Dr. Heidegger's Experiment Themes
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Dr. Heidegger's Experiment Themes

A key theme in Hawthorne's short story is foolishness, and whether a fool can ever change. It is often said that age begets wisdom, and essentially Dr Heidegger's experiment is to test this hypothesis. Are the older people in the story actually better versions of the people they were in youth—the bombastic politician, the drunk, the gambler, and the flirt? Or is it simply that age has rendered it impossible for them to behave in this way? Heidegger seems to have an inkling that the fools, at heart, remain fools, and this is borne out by the story. The guests at the dinner party have not learned from their years of experience: as soon as they are enlivened once more by the Fountain of Youth, they engage in reckless behavior, while their friend, the doctor, simply observes the experiment. His final comment seems to indicate that this is what he expected, as he states he would not drink of the Fountain having witnessed this. Accordingly, the fools have learned nothing, and immediately want to set out for Florida in search of the fountain itself.

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This connects to the second key theme—appearance vs reality. Is there really a Fountain of Youth at all? Hawthorne leaves it deliberately ambiguous: the guests are at first skeptical, and then become convinced, a journey on which the reader accompanies them. At first, it seems a mere trick, until the narrative shows the old Widow seeing her own face "bloom" again in the looking glass. But what does this "mirror" signify? Is the Widow seeing only what she wants to see, buoyed by her own foolishness and the power of suggestion? When the other mirror in the study shows the older people as simply withered elderly figures behaving like youths, the narrative drives us to question our own understanding of what is going on. Are the old people really young again, or are they—and we—fools to believe in this possibility?

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” gives clues to the story’s meaning. A doctor is a man of science, and the story describes an experiment, from which some sort of lesson might be derived. In conjunction with the word “experiment,” the title suggests medicine, chemistry, physiology, or physics.

The name Heidegger is Swiss, meaning someone from the fortress Heidegg in the canton of Zurich. The doctor bears the same surname as that of a Swiss contemporary of the composer Handel, John James Heidegger (1659?-1749), manager of the opera house and master of the revels under England’s King George II. The other characters also have surnames of distinguished figures from roughly the same era of English history. Most famous is a playwright known for the immorality of his works, William Wycherley (1640?-1716), who left a widow, a woman much younger than he, named Elizabeth. Others include two dramatists, father and son, Thomas Killigrew (1612-1683) and Thomas Killigrew the younger (1657-1719) and another dramatist, Sir William Killigrew (1606-1695); a master of the revels named Charles Killigrew (1655-1725); a poet, George Gascoigne (c. 1539-1577); an alleged conspirator, Sir Thomas Gascoigne (1593?-1686); and an actor and dramatist, Matthew Medbourne (died 1679), translator of Molière. The name of the long-dead lover of the doctor, Sylvia Ward, may suggest that of the quack doctor Joshua...

(The entire section is 817 words.)