Dr. Heidegger's Experiment | Study Guide

Nathanel Hawthorne

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Dr. Heidegger's Experiment | Symbols



Dr. Heidegger has kept a flower given to him half a century ago by his late fiancée. It is pressed, dried, and gray now, but the water of youth temporarily returns it to life. Throughout the story, flowers and blooming are used to describe youth, particularly beautiful and sensuous youth. The fountain of youth itself is described as "overshadowed by several gigantic magnolias, which, though numberless centuries old, have been kept as fresh as violets by the virtues of this wonderful water." The association between flowers and young sensuality is especially explicit in the exchange between Dr. Heidegger and the Widow Wycherly. When he asks her if she thinks it possible that "this rose of half a century could ever bloom again," she replies, "Nonsense! ... You might as well ask whether an old woman's wrinkled face could ever bloom again."

The description of the renewed rose also strongly references female sexuality: "The crushed and dried petals stirred, and assumed a deepening tinge of crimson, as if the flower were reviving from a deathlike slumber; the slender stalk and twigs of foliage became green ... looking as fresh as when Sylvia Ward had first given it to her lover. It was scarcely full blown; for some of its delicate red leaves curled modestly around its moist bosom, within which two or three dewdrops were sparkling."

Dr. Heidegger's profession of love for the pressed flower ("I love it as well thus as in its dewy freshness") shows that he loves in a more cerebral way that is divorced from the physical, sexual love that drives the other characters. The pressed flower is particularly associated with Sylvia, who is forever young in death and in Dr. Heidegger's memory, though not vibrant in the way of living flowers. She is now only an idea, a faded portrait, and a dry semblance of a rose.


Dr. Heidegger's mirror has a habit of reflecting the truth of what is happening better than what is observable in the room. When the chambermaid attempts to clean the doctor's book of spells, it shows ghastly faces warning her away. When the three male guests are fighting over the Widow Wycherly, "by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grandsires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam." The mirror seems to act as a moral judge and reveal what is wicked in the story.

Elixir of Youth


Dr. Heidegger's supply of water from the fountain of youth represents the shortness and the fragility of youth. It bubbles like champagne, "the delicate spray of which, as it effervesced from the surface, resembled the tremulous glitter of diamonds," but its effects are brief and almost illusory, as is often the insubstantial behavior of the young without experience. Furthermore, his guests overturn and ruin the supply of the water with their antics, resulting in a second lost and wasted youth because of their vices.


The water of youth and its effects are consistently described in terms of alcohol. The water bubbles like champagne and produces a lightening effect on the party's mood, not unlike a round of wine, even before the guests have visibly rejuvenated. Its effects are described as "more transient than that of wine."

The story is ambiguous about whether it is youth or intoxication that is clouding the heads of its characters, but the tight association between the two helps cement the idea that the youth offered to the characters is a temptation to sin rather than a real cure for their ails.

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