Dr. Heidegger's Experiment | Study Guide

Nathanel Hawthorne

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Dr. Heidegger's Experiment | Themes


Age and Wisdom

Dr. Heidegger's guests are introduced to the audience as "venerable," or full of the wisdom of age and experience. In reality they are anything but. Dr. Heidegger's experiment tests the assumption behind a common human wish: that if a person could return to their lost youth, they would have the wisdom to avoid their past mistakes. "It would be well," he asserts, "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!"

Dr. Heidegger's experiment proves the opposite. His companions appear to have learned nothing from their lives, and, returning to their old age, have learned nothing from the experiment either, except that an easy solution to their problems might exist somewhere in the world. They prefer to live out their days in a likely misguided search for that possibility.

Dr. Heidegger and his friends are shown to be on different terms with their own aging. The guests are described as being miserable in every possible sense of the word, and the narrator opines that their "greatest misfortune ... was that they were not long ago in their graves." They had lives of scandal, anonymity, destitution, and ruined health. "The liquor," the narrator says, "if it really possessed such virtues as Dr. Heidegger imputed to it, could not have been bestowed on four human beings who needed it more wofully. They looked as if they had never known what youth or pleasure was, but had been ... always the gray, decrepit, sapless, miserable creatures, who now sat stooping round the doctor's table, without life enough in their souls or bodies to be animated even by the prospect of growing young again." The poor decisions of their youth have left them without happiness, legacy, or even health in their old age. They jump at the chance for youth, and once they have it, they mock old age mercilessly.

Dr. Heidegger, by contrast, states, "For my own part, having had much trouble in growing old, I am in no hurry to grow young again." Though he has not thoroughly grown out of his own moral failings, such as conducting experiments on his intimates, he does appreciate the natural progression of his life and the experience it has brought him. He is described as possessing "a gray dignity of aspect that might have well befitted that very Father Time," in contrast to the foolish behavior of his former peers. He renounces the water of youth and states that he loves his dry, pressed rose as much as he did the vibrant bloom. He is ultimately a more cerebral character than his friends, unswayed by the physicality of youth, and able to learn—at least to a degree— from both his mistakes and the mistakes of others.

Dangerous Experimentation

Dr. Heidegger is a man of both science and sorcery, and in both he is given to endangering others in pursuit of his own ends. His fiancée, Sylvia Ward, is described has having been "affected with some slight disorder" for which he prescribed a medicine that killed her. The reader is given very little reason to doubt he loved her, as he has a large portrait of her in his study and has kept the flower she gave him for over half a century. However, for a "slight disorder," he gave her something he presumably knew might be dangerous, suggesting a degree of recklessness in the name of discovery and power.

The doctor is, according to the text, "in the habit of pestering his intimates" with "nothing more wonderful than the murder of a mouse in an air pump, or the examination of a cobweb by the microscope, or some similar nonsense." While this is meant to evoke scientific displays such as those put on by the more famous and theatrical scientists of Nathaniel Hawthorne's day, the mention of the murder of something small and helpless to prove a scientific point is in line with the theme of Dr. Heidegger conducting experiments without regard for his subjects.

In his experiment, Dr. Heidegger exposes his guests, presumably his friends, to the waters of the fountain of youth, a possibly intoxicating, possibly addictive, possibly harmful substance, for the purpose of satisfying his own curiosity about human nature. While they do little injury to themselves in actuality, it is not entirely for want of trying, as all three of the men engage in a battle over the Widow Wycherly for the second time. He also risks the four emotionally, as all of them are exposed to uncomfortable truths about themselves, and as they return to old age all four, though especially the Widow Wycherly, seem distraught with having possessed youth only to have it disappear again. The story ends with the four of them scheming to find the fountain of youth, a quest which has already claimed the lives of much more able adventurers. While this is the natural outcome of their own inability to learn from mistakes, Dr. Heidegger bears some moral responsibility for having exposed them in the first place.

Pessimism Regarding Human Nature

Dr. Heidegger's experiment is a question of whether people can learn from experience and better themselves. In selecting a sample of some of the worst people by the standards of his time, his experiment leans heavily on an assumption that people will fail and fail again, and the outcome of the test is as expected. "I rejoice," says the doctor, "that I have so well selected the subjects of my experiment."

No character in the story is a paragon of any sort. The four participants have their flaws laid out explicitly: Mr. Medbourne is a foolish merchant who squandered his fortune on ridiculous schemes; Colonel Killigrew is a drunken philanderer and suffers for it in his old age; Mr. Gascoigne is a corrupt politician who was drummed out of office and forgotten; and the Widow Wycherly was a scandalous young beauty who now lives alone, ostracized by her community. Dr. Heidegger is not free from sin either, and though he has the ability to learn better than his friends, he still endangers others in the name of science. His medicinal prescription killed the woman he loved, he dabbles in the occult, he experiments on his friends, and he has, in a very pointed bit of detail, a literal skeleton in his closet, suggesting he has dark secrets to hide.

When asked explicitly by the doctor if they will spend their second youths differently, guided by a long life's worth of experience and moral growth, the participants scoff, for "so very ridiculous was the idea that, knowing how closely repentance treads behind the steps of error, they should ever go astray again." However, only a few drinks in, they are every bit as bad as they ever were, falling back into exactly the behaviors that led them to ruin the first time. Even after the water is shown to be only transitory in nature, the four learn no lessons and resolve to seek it out and drink it continuously rather than accept the inevitability of time.

Morality, and especially the failing of people who are generally supposed to be moral, is a recurring theme in Hawthorne's work. The climax of his famous work The Scarlet Letter reveals the mysterious lover of an ostracized woman to have been the community's preacher. Here, characters are introduced as "venerable" because Hawthorne is playing with the idea of the elderly as people who have earned wisdom and respect through their long lives. Dr. Heidegger's friends are, however, not any more virtuous than they ever were—merely too old, too hopeless, and too destitute to act on the passions that once motivated them.

Youth and Sexuality

Youth in the story, especially for the Widow Wycherly, is deeply tied to physicality, and even the flower's rejuvenation is described in obliquely sexual terms: "The crushed and dried petals stirred, and assumed a deepening tinge of crimson ... 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." The Widow's age is usually described, either positively or negatively, in terms of her body's physical beauty: "hardly beyond her buxom prime," "so fresh a damsel," "the skinny ugliness of a shriveled grandam." Her male companions receive a less extreme version of the same treatment.

Their progression backward in age also defines the quality of their moral failings. While they are younger but not yet young, they wallow in vanity and ambition, but once they become wholly young again, their actions become more intensely physical. They dance, caper, embrace, and fight. The culmination of their youth is a tangled romantic struggle, at once explicit and sinister. "Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself, yet still remained in their triple embrace. Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalry, with bewitching beauty for the prize." The text links both the sexuality and the violence explicitly to their age. "They were young," says the narrator, as the romantic entanglement moves toward a brawl, "their burning passions proved them so."

By contrast, Dr. Heidegger's profession of love for the pressed rose is a rejection of the bodily and the sexual as much as it is youth. He has a cerebral love, one that survives as well in the absence of his young fiancée as it would in her presence, and quite possibly better, as his memory of her is untainted.

No Miracle Cure

The magic of the water of youth is ultimately transitory, an empty temptation with no power to fix any of the problems suffered by any of the story's characters. Bubbling like champagne, its allure is described like alcohol and sprays of diamonds, and when its magic is done, its effect is described as having "effervesced away." Not only is there no way for the doctor's guests to be young again, but his experiment proves that even if there were, it would not result in a better life for them, only in the ignominious repetition of every mistake they made in their long and miserable lives.

However, the fundamental flaw of all the experiment's participants is that they have always looked to easy, transitory, and ultimately ruinous solutions. The Widow Wycherly traded freely on her good looks. Mr. Medbourne threw money at ludicrous schemes; his dream concocted with his renewed vigor involves whales towing icebergs to India to turn a profit. Colonel Killigrew squandered his health on momentary merriment. Mr. Gascoigne lied, slandered, and stole, but he was still unable to hold power for all his efforts. Even Dr. Heidegger presumably believed, in his hubris, that he could cure any defect in his bride-to-be but lost her because of it.

Ultimately, Dr. Heidegger's guests never internalize the lesson, and while the doctor lays out what the experiment has taught him, they scheme to chase the water to its source and live forever vibrant and happy, drinking from the mouth of the fountain of youth.

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