in the orphanage, which, in its ram-       shackled and grubby way, is a loving place.  The staff (two older, well worn but appealing nurses) wipe noses and comfort the children.  They close the day with readings from somewhat inappropriate literature and prayers more suitable for senior citizens. You know they are well meaning, if somewhat misguided.  When a child is selected for adoption they try to soften the double loss of friend and esteem by urging the ones remaining to say the ritualistic “Let’s all say goodbye to…who has found a good home at last.”

As Homer matures, Dr. Larch inducts him into the world of the pregnant and delivering woman.  So Homer listens to the heartbeat of swollen bellies, assists in births and carries the less glorious residues to the incinerator. Dr. Larch pointedly announces to Homer that growing up means to be “of service”-a rule of maturity.

Homer reluctantly learns the trade, but balks at the abortions (illegal at the time). He argues with Dr. Larch that people should be responsible for the consequences of their passions. Dr. Larch, wise in the ways of the world’s incompleteness, says that those in a position to help must still be willing to ease pain when moral law has failed.  When a dying girl comes to the orphanage, Dr. Larch makes Homer look at the internal devastation wreaked by a back-ally abortionist.

Dr. Larch’s position is poignantly underlined by the life of little Fuzzy.  This endearing chap, a fetal alcohol child, has a badly damaged heart and severe asthma.  His days are numbered from the beginning.  Spending all of his time in a dilapidated oxygen tent, Fuzzy looks on life philosophically. When his spirit begins to fade we see Dr. Larch, late one night, trying to distract him from coughing.  They are having a private showing of “King Kong,” the orphanage’s only (and much viewed) movie.  Fuzzy dies and is quietly buried.  Dr. Larch instructs his staff to tell the others that a woman with a much better oxygen tent has adopted Fuzzy. As the group says the ritual goodbye to Fuzzy, we see Dr. Larch outside the door in an anguish of grief and frustration.  Have we been given a view into the genesis of Dr. Larch’s insomnia… living with life’s immutable laws that even his best efforts cannot prevent?

The philosophical core of the drama begins to emerge when Homer, disgusted by too much noise, too much vomit and the dreariness of the orphanage, makes his escape.  He leaves with a young couple that had come for an abortion.  He is much taken with the man, Wally, an air force pilot.  Wally epitomizes the modern male, into speed, excitement and expansion.  Wally is on leave and will soon be returning to duty, flying dangerous missions in Southeast Asia.  Homer accepts a job on Wally’s family farm, picking apples.

In the cider house, where Homer bunks with half a dozen black migrant workers, there is a notice.  Since Homer is the only one who can read, he reports the rules: 1) Don’t smoke in the cider house (there is a rolling of eyes by the others presently smoking).      2) No operating the apple presses if drinking. Rules 3), 4) and 5) all speak of not going on the roof, each rule more absurd than its predecessor…white man’s rules; rules of a proprietor. The migrants all sit on the roof at the next opportunity.

In an impassioned outburst, Mr. Rose, the older, black crew leader, erupts in rage at the rules.  He rails against not being seen as a man; against having to work under harsh conditions and having to sleep with the smell of vinegar always in his nose.  His anger makes us aware of our tidy society, with its little rules.  However, Mr. Rose does acknowledge one rule; ironically, it is the same as Dr. Larch’s: a man is to find his use in the world. He confronts another migrant who sulks on the job: “What you doin’, man? Don’t you know what your work is?” We like Mr. Rose. He is a good foreman, humane, a hard-worker; and he mentors Homer well.

Slowly, however, we learn that on a deeper, inner level, Mr. Rose lives by no rules.  Not willing to sacrifice his own primal urge, he has incest with and impregnates his teenage daughter.  And so we have the two extremes of the rules, like bookends for this movie.  On one side we have the external picky rules of a self satisfied society, the cider house instructions. On the other end we have one of our deepest internal rules, the one broken by Mr. Rose.

Jung has written that the incest taboo represents the evolutionary instinct of man, which distinguishes him from the animals.  The animal hates novelty and does not want to be urged out of its instinctual conservatism.  It mates with what is at hand.  Mr. Rose’s lack of acknowledgement within himself of this evolutionary instinct leads to his own destruction.  Too late, he awakens.  He recognizes there are unwritten Laws.  He accepts this in his daughter’s revenge and his death.

The pregnancy of Mr. Rose’s daughter sets the stage for Homer’s confrontation with himself.  He has the skills to perform an abortion.  He asks in soliloquy “Isn’t it better to just let things happen, hoping the forces of fate will guide a propitious outcome?”

The plot has thickened by this time for he and Candy, Wally’s fiancee, have become lovers.  He has been disloyal  to one who befriended him.  But the situation is a tangle of broken rules, for now Wally is returning from the war, paralyzed from the waist down.  Should Homer stay or leave?

Candy faces her own issues…Did she use Homer?  Does she love Wally enough to stay with him and nurse him back to health? A closer look reveals Wally’s own duplicity.  He had told Candy that he had been assigned to his dangerous mission but she learns that he had volunteered.

What rules apply?  How much do we choose to care when the damage has been created by other’s irresponsibility? What are life’s ground rules anyway, or are there any?

Jung writes that psychic laws cannot be measured, or weighed or seen in a test tube or under a microscope, but must be left to an inner sense.  He goes on to say that we follow intuitively, dimly felt principles, which emerge slowly and through life’s dramas until a time comes when “a halo of light begins to surround the world of law.” (1)

Faced with the reality and horror of the pregnancy of Mr. Rose’s daughter, Homer chooses to act. He performs the abortion.  He finds some foundation within himself: the slowly emerging law of personal responsibility.  He recognizes that the context of an ethical situation requires the effort of sorting out the truth for oneself.  Homer, like his namesake, the Greek poet, learns from his odyssey.  He decides to return home- knowing the place for the first time.

Dr. Larch, never losing faith in Homer, has laid the groundwork for his return.  In a flurry of broken rules Larch forges a medical degree from Harvard in Homer’s name.  Using reverse psychology on a recalcitrant orphanage board, he promotes a position for this distinguished Harvard graduate.  Then Dr. Larch dies from the misuse of ether- his illegal sleeping aid.  Homer becomes the new Director.

Homer returns to the orphanage.  He is received with a great outpouring of love and joy.  He has fulfilled what Jung calls the “law of life.”(2)  Jung writes that at some point we must take in the very thing which we have excluded in order to complete our journey.  This proves to be true for all the main characters…Wally, Candy and Mr. Rose.  Homer had to recognize that intertwined with the smells and sights of forlornness of the orphanage were great love and great service.  He, like Dr. Larch, honors his charges each evening, saying “Goodnight, you Princes of Maine; you Kings of New England.”

So movie reviewers, this movie does have a point and a destination.  It highlights that the rules we live by have to be forged in the unconventional crucible of the human heart.

References:

(1) Jung, C.G.(1929/1931). “The Detachment of Consciousness from the Object.” Collected Works. 13, para 64, Bollingen Series XX, Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press, 1967.

(2) Jung, C.G. (1929/1931). “Modern Psychology Offers Possibility of   
Understanding: Collected Works 13, para 24, Bollingen Series XX, Princeton, N.J.  Princeton University Press, 1967.

(3) Article published in Quadrant, Winter, 2001.