Dr. Heidegger's Experiment | Study Guide

Nathanel Hawthorne

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Dr. Heidegger's Experiment | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Participants

Dr. Heidegger has invited four elderly friends to visit him in his study. They are Mr. Medbourne, a merchant who lost his fortune in risky and foolish investments; Colonel Killigrew, a former officer who now suffers from gout and other pains and ailments after a lifetime of "sinful pleasures"; Mr. Gascoigne, who had been a corrupt politician in his youth, but is presently merely obscure; and the Widow Wycherly, who was once a great beauty and a former lover to the other three. Heidegger has called them to participate in an experiment.

Dr. Heidegger himself is a man of both science and sorcery, and his study is full of medical curiosities and a large spell book. He also keeps a portrait of the young lady who was his fiancée until one of his experimental medicines killed her the day before their wedding. On a center table he has an elaborate glass vase with four champagne glasses arranged around it. Dr. Heidegger produces a dried, pressed rose, given to him by his late fiancée, and puts it into the vase, where it revivifies into a delicate, newly opened blossom. He explains the water is from the mythical fountain of youth that the Spanish explorers searched for but never found. An acquaintance of his discovered it and sent him some of the water.

Dr. Heidegger's friends are skeptical, believing this to be a trick, but Dr. Heidegger explains he is inviting them to try it themselves. He himself is content to remain old and merely observe. However, before they drink, he urges them to think about the mistakes of their youth and to be wiser and more virtuous the second time around. They all agree that it could not be otherwise, and drink.

The Experiment

With the first glass, the four corpse-like guests become younger and more vibrant, but they are still old. They cry out for more water, and when given it, they drink greedily despite the doctor's assurances that they have the time to be patient. On the second drink their age is reduced to only just past their prime, and they begin to behave almost drunkenly, though the story is ambivalent as to whether the intoxication springs from the liquid or their returning youth. The men begin to fall back into the patterns of behavior that ruined their youths, while the Widow Wycherly scrutinizes herself obsessively in the mirror. The four demand more.

By this point the contrast between Dr. Heidegger and his subjects is marked, and the story compares him to Father Time watching over them. The four, however, are exhilarated and reveling in their returned youth. They laugh at the awfulness of being elderly and mock their own dowdy clothes. The widow joyfully asks the doctor to dance, but he begs off as he is no longer able. The three young men shout that they will and proceed to renew their fight over her, with her caught in the middle of something halfway between an embrace and a battle. As the men begin to fight each other, without letting go of the widow, they overturn and break the vase containing the water from the fountain of youth, which had held enough liquid to renew all of the old people in the town. A butterfly at the end of its life settles into the spilled water, then flies up to perch on the head of Dr. Heidegger. It is young again.

The Conclusion

Dr. Heidegger admonishes his guests, and they return to their seats. In his hand the renewed rose is fading again, though he says he loves it as much in this state as in full bloom. His subjects are also reverting. They are horrified by their return to old age, particularly the Widow Wycherly, who hides her wrinkling face and wails.

Dr. Heidegger delivers the conclusion of his experiment: that the water from the fountain of youth is dangerous and transitory, and their actions have shown it should not be meddled with. His four subjects, having learned no such lesson, resolve to move to Florida and spend the rest of their lives drinking the intoxicating waters of the fountain of youth.

Analysis

Dr. Heidegger's Experiment

Though Dr. Heidegger proposes to his friends that he is testing the properties of the water of youth, he states the actual premise of his experiment in his final warning to them before the experiment begins: "it would be well that, with the experience of a lifetime to direct you, you should draw up a few general rules for your guidance, in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it would be, if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age." That is, he is curious whether human beings have the capacity to learn from their mistakes as they grow older. To this end, he has selected the participants of the experiment explicitly for their lifetimes of poor decisions, something he congratulates himself on shortly after in the text. Having selected subjects he knows to be morally wicked, he then monitors for any improvement and finds none whatsoever. He concludes that the renewed vigor of youth brings all the same mistakes and decides it is not desirable.

Dr. Heidegger's experimental design reveals a deep pessimism about human nature. He does not, for example, include any individuals of better character than his four friends, which might have shown different results. He asks no questions about a second youth for people who engaged in good works or whose characters were more moderate—partly good and partly bad. Because he has gone to the trouble to find an unwise merchant, a drunken soldier, a corrupt politician, and a promiscuous woman, it is clear he does value a degree of diversity in his experimental subjects. However, he seems to have accepted moral failing in all, within the standards of the time, as a universal human condition. This is hardly uncommon for Hawthorne stories or for the Dark Romantic genre as a whole.

Like his friends, Dr. Heidegger has not completely outgrown the failings of his own past. He is, after all, still performing medical experiments on his intimates, even though this is exactly what killed his fiancée all those years ago. Though the text treats him as a Jovian (godlike) figure and compares him to Father Time, he is still only marginally better than the others: he is detached enough from the situation to observe and learn without taking part, but he still learns at others' expense.

The Narrator's Collected Reports

The narrator's distinctive voice presents him as someone who has gone to some trouble to collect the facts of the story and is attempting to present them accurately. In part, this is a stylistic conceit that was much more frequently employed in works before the development of photography and film. Modern fiction often presents scenes as if observed by an impartial, transparent, mechanical narrator, something like a cinematic camera. Hawthorne, however, was writing during a time when books and newspapers were the standard for communication technology, and an audience would have taken for granted that for facts to be relayed, a person must have investigated them.

In this sense, the narrator's tone and his intrusions into the story lend a sense of verisimilitude to the magical, fantastic events reported in the story, in part because the narrator expresses concern that the reader will believe he is making things up. He worries he must "bear the stigma of a fiction monger," especially because he has, over time, told a number of strange stories about Dr. Heidegger. He tends to use "it is said" to bolster and distance himself from the story's most fantastical claims, such as the skeleton speaking or the mirror reflecting something other than what was present in the room. He is merely presenting the facts as they have been presented to him. The narrator's insistence that he is "veracious" or truthful, and that all of the facts in the story come from reports he has collected from others, also add a layer of playful irony, as the reader is completely aware that the story is a fiction written to amuse and provoke thought.

Temperance

The water from the fountain of youth is described multiple times throughout the story in terms of alcohol, both in its form and its effect on the four who drink it. The text is ambiguous as to whether it is literally intoxicating or "their exhilaration of spirits were merely a lightsome dizziness caused by the sudden removal of the weight of years." In either case, the effect is the same: those who drink it become giddy and easy prey to their worst impulses. Dr. Heidegger cautions his friends to exercise moderation and pace themselves as they imbibe, but they do not listen. They not only resume all their worst habits from youth but descend into wantonness and brawling. Hawthorne is using the well-understood perils of drunkenness to illustrate the characters' return to youth rather than the other way around, but from a writer who often dwelt on subjects of sin and puritanism, the choice of this parallel is instructive since both young and old fall prey to excess.

Dr. Heidegger's main moral accomplishment is his acceptance of the natural state of aging rather than pining for the intoxicating return to youth. His declaration that he loves Sylvia's faded rose as much as it is now—dry and pressed—as he ever did when it was in bloom indicates a rejection of the bodily focus that drives his companions toward unwise rejuvenation.

Only a Trick

In contrast to accepting the experiment as real, another possible interpretation of the story is that the narrator is unreliable and the "Water of Youth" is exactly what it is described as resembling: champagne. As Dr. Heidegger's experiment is a sociological one questioning whether people will make the same mistakes with a second youth, it is immaterial whether the participants actually become young again or are only induced to believe so via stagecraft, altered mental state, and/or suggestion.

Because the narrator is basing the story on reports, it is also possible that those reports are fake—or, more likely, that he is not quite as truthful as he has been claiming and is now responsible for yet another "fable" about Dr. Heidegger. Further, though the elderly participants all explicitly experience feelings of youth, they are also tired from their exertions and shown by the mirror to still be old. Their reflections may not be a supernatural twist but rather the accurate facts contradicting the guests' subjective impressions based on their participation in the experiment.

Hawthorne tended to write stories with magical elements and allegory, and several elements point toward the water of youth being real within the text rather than a staged performance. The butterfly, for example, is rejuvenated by an accidental spill and the Widow Wycherly's hair is described as changing color. The suggestion of youth would have had to be very powerful for these very elderly participants to have engaged in the dancing and merriment described.

Importantly, the reality or illusion of the water of youth does not affect the central premise of the story: that it is human nature to fall back into the same mistakes. However, it does cast Dr. Heidegger as more of a charlatan than a sorcerer, and it makes the four's ultimate decision to seek the fountain of youth even more foolish given the basic pretense of the tale.

Dr. Heidegger's Experiment Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Dr. Heidegger invites four old friends to an experiment.

Rising Action

2 The doctor explains the fountain of youth.

3 He rejuvenates a dry pressed flower from his dead fiancée.

4 The four drink and become younger with each drink.

5 At mature adulthood, they renew their worst vices.

6 At youth, they become riotous, mocking, and lewd.

Climax

7 Fighting and embracing, they break the container of water.

Falling Action

8 Dr. Heidegger admonishes them and rejects the water.

Resolution

9 The four resolve to find the fountain for themselves.

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