Dr. Heidegger's Experiment

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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What lesson or lessons do you think Hawthorne intended "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" to teach? What warning does the doctor give his guests?

The lesson that Hawthorne intends "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" to teach is that people should accept themselves for who they are. Unfortunately, Dr. Heidegger doesn't seem to understand this, nor do his elderly guests. Fed up of being old, they want to be young again.

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On the face of it, it's pretty unrealistic for Dr. Heidegger to invite his elderly guests to partake of this elixir of youth only to urge them to remain virtuous when they finally become young again. The whole point of these senior citizens taking the elixir is that they're fed up of being old and decrepit. They want to be just how they were when they were young. And, as subsequent events will show, one can infer that during their youth they just wanted to have fun.

Therefore, it would be faintly preposterous for the good doctor's elderly guests to drink of his precious elixir and act as if nothing had changed. The whole point of turning back the clock is to make these old folk feel rejuvenated, to give them a touch of vitality. It seems rather silly, then, for Dr. Heidegger to prescribe how his patients should behave in advance.

One can understand why the old folk no longer want to be themselves. As well as being elderly, they're rather decrepit, and this is not a pleasant condition for anyone to find themselves in. Yet the way they conduct themselves when young again leads us to believe that Hawthorne is suggesting that it's not a good idea for us to wish to be someone else. We must make the best of who and what we are, no matter how old or infirm we may be. The guests' undignified behavior, though entirely predictable under the circumstances, is ultimately unacceptable.

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The lesson that Hawthorne intends to show in his short story "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" is that if people were ever to be given the opportunity to go back in time, they would also revert back to all the behaviors that characterized them at the time. In essence, people would likely not change. The key reason is simple: people are who they are, no matter in what place or time they exist. 

In the story, Dr. Heidegger intends to conduct an experiment where he will give four eccentric old people a youth elixir. He warns them, however, not to allow the feelings of youth to make them go back to committing the same foolish acts that were once dictated by their immaturity and naïveté.

In fact, he encourages the four participants to become beacons of respectability, maybe even inspiring other youths to avoid making bad choices and to start over again with better, respectable lives.  

...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!

Clearly, this is easier said than done. Once the participants feel young again, they immediately revert to the exact immature and self-indulgent desires that once marked their lives. They went back to the same issues, same arguments, and same weaknesses. 

They learned...

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nothing. Rather than learning from their experiences as older people and applying them to their newfound youth, they instead indulged over and over in past bad choices. In fact, once the elixir wore off, they looked forward to finding the mythical fountain of youth, from which they planned to drink for days on end. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Heidegger may have learned that he was right all along: why try to go back in time if it means going back to the same issues that once haunted us? It is no surprise that, when the bottle of the elixir crashes and the liquid spills, Dr. Heidegger does not feel sorry in the least. 

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Each of the old persons Heidegger choses for his experiment are known for some kind of immoral or illegal actions when they were young. Each one could be consider a symbol for a types of people known for scandalous behavior in the form of immoral sexual behavior, greed, political corruption or "lechery". Although Heidegger warns all of them that if they drink the water from the fountain of youth, they may revert to the same behavior that caused scandal when they were young. All of course say that they have learned from the past. However, when they do become young, they resort to their same old behaviors, which finally results in the destruction of the water which is supposedly giving them youth. Thus Hawthorne's lesson seems to be that people who engage in scandalous behavior generally do not learn from their mistakes, but continues to follow selfish pleasure. This kind of pleasure is always short-lived, as witnessed not only by the behavior of the old people, but by Sylvia's rose and the butterfly. As Heidegger points out at the end, "if the fountain of youth flowed at my doorstep, I would not stoop to drink from it". Heidegger has learned to leave the past alone whereas the other still cling to it and the transitory pleasures it brought.

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