Favorite Fictional Characters, #183: Dr. Wilbur Larch
While A Prayer for Owen Meany is undeniably my favorite John Irving novel, Cider House Rules is a not-too-distant second. His loving depiction of New England, in this case the rugged mid-20th century coast of Maine, is something only a native of staggering literary talent could manage, and is a large part of my affection for this work. I'm also a huge fan of Dr. Wilbur Larch, the iconoclastic healer, father-figure, and sometime abortionist of St. Cloud's orphanage.
Larch is a complicated man, and Irving grants him a full and checkered history. A degrading and painful early experience with intimacy erodes his desire for love or sex, and instead he sets out to save those children born unwanted into the world. The orphanage of St. Cloud's in the wilds of Maine lumber country is a place of sanctuary for these children and for the mothers who cannot provide for them. Larch initially refuses to terminate pregnancies, though in time he comes to accede to the wishes of his patients. Irving does not proselytize on the issue, and makes no moral judgment, leaving it to the reader to form his or her own opinions on the matter and the man. Still, this is not a book about abortion, no more than Owen Meany is a book about the Vietnam War. Both are merely backdrops, lenses through which we see characters who struggle with the very real world they inhabit.
St. Cloud's is a refuge for Larch too, as he settles into a comfortable routine, gradually abandoning the grander dreams he once had of saving and serving the world, content to save and serve those he can. His relationship with Homer Wells stands in for any fatherly instinct he might otherwise have had, as he teaches and trains the boy, and clearly loves him as a son. There's a lot more to the book, of course - Melony and Candy are characters worth profiling in their own right - but Larch's journey fascinates me. Here is a man of intellect and erudition, of skill and scope, consigning himself to an irrelevant backwater in the woods and carving out a very small, yet very impactful life there. Does it fulfill him? His addiction to ether suggests there is a part of him that marinates with regret, that pines for the broader world he eschewed and lost in exchange for these children. But he loves the children, and that is the truth to which he clings, even in his stoic last-century Yankee fashion. They are his princes and kings, and that has come to be enough for him. His nightly benediction to his young charges always makes me think of RYLA with nostalgia both sad and sweet - Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.
A salute here to Michael Caine, whose excellent Dr. Larch in the passable film adaptation was one of the finest performances in a career full of them.