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American Literary History 14.2 (2002) 284-310



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Neo-Victorian Self-Help, or Cider House Rules

Alison Booth

Go to the self-help section of the bookstore chain, and you face a welter of advice on everything you were never taught in kindergarten about your body, relationships, spiritual growth, and managing your investments and career. Similar concoctions of personality and money crowd the shelves of memoir and biography as well as fiction, in defiance of generic and disciplinary distinctions. The private is publicized, making hash of separate spheres. Whether the integration of the personal with the political and economic is a welcome or an alarming sign—and across the political spectrum it has been seen as both—it is not so much a sign of these times. Self-fashioning has long been regarded as a trade secret. Victorian self-help modeled the entrepreneur, implicating the fundamentals of character in the principles of success. John Irving's The Cider House Rules (1985) revives the Victorian tradition of self-help, as though turning back the clock to a time when home and work were united and character spelled success.

In The Cider House Rules, the hero's development is both accelerated and stalled by his enrollment in two hybrid institutions: an orphanage that doubles as an abortion hospital, and a cider house. Both locations, the two zones of Homer Wells's life so far, serve as home, school, workplace, death place, and Foucauldian carceral institutions, perhaps. Like factories they amass—and divide—labor (including reproductive labor) that might "naturally" have taken place in the private home: orphanage and cider house collapse the public and private spheres and simulate families in an age of mechanical reproduction. Irving's novel and screenplay for the 1999 film, The Cider House Rules, directed by Lasse Hallström, are self-consciously Victorian, specifically Dickensian, 1 at a time of conservative revival of "Victorian" values in the US. Like many narratives by Victorians themselves, The Cider House Rules treats the rules of self-help with some irony. The conventions of development narratives and of contemporary narrative film, however, may supply adverse scripts; a reassertion of masculine self-determination combines with tendencies not only in conservative [End Page 284] agendas but also in recent Hollywood films in which white male protagonists fend off threats of "feminine identification" with society's victims (Savran 33). Stripped of narrative complexities, the film makes it a foregone conclusion that Homer Wells is the (passive) hero of his own life.

Arguably, the cultural work of self-help discourse is to make the subject, the traditional middle-class family, and success appear so nearly homologous that one need only claim the first—a whole subjectivity—and the rest will follow. The conflation of the personal and the economic is hinted at in the word business, meaning both private concerns and commercial enterprise. I shall be minding that word, business, along with the rules of self-help, as I ask what is at stake in the late-twentieth-century revival of so-called Victorian values. After examining Victorian self-help and conservative Victorianism today, particularly through the figures of Samuel Smiles, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Stephen R. Covey, I will concentrate on aspects of the film The Cider House Rules that point to self-help conventions and to the fusion of internalized discipline with the ambiguous rules of business. At the same time, I work out a merger of divisions of my own business as a feminist critic and a Victorianist who also does contemporary American cultural studies.

Aligning Irving with Charles Dickens and Samuel Smiles rather than Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin or Elbert Hubbard may seem a strain, but there are sound historical reasons for this reach. Disciplinary divisions between nationalities and centuries have tended to hide some common cultural formations. These divisions have institutional investments, of course, and are partly justified by the aim of avoiding historical generalizations. Yet while Victorianists have been doing what they want to call cultural studies lately, cultural studies would do well to recall the Victorians, to add historical dimensions...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 284-310
Launched on MUSE
2002-04-01
Open Access
No
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