Dr. Heidegger's Experiment

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Discussion Topic

The conflict and causes of the events in "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment."

Summary:

The conflict in "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" stems from the characters' desire to regain their youth. Dr. Heidegger's friends drink water from the Fountain of Youth, leading to temporary rejuvenation. Their actions reveal their unchanged, flawed natures, causing chaos and highlighting the futility of trying to alter one's past. The experiment illustrates human folly and the consequences of ignoring life's lessons.

Expert Answers

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What is the conflict in "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment"?

Excellent question. I would want to argue that the central conflict within this wonderful allegorical story concerns the conflict between the foolishness and beauty of youth and the wisdom and decrepitude that comes with age. Dr. Heidegger, by conducting his little experiment on his guests, wishes to discover if, when given an opportunity to live their lives over again, they are able to learn from their mistakes and not fall into the same patterns that resulted in them being so unhappy in their old age. Note the response after they have quaffed the magical water:

Youth, like the extremity of age, had effaced the strongly marked characteristics of middle life, and mutually assimilated them all. They were a group of merry youngsters, almost maddened with the exuberant frolicsomeness of their years. The most singular effect fo their gaiety was an impulse to mock the infirmity and decrepitude of which they had so lately been the victims.

Note how Hawthorne creates an opposition here between youth and old age, and how he clearly presents the guests as not having learnt anything from their mistakes. They each fall into their old vices very easily and quickly, with the men vying for the attention of the preening Widow Wycherly. The way in which the guests go in search of the Water of Youth at the end of the story show that they have not learnt anything from the lesson that Dr. Heidegger has taught them. Dr. Heidegger never would drink from the Water of Youth, as he has managed to learn from his experiences in life and appreciates the wisdom he has thereby gained. His foolish guests, on the other hand, have no such perspective. Thus the central conflict in this story is between youthful foolishness, and old age and wisdom.

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What causes the events in "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment?"

In "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," if we examine the relationship between cause and effect, let's consider two questions about cause. First, what causes Dr. Heidegger's four companions to drink the water from the vase. This is quite obvious. They want to be young again. The lengthy first paragraph of the story tells the sad tale of each of them. Mr. Medbourne had been a successful businessman but now he is an old beggar. Colonel Killigrew fooled around when he was younger and now suffers from his irresponsible ways of his younger days. Mr. Gascoigne had been an evil politician and now, time having passed, he has been forgotten. Widow Wycherly had once been courted by each of these men, but now she is a withered old woman. Hawthorne concludes these introductions in saying that these four were "a little beside themselves" which means that they were almost out of their senses or out of their minds. In this case, they were beside themselves because of sadness and "woful recollections." So, they are perfect guinea pigs for Dr. Heidegger's experiment because they are so desperate to be young again. 

And this is precisely why Heidegger chooses them in the first place. This answers the second question of cause. What causes him to choose them? They are desperate. Heidegger had also hoped to teach them a lesson, that time passes for a reason. Heidegger says that he will not take part in the experiment because he had trouble in growing old and doesn't want to go through it again. Not overtly expressed is the idea that a person has one chance in life to be young, old, and so on. It is therefore up to each of us to make the most of each time in our lives, even old age. Heidegger's four friends do not accept or understand any of these lessons. This is why (another cause) they make plans to seek the Fountain of Youth, even if that means drinking from it constantly. 

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