In which room do the guests gather?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Dr. Heidegger is an old-time, old-fashioned physician who works at home, unlike modern doctors who have offices and receptionists and, of course, computers, but very little time to spend with each individual patient. Heidegger undoubtedly makes house calls and knows a great deal about his patients and even about their families going back for several generations. When "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" opens, the doctor and his four visitors are all gathered in his study. 

"My dear old friends," said Dr. Heidegger, motioning them to be seated, "I am desirous of your assistance in one of those little experiments with which I amuse myself here in my study."

No doubt the doctor also has a consulting room but conducts his experiments in this other room because it is larger. Hawthorne loved to describe interiors of old houses, as he does in such detail in his novel The House of the Seven Gables. Nathaniel Hawthorne himself was a studious, introspective man who spent much of his time alone at his desk composing his unique, sombre stories and essays. He appreciated interiors as much as some of his contemporaries appreciated the great outdoors. In "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," Hawthorne lavishes description on Dr. Heidegger's study before the experiment ever gets underway. 

It was a dim, old-fashioned chamber, festooned with cobwebs, and besprinkled with antique dust. Around the walls stood several oaken bookcases, the lower shelves of which were filled with rows of gigantic folios and black-letter quartos, and the upper with little parchment-covered duodecimos. Over the central bookcase was a bronze bust of Hippocrates, with which, according to some authorities, Dr. Heidegger was accustomed to hold consultations in all difficult cases of his practice. In the obscurest corner of the room stood a tall and narrow oaken closet, with its door ajar, within which doubtfully appeared a skeleton. Between two of the bookcases hung a looking-glass, presenting its high and dusty plate within a tarnished gilt frame....The opposite side of the chamber was ornamented with the full-length portrait of a young lady, arrayed in the faded magnificence of silk, satin, and brocade, and with a visage as faded as her dress....The greatest curiosity of the study remains to be mentioned; it was a ponderous folio volume, bound in black leather, with massive silver clasps. There were no letters on the back, and nobody could tell the title of the book. But it was well known to be a book of magic; and once, when a chambermaid had lifted it, merely to brush away the dust, the skeleton had rattled in its closet, the picture of the young lady had stepped one foot upon the floor, and several ghastly faces had peeped forth from the mirror; while the brazen head of Hippocrates frowned, and said--"Forbear!"

The narrator is joking when he says that Dr. Heidegger was accustomed to hold consultations with the bust of Hippocrates, but the suggestion that he held the ancient Greek physician in such high esteem characterizes Dr. Heidegger as old-fashioned as well as eccentric. The study is the most appropriate setting for this story because there will eventually be a lot of activity among the four guests, whom the narrator describes in one place as "the four rioters." The doctor ends up feeling satisfied with the results of his experiment, although his four guests are greatly disappointed that their quarreling has resulted in their shattering the vase which contained the water from the Fountain of Youth.

The reader may wonder why the author would take such pains to describe the setting. There is no conspicuous reason for his doing it. Hawthorne just likes to write descriptions of interiors and to draw often whimsical deductions from the furnishings and decorations. In one chapter of The House of the Seven Gables a man is sitting dead in a chair and the author describes how the light coming through the various windows illuminates different features of the room as time slowly passes. Nothing at all happens. The dead man continues to sit in the same position in his chair while the lights and shadows travel around the room. 

Readers of his time were obviously more patient than modern readers, who typically just want to cut to the chase. But even a modern reader can learn to appreciate Hawthorne's meticulous descriptive writing if he is willing to be a little patient. The reward for his patience is that Hawthorne usually has something very important to say, as he does in this case about the illusions and follies of youth.

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