Dr. Heidegger's Experiment

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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What was Widow Wycherly's relationship with the other experiment participants?

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Dr. Heidegger uses these particular men for his experiment because he has had relationships with the three of them, and wants to use their passion for the young woman (which was originally based on her being young) as an object lesson in the folly of pursuing a woman who doesn’t love you. The four men make fools of themselves as a result, but Dr. Heidegger learns that he does not regret having experienced love in his youth.

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In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” each of the three male guests – Colonel Killigrew, Mr. Medbourne, and Mr. Gascoigne – had all at one time or another been the lover of the Widow Wycherly.  This is a very important detail, for when the four withered old souls drink the water of...

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the fountain of youth, and become young again, the men all resume their struggles against each other for the newly-young woman.  Their passions, which had subsided and been balanced with age, were renewed along with their vitality, and manifested themselves in the least-dignified of ways.

Dr. Heidegger warns them before serving the draught not to forget the wisdom of their age, and to act as ambassadors for modern youth.  To this they reply with laughter, feeling it to be “ridiculous that,…knowing how closely repentance treads behind the steps of error, they should ever go astray again.”  And yet go astray they do. 

We know that Dr. Heidegger’s young bride-to-be committed suicide some fifty years before the story takes place, and we can assume that he has been haunted by this incident ever since – he keeps a black folio of memorabilia related to her, regarded by many to be a fearsomely magic book, and has a portrait of her in his study.  It is therefore safe to assume that the doctor had no lovers after the death of this woman.  It is therefore a possibility that Dr. Heidegger was using these particular individuals for his experiment to set his mind to rest after this abrupt end to his experience of love in his youth.  By witnessing firsthand the fools his supposedly old and wise quartet of guests made of themselves when given the chance to be young again, he knew that those lost years of love were nothing to be mourned.  Revisiting the passions of youth, Dr. Heidegger learns, has the potential to rekindle the accompanying wild impulsiveness two-fold.  For after the bickering youth have spilled the remaining water from the Fountain of Youth, the doctor asserts, with no regret,

‘Well--I bemoan it not; for if the fountain gushed at my very doorstep, I would not stoop to bathe my lips in it--no, though its delirium were for years instead of moments. Such is the lesson ye have taught me!’

His use of the word “delirium” is not accidental.

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