Dr. Heidegger's Experiment

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Student Question

What was the relationship between the four guests in "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" during their youth?

Quick answer:

The relationship that the four guests had with each other during their youth was that the three men were once early lovers of the sole woman of the group, Widow Wycherly.

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We're told in the very first line of Hawthorne's short story “Dr. Heidegger's Experiment” that the four guests invited to the eponymous doctor's study are “venerable friends”. At the same time, however, we're also informed that they're “melancholy old creatures” who've been unfortunate in their lives in one way or another. Indeed, their biggest misfortune, we are told, is that they are not long in their graves. If ever a group of people was in desperate need of an elixir of youth, this is it.

We further find out that the three gentlemen of the group—Colonel Killigrew and Messrs. Medbourne and Gascoigne—were all early lovers of the remaining friend, Widow Wycherly. Under the circumstances, it's not altogether surprising that the good doctor's old friends should be so thrilled to be in the “happy prime of youth” once they've tasted his remarkable elixir.

Thanks to Dr. Heidegger's experiment, they've been transported right back to the days of their youth, when they were all so young and carefree, and when old age seemed an eternity away. The three old men, enamored by the Widow Wycherly as they were in their younger days, begin fighting over her, providing us with an unedifying glimpse of how they most probably conducted themselves back in the day.

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In "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," what had been the relationship of the four people in the past?

The four guests who are invited to Dr. Heidegger's study to participate in one of his scientific experiments are described as "venerable friends" of the doctor, indicating their age and the kind of station that they possess. It is important to note in this tale how Hawthorne uses these characters in his allegory - each represents a kind of vice that when youth is restored to them they repeat and indulge in without much apparent thought. Therefore the descriptions of each of these characters that are given in the first paragraph are key to understanding the tale, as are their reactions to their new-found youth.

However, in the first paragraph, we are also given an indication of how these four people were involved with each other:

It is a circumstance worth mentioning, that each of these three old gentlemen, Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, and Mr. Gascoigne, were early lovers of the Widow Wycherly, and had once been on the point of cutting each other's throats for her sake.

It is likewise important to note why Hawthorne adds this and how he uses it to support the theme of his story - that old age brings wisdom and reflection, whereas if we were to have our youth returned to us, we would probably fall into the same folly as before.

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