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Gregory House as a Romantic Hero by Barbara Barnett

I originally wrote this for Blogcritics.  If you wish to follow the discussion that ensued, feel free to visit the original article:

Dr. Gregory House is a Romantic Hero. Actually a very classic Romantic Hero (actually let’s get more specific and call him a Byronic hero.) Yes, I mean that Gregory House, as in House, MD (airing on FOX Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Central time). You mean that sarcastic, misanthropic, lazy bastard? Yup, and in all sincerity.

The thing is, House’s appeal is a great deal more than his acerbic wit; his cutting (and sometimes cruel) remarks; his occasionally bizarre behavior (i.e. sticking a metal object into a wall outlet in order to prove a point about the afterlife). Some people ascribe House’s main appeal to his sense of humor. Yes, House can be funny. He cracks jokes, deflecting attempts at serious engagement with a witty remark or quip. Series creator David Shore has said that people like House because he gets away with saying things that social convention prohibits. But that sort of appeal would never be enough to engage me in the way Dr. Gregory House has.

So, back to this “Romantic Hero” stuff. I’ve been an avid reader of The Victorian Novel since I was in high school (and trust me, that was a LONG time ago.) My favorite of that genre will always be Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The male protagonist (Jane is the heroine of the novel) Edward Rochester is the quintessential Romantic Hero of Victorian literature. He has a dark past, including a secret marriage to a madwoman whom he keeps locked in the estate attic.

Manipulated into this tragic marriage by his father and father-in-law when he was a sensitive and idealistic young man, Rochester finds solace through self-indulgence and debauchery. Until he meets her — Jane Eyre. And it is through Jane that Rochester seeks redemption of his weary and “soul-withered” self. Offering marriage when he is not free to do so, we still have sympathy for Rochester’s plight and long for him and Jane to ultimately be (re)united. And teenage girls and women alike are captivated generation after generation by this classic Victorian novel (and the brooding Rochester) and others like it. It’s not that the heroes are “bad boys.” It is that the heroes are wounded; in need of healing — doing “good” despite themselves and captivating us in the process.

Like Bronte’s Rochester, Gregory House is a Romantic Hero. The Romantic Hero is a loner. Damaged and wary of people; cynical and melancholy. He is outside the circle — an outcast; introspective and flawed. He is often alienated or isolated and has his own (often quite strong) sense of morality and ethics that is outside the conventional. He is a hero whose heroism is not involved in upholding the social order, but operating outside of it and sometimes in contradiction to it.

In three seasons of House, we have seen Dr. Gregory House at his best and at his worst. It is easy to see his flaws; to see his “badness.” It is especially easy to see because, as written, Gregory House wants us to see those things: his flaws, his anger, bitterness, misanthropy, his outrageousness. But like the proverbial onion, all one has to do is peel away one layer, and another appears. It is to catch a glimpse of one of those reveals that is the most appealing part of the character. (Leaving aside, for the moment, the beautiful and expressive eyes his portrayer, Hugh Laurie.)

We’ve seen from the first very first episode what House is like when he’s not being observed by or interacting with colleagues. With his colleagues, House is guarded in the extreme, callous and brusque; cold. When his staff uncovered a photograph taken of House in an unguarded moment in season three’s “Fetal Position,” they are bewildered. “It almost looks like… he’s caring,” says a perplexed Dr. Allison Cameron. The photograph had been taken by a patient (who was a photographer) while House was attending to her.

House is most unguarded, of course, when he is alone. And it is in those moments we catch a glimpse of who House might be if he was not emotionally or physically “damaged.” House is a man of artistic sensitivity. His apartment is a virtual museum of antique furniture, collectibles, and artwork. His television set is old and small, but he owns an audiophile’s stereo system; a grand piano; multiple musical instruments; and a library of books that eclipses even mine (and I have about 2,000 volumes). That tells you more about House than the fact that he’s into porn or has a thing for General Hospital and Monster Trucks.

The other thing we learn about House when he’s alone is that he’s probably in a great deal more pain than he lets anyone else see. We’ve seen him twice in the morning when he gets up, both times during the second season. Both times have been the “soul-sucking” mornings that House described to Detective Tritter in the season three episode “Words and Deeds.” House barely manages to get out of bed and stand on his own two feet, yet by the time he’s at work, he limps along at a pace that could win a foot race with someone who’s able bodied. (I’d never be able to catch up with those long, cane-enhanced strides.) “Patient’s don’t want a sick doctor,” House tells Wilson in the pilot episode, explaining why the doctor refuses to wear a white lab coat. House never wants to appear too infirm; he doesn’t want to be pitied or be defined by his disability. When he’s alone, it is clear that House moves with much more difficulty than he would ever show the world. These are the tidbits that show us, the viewers, that although he may have a problem with addiction, there is no doubt that House is hurting. It makes us sympathetic to his no-win plight, and take his side when his friends (particularly Wilson and Cuddy) try to undermine his efforts to be pain-free.

While these peeks behind the scenes certainly arouse our (or at least my) sympathy and make him appear stoic in the face of great physical pain, it is in his interactions with patients that we take note of the more heroic qualities of Dr. House. “Interactions with patients? What is she talking about?” you may rightly ask. “His interactions with patients are despicable!”

True, House can be brusque, blunt, and downright nasty to those clinic patients he is forced to treat. But then there is that moment in nearly every episode when we see House interact with a sick patient — one who has appealed to him as the medical court of last resort. It is then that we see House for who he really is. And it is from this vantage that it becomes clear why we care so much about him. It is then we see the doctor who is willing to sacrifice his medical career, his personal safety — share his darkest secrets — all in the service of saving a life.

For all of his brashness, boldness, sarcasm, witty retorts and funny lines, without this part of his persona being shared with us, House would simply be a funny jerk; a class clown. Let him be that to colleagues, clinic patients, and his staff. For him to be compelling enough for us to tune in week upon week, root for him and cry for him, we need to experience the “real” House.

On Foreman’s last day in the season three finale, Wilson told House that he (Foreman) doesn’t want to become “who he thinks you are.” So, who is House, really?

In the pilot episode, the patient Rebecca Adler asks Wilson if House is a “good” man. Wilson responds that he’s a “good doctor.” Going on, and answering Rebecca’s question about whether House cares about him, Wilson immediately responds with House’s mantra: “Everybody lies.” Rebecca points out that actions matter more than words, to which Wilson admits that House does, indeed, “care.”

The “real” House emerges later in the same episode, in much the same way as he does throughout the first three seasons of the show, and into season four — at the bedside of a dying patient. In this episode, Rebecca has decided that she has had enough of tests and misdiagnoses. She simply wants it to be over and tells Wilson so. Wilson reveals this information in front of House and his team, spurring House to pay a personal visit (his first) to this patient. House confronts her, and with great emotional difficulty, gives one of the most impassioned speeches of the series about dying with dignity vs. living with dignity. In the end, she still opts to die rather than undergo any more tests. And House stops pushing her. She has the information; she’s made her decision and House respects that. House, himself, was denied his own right to refuse medical treatment, causing a lifetime of pain and a greatly diminished quality of life.

We are privy to House’s empathic streak — an empathy that can only be possessed by someone who has walked in his patients’ shoes. And it is to those patients alone that he takes off his mask to reveal what lies beneath. And it is in those moments we find ourselves able to forgive House his less stellar qualities. His heartfelt and passionate pleas to his patients are filled with truths not only about the patient, medicine, and (occasionally) philosophy, but truths about the good doctor himself. These reveals are costly to the doc, who spends a great deal of energy maintaining his emotional distance from everyone. But this is a risk House is willing to make in the service of saving a life.

Time and again we are told that House is “all about the puzzle,” like his literary forebear, Sherlock Holmes. However, time and again we are shown that House is much more than a doctor afflicted with a “Rubik’s complex” (as Wilson accuses him in “DNR”.) One only needs to watch the season one episodes “Control,” “Detox,” “Sports Medicine,” “Babies and Bathwater” or “Honeymoon” to see that it is more than “the puzzle” that motivates House. See, as well, the second season episodes “Autopsy,” “Sex Kills,” “Euphoria,” “Forever” and “Who’s Your Daddy;” and third season episodes “Son of Coma Guy,” “Merry Little Christmas,” “One Day One Room,” “Half-Wit,”and “Fetal Position.” House is a healer. And no matter how vigorous his protestations and his actions to deny it, when it comes right down to it, he cannot excise this fundamental aspect to his character.

Typically, Romantic Heroes are isolated and loners, often anti-social and outwardly misanthropic. But to be a Romantic Hero is also to possess a certain vulnerability — a way for we readers or viewers to peer into his soul; to access the heart that beats beneath the off-putting veneer. We, as viewers, are the ones who get to see that vulnerability, and even when it’s not there on paper in the script, Hugh Laurie’s brilliant portrayal lets us see between the lines and the words and into House’s heart and soul.

House is a troubled soul, wounded inside as well as outside. Never is House’s vulnerability more evident than towards the end of season three’s “Merry Little Christmas.” House is boxed into a corner (largely, but not completely, of his own making.) His pain meds have been cut off in order to manipulate him into making a deal with the DA: drug fraud charges against him will be dropped if House voluntarily submits to rehab. House is detoxing and in agony. Having solved the medical mystery despite his deteriorating medical status, and having stolen a bottle of oxycodone from the pharmacy, House goes home, declining an invitation from Wilson to spend Christmas eve together. House, who has been popping the oxy tabs like candy all day, places a call to his mother, who is not at home. House is at the end of his emotional rope as he leaves a halting and emotional “Merry Christmas” message on his mother’s voice mail. It is through that phone call, his voice and his devastated state that we can see House as he sees himself: a wreck of a man, whose life is not worth living.

As much as House tries to completely guard himself from those closest to him with high fortress walls manned by armed centurions, he has revealed bits and pieces of his real self to even them: his heartfelt conversation to Foreman in season two’s “Euphoria II” about pain and the fear of pain affecting judgment; his awkward confession to Cameron about his relationship with his dad at the end of “Daddy’s Boy” (season two); his forgiveness of Chase’s season one betrayal; his many unguarded conversations with Wilson, his treatment of Cuddy’s infertility in “Who’s Your Daddy,” to name a few examples.

In an introduction to European Romanticism, a professor at the Global Campus describes the Romantic Hero:

The Romantic Hero is often disillusioned about life, about his hopes, his dreams. He is always seeking/longing for something spiritual in nature that is perpetually just out of reach… He is often at odds with society, and is usually alienated from it (if not an actual recluse).

Edward Rochester, Childe Roland (the original Byronic hero), Roland (from Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels), Gregory House: Romantic Heroes all. They are self-destructive and difficult at worst; courageous, intelligent, and noble at their best. Irresistible and magnetic. It’s what draws me into House, MD and into Gregory House as a character. He’s pretty amusing, too.