Though on the surface Magnificent Obsession might appear to be a romantic movie, even the very model of courtly, altruistic love, there lurks a dark undercurrent of hidden stereotypes and damaging beliefs apparent after a careful viewing. The story centers around one Bob Merrick, once an irresponsible playboy, whose actions cause the death of Helen’s beloved husband Dr. Philips, and later her blindness. His attraction to her (which began after the death of her husband–thus tinged with guilt–and intensified after the accident which caused her blindness) is seen as altruistic and noble (“magnificent”) and yet at the same time something abnormal and unhealthy (“obsession”).
In many ways, once Helen acquires her disability, she is treated like a child and fussed over, even referred to as a “kid” at one point when she was explicitly framed as a mother figure at the beginning of the story. Though she does attempt to show some independence when she insists on using her cane and a system of ropes to navigate, the others constantly hover about to perform little tasks that might take her longer, like finding her shawl. She seems to be adjusting well until Bob/Rob makes arrangements for her to see specialists in Europe; Helen seems to abandon all thought of adjusting to her blindness and instead focuses all her hopes on a non-existent surgical cure.
Bob has spoken with Dr. Philip’s friend Edward Randolph, who encourages his obsession with Helen by explicitly comparing the two of them to Christ (“the last guy who tried this got the cross at 33”) and warning him that it would “use him up”. The idea of a disabled spouse as an unbearable burden and the non-disabled spouse as a saint was a prevailing one in that era, one that did not escape the notice of Helen. When Bob asks her to marry him, she initially consents, but as all good cripples are expected to do, quickly considers her status as perpetual burden and flees the relationship in self-sacrifice. Bob can do nothing but return home and resume his medical studies, becoming a well-respected doctor. (Medical model ahoy!)
When Helen finally resurfaces in a clinic in New Mexico, rather used up from her own altruistic self-sacrifice and unconscious, Dr. Merrick must be the one to operate. He balks at first (and with good reason; not even the iron nerves of a surgeon are expected to hold up under those conditions, and doctors and surgeons routinely refer their loved ones to other doctors) but accepts that he must perform this ultimate act of altruism. One half expects him to collapse as soon as the operation is concluded, to complete the Christ metaphor.