Dr. Heidegger's Experiment

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Dr. Heidegger

The titular Dr. Heidegger is described as an old man. He, like his aged guests, is often thought of as “a little beside [himself]” with the worries and memories of old age. It is revealed that the doctor was long ago engaged to a woman named Sylvia Ward, but she took one of his prescriptions before the wedding and died suddenly. The doctor keeps a portrait of her that has faded with the passage of time. He brings his elderly companions into his study to participate in one of his “experiments.” This is evidently something the four guests are accustomed to. The most interesting object in Dr. Heidegger’s study is a large folio bound in black leather. It is widely understood to be magical and mysterious. Known for his eccentricities, the experiment is not unusual. It becomes unclear, however, if Dr. Heidegger’s experiment with the Fountain of Youth is to test its reverse-aging “properties,” or to test the foolishness of his companions. Before he gives them the potion that will restore their youth, Dr. Heidegger, who has no desire to be younger, counsels them to remember the mistakes that had ruined their lives and to avoid falling into those same behaviors. All four dismiss him, vaguely insulted that he thinks they could be so cavalier about a second chance. But true to form, they all revert to youthful versions of themselves and repeat the thoughts and actions that compromised their reputations the first time around. It appears that by the end, his elderly companions have failed to embody the wisdom they ought to have at their age. As such, Dr. Heidegger himself will be sure not to drink from the Fountain of Youth so as not to repeat his own errors.

Mr. Medbourne

Mr. Medbourne is a man who had once been a successful merchant but had lost all his money and was nearly reduced to the status of a beggar. He and the other people visiting Dr. Heidegger are “white-bearded…melancholy old creatures.”

Colonel Killigrew

Colonel Killigrew suffers from various health problems that developed as a result of his hedonism when he was a younger man. These issues include gout and “other torments of the soul and body.” It seems he is an unhappy, unhealthy man in several different ways. The Widow Wycherly notes that his flattery or compliments are not always based in truth, so if he does make a comment about her, she feels the need to double-check.

Mr. Gascoigne

Mr. Gascoigne has lapsed into obscurity after having been notorious for his evil deeds as a politician. Time has covered up his deeds, so much so that the younger generations seem to know nothing of him. 

Widow Wycherly

Widow Wycherly is a woman who had been described as a somewhat promiscuous beauty in her youth, and the upper class has turned its back on her. She has been secluded as a result of this ostracization. The three male guests of Dr. Heidegger had all vied for her attention when they were young. On par with the foolishness of their youth, all three men become vicious in their pursuit of Widow Wycherly.

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