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I. Ancestors and New Identities

"Breaking the rules": Identity and Americanness in The Cider House Rules, A Prayer For Owen Meany and A Widow For One Year by John Irving

Karine Placquet
p. 59-71


La question de l’identité, corrélée à celle de l’américanité, réside au cœur de The Cider House Rules, A Prayer For Owen Meany et A Widow For One Year. Sous la plume de John Irving, chacune de ces questions est soumise au fort sentiment d’individualité des personnages. En conséquence, les relations qu’ils entretiennent avec l’Autre, la famille, la communauté, la société ou la nation sont empreintes de conflit puisque leurs velléités identitaires et individualistes sont contraires aux buts d’homogénéité et d’harmonie que les règles et lois de toutes ces entités poursuivent. Mais l’acte transgressif n’est pas envisagé uniquement sous ses aspects négatifs ; il constitue le fondement de tout processus de création identitaire et un opérateur inattendu de retour à l’harmonie.

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1Identity could be defined as the permanent and fundamental characteristics of a person or a group, something which is the sign of that person or group’s individuality and singularity. It corresponds therefore to the set of innate or acquired traits of a person, or gathers the values shared by all members of a group. The characters in The Cider House Rules, A Prayer For Owen Meany and A Widow For One Year are defined partly by their charisma, and Owen Meany is in this respect an extreme representation, but also by their relationships to their environment. They are characterized by a strong sense of individual freedom, a key element of Americanness, that is a set of dominant values supposedly shared by the American people. One of the main questions raised by the novels written by John Irving is most certainly that of personal identity. Nevertheless, as they represent the lives of American characters in post World War II America, they also focus on the question of Americanness. How is identity created and what does it mean to be an American in John Irving’s novels? Torn between their claims to individual identity and their desire to belong to a group, how do the characters manage to reconcile both aspirations? As we shall see, it is through transgression that they manage to assert themselves.

2But before coming to this conclusion, it will be necessary to analyze how identity is created in the novels through a complex and continuous process. Paying closer attention to Americanness, I will highlight the importance of taking a stand against the rules and challenging the established order. Finally, identity and Americanness come together as they follow the same trajectory; transgression is unavoidable to accomplish both.

Identity as a protean construct

3Identity is a complex concept in John Irving’s novels since his characters are subjected to the action of several elements and not considered with an essentialist eye, which means there is room for change at all times. Characters are distinguished from one another by their personal charisma and their tendency to rebellion as well as through their interactions with their environment and the other characters. Identity emerges as a response to both internal and external pressures. The latter are overcome by the force of the former. In representing the defining force of exterior elements, the writer faces the problem of making his characters stand out as unique. It is precisely through their responses to these limitations that they achieve uniqueness.

4Living in a clearly defined social environment, that of post-World War II America, the characters created by John Irving undergo the many constraints it imposes on them. All the entities they belong to—family, community and society—obviously play an important role in their "lives" as they all tend to limit their individual freedom. Whether explicit or implicit, the rules implemented to guarantee the permanence of these institutions very often come into conflict with the characters’ aspirations towards freedom and the cultural emphasis placed on individuality. The characters’ often complicated family history is, in this respect, very interesting, especially that of Ruth Cole, the female protagonist of A Widow For One Year, John Irving’s ninth novel:

That Ruth Cole would grow up to be that rare combination of a well-respected literary novelist and an internationally best-selling author is not as remarkable as the fact that she managed to grow up at all. Those handsome young men in the photographs had stolen most of her mother’s affection; however, her mother’s rejection was more bearable to Ruth than growing up in the shadow of the coldness that passed between her parents. (Irving Widow 21) 

5This short extract from the beginning of the novel establishes the heavy atmosphere in the Cole family. The words "stolen", "rejection" and "coldness" are indicators of the tensions existing within this family, which is by the start of the novel already not a family anymore. Ruth’s mother, Marion, cannot get over the death of her two adolescent sons, Thomas and Timothy. She gradually cuts herself from the rest of the family and transforms the house into a sanctuary to the memory of the two boys. As a matter of fact, the walls of the whole house are covered with pictures of them. Thomas and Timothy’s early accidental death is the one event that this family is not able to overcome. Life seems to have stopped for Marion on that fatal day. And Ruth’s birth proves to have no positive impact on Marion’s sorrow. In such a context, she cannot accept her husband’s constant infidelities and she leaves. She abandons her daughter but takes with her the pictures of her dead sons. At the age of four, Ruth must grow up without a mother and live with death and lack as her companions. As the quotation above implies, an unhappy family is expected to stunt a characters’ development. Indeed, Ruth endlessly tries to understand and accept her mother’s departure until the very end of the novel, a sign that identity is not fixed but in constant evolution. In insisting on the unlikely success of an individual born under these circumstances, the narrator highlights his character’s ability to define herself somehow in spite of her family and environment. Conflict is central in Ruth’s ability to overcome adversity, and standing up for herself against her father or her best friend allows her to assert herself as different and unique. The character’s desire for individual identity proves stronger than the restraints imposed on her by the environment. Paradoxically, limitations are constitutive. In a way, John Irving shows through Ruth his conviction that the power of the individual stands above anything else. But he also emphasizes two other conflicts: on the one hand, the contradiction between being a best-selling author and a critically acclaimed one; on the other hand, the limitations placed on women writers. The first is treated ironically with the expression "that rare combination". The sarcasm underlying this assumption makes it obvious that the author does not subscribe to the point of view according to which literary talent and public recognition are incompatible. As for the limitations placed on women, they mainly come from patriarchy, the principles of which relegate women to the private sphere, forbidding them to play a public role. Here again, irony is used to question the validity of such a state. All in all, in defying what could be expected from her, Ruth stands out as an individual.

6As the illegitimate child of an unknown father, John Wheelwright, the homodiegetic narrator of A Prayer For Owen Meany is, at the beginning of the novel, raised by his mother Tabby, and his grandmother Harriet Wheelwright. Both women are loving and caring, but growing up without a father is a difficult thing to accept for John. In the usual style of detective fiction, he and his friend Owen try to unveil the mystery surrounding this man. John succeeds in his quest at the end of the novel but is greatly disappointed by the discovery. Since the father only has a limited role in John’s life, parental pressure is represented through the family name and all that it entails. The Wheelwright family is quite prestigious in Gravesend, New Hampshire, where the novel is set: "Let me say at the outset that I was a Wheelwright – that was the family name that counted in our town. (…) I am descended from John Adams on my grandmother’s side…" (Irving Prayer 18). As the last part of the quote states, John bears the name of his mother and grandmother. Obviously, fatherly descent is here challenged and men seem to have lost the central place a patriarchal model provides them with. However, this does not mean Harriet Wheelwright is a matriarch since she fiercely defends patriarchal values, as her attachment to the Founding Fathers shows. Being direct descendants from them, the Wheelwrights are a landmark on the social scene and the description of their house as "a grand, brick, Federal monster of a house" (Irving Prayer 28) is one indication of their importance. The house’s grandness symbolically recalls the greatness of the family. The latter’s influence is suggested by the exceptional dimensions of the building. As head of the family, Harriet Wheelwright sees to it that its values are respected. She nonetheless often deviates from the rule, as for instance when she proves unable to make her daughters stick to the patriarchal rule of obedience or when she lets her maid, Lydia, sit at her table. She is also deeply attached to the family prestige and thus considers social origins as crucial even though, as I have just underlined, she sometimes does away with the fixity of social status: "The Meanys, in my grandmother’s lexicon, were not Mayflower stock. They were not descended from the founding fathers; you could not trace a Meany back to John Adams" (Irving Prayer 32). Exemplifying a conservative point of view, Harriet Wheelwright nonetheless goes beyond this social fixity again and helps Owen Meany enter Gravesend Academy, where he, socially speaking, does not belong. Through the character of Harriet Wheelwright, John Irving calls into question the immutability of rules but also underlines how inconsistent individuals can be. When he makes her change her mind, he also aims at showing that individual choices, whether grounded or not, prevail.

7The importance of social status is also to be found in The Cider House Rules, with Mr. Rose and his picking crew, who come to Ocean View every year to pick apples and make the cider that the Worthingtons, the orchard owners, sell. The crew lives in the cider house in the middle of the orchard, whereas the Worthingtons live in a comfortable house at the estate entrance. The distance between the two houses recalls the social distance separating the two groups of characters. Olive Worthington and all the characters within her sphere of influence only come into contact with the crew through Mr. Rose, who acts as a link between the two "worlds". As a consequence, each character has a specific role determined by his or her social status. In addition and as the title of the novel underlines, the picking crew has its own rules, which sometimes go against those of the dominant community or the entire society.

8A key element of the issue of identity, the interactions between an individual character, his family circle and the wider environment have many facets in John Irving’s novels but they bear the common trait of being both constructive and restrictive. They create a story, a past, and a heritage for each character and, at the same time, limit the scope of his freedom through the various constraints and determinisms they impose on him. Even though the power of social determinism is not to be neglected, it surely is called into question in the novels, as even the most conservative characters are made to go beyond the fixity and immutability of rules, thus proving the power of the individual while challenging the established order. Indeed, identity seems related to transgression as an analysis of the relations to the Other in these three novels will further underline.

9The characters evolve in a given social environment but their development in the course of the novels is also shaped by their relations to others. As a consequence, their identity is also built upon the interactions among characters. One of the ways John Irving shows how identity can only be defined with regard to otherness is by creating pairs of characters, pairs which are alternately or simultaneously contradictory and complementary. To take up only a few examples, we could mention Homer Wells and Melony or Homer and Dr. Larch in The Cider House Rules; Owen Meany and John Wheelwright, Owen and Hester or Mrs Wheelwright and Lydia, her maid in A Prayer For Owen Meany; finally Ruth Cole and Eddie O’Hare or Ruth and her best friend Hannah in A Widow For One Year. Each partner confronts the other with his or her own experience and both seem to benefit from this mutual contribution, even in cases of strong disagreement. Nevertheless, all characters are not endowed with the same aura or charisma and the influence of a given character on the others will depend on this factor, which instills a degree of essentialism in the creation of identity as it appears in the three novels. The best example, and the most extreme one in this respect, concerns Owen Meany and John Wheelwright: Owen’s charisma is a perfect match to John’s mediocrity. Thus, John, as a character, appears as a foil to his best friend. Literally speaking, this obviously betrays the author’s goal to give more importance to the hero. Still, the “personality” of each character is in a way explained by their environment: Owen is the adored child of superstitious parents and he rules over the family, whereas John lacks the guidance of and the opposition to a father figure, and is prone to let the others make decisions for him. Owen’s influence on John is excessive and even works beyond death, as it is one of the reasons why the latter becomes an embittered adult. On the other hand, John’s influence on Owen is hardly detectable and limited to the expressions of a fraternal friendship. As the leader in their relationship, Owen is a constant help to John, whose contribution comes later, through the posthumous tribute he pays to his friend through his narrative.

10In The Cider House Rules, mutual contribution remains an important element but it rests upon lack. Homer Wells, the motherless and fatherless protagonist is raised at St Cloud’s, the orphanage headed by Dr. Larch, who actually shapes Homer’s identity in a fatherly way by making him into his heir and substitute at St Cloud’s. Nonetheless, each character brings what the other lacks: a father and a mentor for Homer; a son and a successor for Dr. Larch. Their mutual attachment is unquestionable. Because of their respective status, Homer learns more from Dr. Larch than he teaches him. Being the son or the pupil, he hardly ever manages to impose his point of view on an inflexible man, who, on the contrary, does all he can to make Homer change his mind.

11Therefore, innate traits, which in the three novels take the form of charisma and free will, work to counter the homogeneity and leveling that family, community and society strive to impose. The individual tries to resist his environment by constantly standing against it, thus challenging it and trying to impose the power of individual identity. As a consequence, the interactions of the character with his social circles, however limitative they are, remain vital. Because of the tensions all this implies, the process of identity creation appears as a difficult and demanding one. John Irving’s characters have to face many hardships from an early age and their eagerness to be unique and their desire for individuality require will and tenacity. Another element links these characters together: for the most part, they are American. But what does it mean to be an American in John Irving’s novels?

Americanness: irreverence enters the scene

12In John Irving’s novels, being an American is not only being a US citizen. Most of the characters are born in the United States but the values they share seem to be more important than citizenship in itself. What are these values? How important are they in the novels? How is Americanness represented in the novels? Answering these questions will lead me to underline a conventional conception of Americanness that is challenged by transgressive, even blasphemous behavior at times, which in turn aims at reasserting its importance or at negating it without great success. Americanness is at the heart of John Irving’s novels. As a matter of fact, when the author focuses on the importance of the individual and underlines that his interests should be preserved in all cases, he expresses one of the most important characteristics of Americanness, that is the significance of common values and the superiority of individual freedom.

13Writing about the relationship of ethnicity and American identity, the historian Philip Gleason states:

  • 1 Philip Gleason, "American Identity and Americanization" in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic (...)

To be or to become an American, a person did not have to be any particular national, linguistic, religious, or ethnic background. All he had to do was to commit himself to the political ideology centered on the abstract ideals of liberty, equality, and republicanism. Thus the universalist ideological character of American nationality meant that it was open to anyone who willed to become an American.1 (Gleason, quoted in Song 31)

14It seems therefore that, as a rule, being an American means embracing the values contained in the founding texts of the nation: the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which set up life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the search for freedom, unity, peace, justice and the defense of these principles as absolute values of the State. This not only concerns the rights and duties of the citizen towards the State but also represents all the elements the State must defend at the risk of losing its legitimacy. An individual does not simply submit to the rules implemented by the State to ensure its permanence and cohesion. He can and must keep a critical eye on the State’s ability to preserve individual liberties. This constant interaction between the individual and the social and political sphere is represented in many ways in John Irving’s novels, for the characters are almost permanently fighting against the established order. Dr. Larch in The Cider House Rules certainly best shows this antagonism between contradictory forces as he not only breaks the rules, but becomes an outlaw. He refuses to follow the law and performs abortion illegally. By doing so, he questions the validity of rules while asserting his free will and the superior claim of his choices. As a consequence, the individual becomes the central focus and a key element to the functioning of society. Also, his demands, although going against the tide, are in a way legitimized. However, the established order, in Dr. Larch’s case, the orphanage board of trustees, tries to counter this desire for freedom and individuality but fails in the attempt. Indeed, the trustees try to replace him as head of the orphanage, but Dr. Larch proves cleverer than they thought, as he manages to impose Homer as his successor. To do so, he creates a false identity, a false history, and false diplomas. Standing against the rule and the law appears to be a habit for him, but this state of fact is due to his lack of trust in institutions when it comes to solving individual issues. Only an individual, as the narrative suggests, can correctly comprehend and rightly deal with individual matters.

15With A Prayer For Owen Meany, the Pilgrim Fathers, another constitutive element of Americanness, enter the scene. The importance of this tradition is embodied, as I previously underlined, by Harriet Wheelwright. But it is also echoed in an intertextual reference to The Scarlet Letter, the action of which is set in Boston, Massachusetts, a Puritan community, between 1642 and 1649: Tabby Wheelwright, the mother of an illegitimate child who hides the father’s identity because he is a preacher, is very close to Hester Prynne, an emblematic character of American literature standing for resistance to rules and to her peers’ violence. Hence, the individual emerges as the key actor in the construction of his identity and individuality through the act of resistance and can by no means surrender to institutions, a state, or any exogenous entity’s decisions. Incidentally, the notion of Americanness partly finds its roots in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who believed being an American is not something to be inherited but something to be achieved. This notion is taken up by John Irving when he places the creation of identity and individuality at the core of his novels, showing how difficult and almost endless this process is. But this crucial element of the novels is at the same time another sign of their Americanness.

16Finally, we need to mention here the Bible, a text considered to be essential reading for many Americans. Even though the United States claims to be a secular state where Church and State are clearly separated, religion—Christianity in particular—is fundamental there. The country’s motto, "In God We Trust", clearly indicates how important religion is. Even though the three novels under study deal with themes related to religion or morality—abortion, adultery or murder, for example—A Prayer For Owen Meany is the only one to have it as a central topic, and this through its eponymous protagonist but also thanks to the dialectic of faith and doubt which is omnipresent in this novel. There are plenty of intertextual references to the Bible, especially when the characters attend regular church services or funerals. But the Bible is also predominant through Owen, who is an example of faith and knows many verses by heart. At first sight then, the novel and its characters seem conventional, but this is far from being the case. In presenting Owen as a reincarnation of Christ and his story as a rewriting of the Gospel, the narrator travesties the sacred text and makes Owen his new prophet. At the same time, in telling Owen’s story, the narrator affirms his own individuality by including vehement diatribes against the Reagan Administration.

17So, it is difficult for the characters created by John Irving to embrace conventional values without disputing their validity and legitimacy. In the same way as it seemed impossible for them not to question the established order, they find it hard to place their country "above all". Through them, John Irving advocates taking some kind of distance from what is generally understood as being an American. And he best shows this necessary distance through John Wheelwright. As a homodiegetic narrator, he is both a character in the story he tells and the one who tells it. As a character, John is not very charismatic and grows up in the shadow of Owen. However, when it comes to the Vietnam War, he proves very determined not to be a part of it and fiercely opposes it. He therefore enters in contradiction with any allegiance to the flag or his mother country. He embodies the positions of many young American boys in the 1960’s who refused to die, or at least lose part of their mental or physical integrity, in Vietnam. Ironically enough, he manages to remove this threat by having Owen cut his right forefinger, the "trigger finger", thus endangering his physical integrity. The combination of hope and destruction in this act underlines how paradoxical John is but also hints at the complexity of the relationship between identity and Americanness in John Irving’s novels.

18De facto withdrawn from the war, he remains strongly opposed to it, all the more so as it plays an important part in his best friend’s death. He holds many hard feelings for his country, which, through the policies and decisions of its government, allowed so many of its children to be killed. For him, the nation failed in its mission, which is unforgivable and will remain unforgiven. Strongly disagreeing with his country’s conduct, he decides to emigrate to Canada and even become a Canadian citizen. Denigrating his mother country is for John the ultimate sign of his disapproval but it is also regarded as a blasphemous act for many Americans, for whom being an American is almost sacred. What remains a highly transgressive act constitutes nonetheless no solution to his problem, as he never really manages to detach himself from his mother country, and his diatribes against the Reagan Administration are but one additional proof of his attachment to the United States, as Canon Mackie, one of his Canadian friends, highlights: "‘John, John’, he said to me. ‘You’re a Canadian citizen, but what are you always talking about? You talk about America more than any American I know! And you’re more anti-American than any Canadian I know,’ the canon said. ‘You’re a little… well, one-note on the subject, wouldn’t you say?’" (Irving Prayer 238). In saying so, Canon Mackie aims at helping John realize how mistaken he is: his anger and bitterness towards the American people and its government have led him to reject his roots while proving unable to fully embrace the Canadian citizenship. He therefore has become a kind of no land’s man, not American anymore and not yet Canadian. In addition, Canon Mackie’s words can be understood as a clue to reading the novel: whether John is right or not is not the question, what really matters is his lack of objectivity, and we readers must not take what he writes for granted. So, through this character, John Irving challenges the reliability of the narrator and invites the reader to exercise his own individual prerogatives in questioning narrative authority.

19Americanness is therefore to be seen in the attachment of the characters to the founding values of the United States but it never prevails over any individual’s identity. This mainly has two consequences: many conflicts and transgressions, which seem to be the favorite means used by the characters to assert their individual identity, and a kind of perverted and paradoxical conception of Americanness, which is subjected to the individual’s choices and according to which being an American means rebelling against America. Transgression appears as a positive element, the cornerstone of creation.

Creation through transgression

20In these novels’ representation of both identity and Americanness, then, transgression is primordial. It is used as a means to create the first and question the second. As a consequence, transgression becomes an essential element of the characters’ relationships with their surroundings. This paradox is to be added to the creative dimension transgression can have in the novels. But these complex and apparently antagonistic links come together in the patchwork composition of the characters themselves, and also of their relationships with their family, community or society as a whole.

  • 2 The essay was first published in 1849 and was then entitled Resistance to Civil Government.

21Protest is the root of any feeling of individuality as when the characters question or rebel against the established order, they stand as defenders of their will and choices. The best spokesman for this paramount consciousness of individuality, present in the American psyche from its origins, is no doubt Henry David Thoreau. In his essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,2 he advocates "passive resistance" against any expression of excessive or unfair power of the government. Disagreeing with an additional tax meant to raise funds for the war against Mexico, Thoreau invites his readers to be opposed to the government’s new law: "Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterwards. It is not desirable to cultivate respect for the law, so much as for the right" (Thoreau 7). Rebelling against the established order is necessary insofar as Thoreau considers personal ethics far more valuable than any other consideration. When John Irving creates characters who recurrently refuse to stick to the rules or laws and call into question the immutability and permanence of institutions and the rules they set up, he echoes Thoreau’s thinking.

22On a more limited scale, characters in John Irving’s novels also refuse to accept unconditionally the rules of their family or community. The direct consequence of such an opposition is either an open conflict with the parent figure in the case of Ruth in A Widow For One Year or Homer in The Cider House Rules, or a smooth stubbornness with Tabby in A Prayer For Owen Meany. If the latter is inevitably on the fringes of the group, she nonetheless remains within the community; she is not rejected, only isolated. Her isolation can be read through the condescension of her peers; it seems that her misconduct and her ensuing obstinacy are mitigated if not compensated for by her beauty and her kindness. She avoids being rejected by the community—as was Hester Prynne—thanks to her refusal of confrontation and violence. Things are greatly different for Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules. As already mentioned, his disagreement with Dr. Larch on the abortion question rapidly turns out to be a confrontation that leads him to leave St Cloud’s. In Homer’s case, marginalization is initiated by the protagonist, who would rather flee than have to cope with an enduring conflict with his mentor and surrogate father. As for Ruth, her conflict with her father is so deep that only violence can put an end to it. As she becomes an adult, Ruth realizes how inconsistent her father is. She also understands that Ted’s constant infidelities are one of the reasons why Marion left her when she was only four. Deeply wounded by this painful childhood event, she rejects infidelity not so much for moral reasons as for personal ones: as a woman, she can hardly bear seeing her father exploit other women and because of her personal history; standing up to her father is a means for her to express her refusal of her mother’s act. Things become absolutely unacceptable for her when the woman Ted seduces is her best friend, Hannah. This event makes Ruth eager for revenge, which she takes twice: first, when she beats her father in a competitive squash game and shortly after on the way to the airport when she verbally teaches her father a lesson, using his own words.

23Characters in John Irving’s novels have a conflicting relationship with their social and emotional environment. They seem to hesitate between rejecting and embracing their parents’ model, between mutual contribution and confrontation. But one element always comes back and that is transgression. As a matter of fact, self-assertion and the creation of identity and individuality involve, in the world according to John Irving, the breaking of rules, the trespassing of limits. Identity can in most cases be created only if it is at odds with something already existing.

24Traditionally associated with trouble and disorder, transgression is not negatively represented in John Irving’s novels. As it is a means to re-assert the importance of the individual, it is entitled to a more positive connotation. However, even though the goal is a positive one, transgression remains a problem for the relationship of any given character with his social circle. What if transgression was the only sensible answer to a given issue?

  • 3 Abortion was illegal in Maine in the 1940s-1960s, the time of narration.

25Illegal at the time and place of the story, abortion is at the core of the relationship between Dr. Larch and Homer in The Cider House Rules. As head of the orphanage, Dr. Larch is the first to witness how difficult it is to be an orphan and how dreadful the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy can be. He therefore decides to break the law3 in performing abortions for two main reasons: first he considers that it is for women to decide whether they want a child or not, then he believes that forbidding abortion is nonsense since it opens the way to dangerous practices—"miraculous" potions or quacks—which could lead to the women’s deaths. As he is an orphan, Homer finds it hard to adopt his surrogate father’s point of view. For him, being an orphan is better than not being at all. Homer’s refusal to perform an abortion is driven more by the preservation of his existence than by the endorsement of any moral position. Nevertheless, he will have to make a Cornelian choice with Rose Rose, Mr. Rose’s daughter. Still an adolescent, this character is pregnant for the second time and does not wish to keep the baby. At first, Homer follows his principles and refuses to perform the abortion, but calls St Cloud’s to make an appointment with Dr. Larch for her, thus proving that his choice is individual not moral. But two major events make him change his mind: Dr. Larch dies shortly before, and Homer learns that Rose Rose’s pregnancy is due to Mr. Rose’s incestuous behavior. He performs an abortion on Rose Rose. Legally speaking, Homer’s act challenges the established order and breaks the harmony law is supposed to guarantee. Nonetheless, abortion is here meant to stop the deplorable consequences of incest and prevent an already difficult situation from degrading. Transgression is no longer a negative action; on the contrary, it allows a chaotic situation to come to an end.

26In The Cider House Rules, A Prayer For Owen Meany and A Widow for One Year, the characters’ relationships to their environment are complex, often restricting but also unavoidable and essential in founding their identity. In John Irving’s novels, characters are shaped by their interactions with other characters and the various groups they belong to: family, community, society, and nation. Identity and Otherness are correlated and this pairing is fundamental. In such a context, identity could be defined as a complex patchwork, combining the character’s traits, his choices, the people he meets and what he does or doesn’t learn from them. Coupled with the strong desire for individuality, this creation process often leads the characters to challenge the rules, question the establish order. Creation rests upon transgression. It is precisely the urge to stand as unique against the general current that paves the way to the creation of an identity, and, paradoxically, that makes this identity quintessentially American.

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Gleason, Philip, "American Identity and Americanization," Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, Stephan Thernstrom ed., Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1980 : 31–32, 56–57.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The Scarlet Letter [1850], London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Irving, John, The Cider House Rules [1985], London: Black Swan, (1986) 1993.

-----, A Prayer For Owen Meany [1989], London: Corgi, (1989) 1993.

-----, A Widow For One Year [1998], London: Black Swan, 1999.

Song, Sarah, "What is it to be an American?", Dædalus, Spring 2009, 30-39.

Thoreau, Henry David, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), New York: Wilder Publications, 2008.

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1 Philip Gleason, "American Identity and Americanization" in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ed. Stephan Thernstrom, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1980, 31–32, 56–57. Cited in Sarah Song, "What is it to be an American", Dædalus, Spring 2009, 30-39.

2 The essay was first published in 1849 and was then entitled Resistance to Civil Government.

3 Abortion was illegal in Maine in the 1940s-1960s, the time of narration.

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Bibliographical reference

Karine Placquet, « "Breaking the rules": Identity and Americanness in The Cider House Rules, A Prayer For Owen Meany and A Widow For One Year by John Irving », Caliban, 31 | 2012, 59-71.

Electronic reference

Karine Placquet, « "Breaking the rules": Identity and Americanness in The Cider House Rules, A Prayer For Owen Meany and A Widow For One Year by John Irving », Caliban [Online], 31 | 2012, Online since 16 March 2015, connection on 29 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Karine Placquet

Université Paul Sabatier, Toulouse III.

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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