Dr. Heidegger's Experiment Analysis
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Dr. Heidegger's Experiment Analysis

At its heart, Hawthorne's story of four once badly behaved elderly people recapturing their lost youth for a "transient" moment is a morality tale—although Hawthorne deftly leaves the readers in the dark as to the truth of what the doctor's "experiment" really is. When he presents the friends with the image of the rose entering the water, we might imagine that his experiment is: will this water have the same effect on humans as it has been determined to have on flowers? As the story progresses, however, the doctor's wry comments make us wonder if this was really the experiment at all—particularly when, at the end, he states that he would not touch the Fountain of Youth even if it were available to him.

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In truth, the experiment seems to be this: if people were able to become young again, would they have learned a lesson from the experience of having lived for so many years? In the end, the four guests who have drunk from the Fountain have not learned this lesson: they simply want to go to Florida, find the fountain, and "quaff" from it constantly. They have not observed, as the doctor has, how foolishly they behaved under the influence of youth. Their passions inflamed and their youthful follies reawakened, the guests become belligerent, competing over the woman they once loved, exactly as they did when they were really young. Hawthorne's conclusion seems to be that foolish people do not really learn anything from their past mistakes, but will repeat them if given the opportunity.

Another interesting question Hawthorne leaves open in this story is this: does the fluid really make the guests young again, or is it simply the power of suggestion? On the one hand, we know that they have observed themselves in the mirror and seen young faces, but when the long mirror in the study catches a glimpse of them, it sees them as old people behaving ridiculously. We could interpret this as emphasizing the point that youthful behavior is excused in the young, but if we saw older people behaving in this way, it would be clear how ridiculous and damaging it is. It may also indicate that only age and the sense of being old and tired ever stops fools from behaving foolishly—underlining Hawthorne's moral still further.

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This moral fable is made palatable by Hawthorne’s command. If Dr. Heidegger were a paragon of virtue, the lesson might be less beguiling, but his skill as a doctor is insufficient to prevent the spirits of his deceased patients from staring at him whenever he directs his gaze at the fabulous mirror. The mirror suggests the power of illusion, a motif of the tale, as does the untitled book of magic. Hawthorne (or the narrator) has sport by suggesting that some of the doctor’s reputation as an eccentric is attributable to the writer’s “own veracious self” in the role of “fiction monger.”

Hawthorne makes use of the trappings of gothic romance (the cobwebs, dust, bookcases, skeleton in the closet, and fabled mirror) with skill. One startling event, characteristic of the genre, still not outmoded in the author’s time, is that when the chambermaid lifts the book of magic in her dusting, the skeleton rattles in the closet and several faces (presumably of the doctor’s deceased patients) peep out from the mirror, while the bronze bust of Hippocrates frowns, uttering the command to forbear.

A whimsical humor can be felt in the story. For example, the narrator hints that the doctor and guests “were sometimes thought to be a little beside themselves—as is not infrequently the case with old people when worried either by present troubles or woeful recollections.” Here is displayed a mock gravity. Humorous also is Dr. Heidegger’s revelation of the location of the Fountain of Youth, undiscovered by the Spanish conquistador, Ponce de Leon. As the doctor says, “The famous Fountain of Youth, if I am rightly informed, is situated in the southern part of the Floridian peninsula, not far from Lake Macaco.” The guests, when...

(The entire section is 1,037 words.)