Dr. Heidegger invites to his study four elderly friends to engage in an experiment. Three are men: Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, and Mr. Gascoigne; the fourth is a woman, the Widow Clara Wycherly. The study is a dusty, old-fashioned room replete with a skeleton in the closet, a bust of Hippocrates, books and bookcases, and a portrait of Sylvia Ward, who died fifty-five years before the night of the experiment on the eve of marriage to the doctor after swallowing one of his prescriptions.
The doctor shows his guests a faded rose that she gave him those many years before, and places it in a vase containing liquid from the waters of the region in Florida where the Fountain of Youth is located, sent to him by a friend. The rose revives and the doctor pours some of the liquid from the vase into four champagne glasses for his friends. They drink and shed their years, showing signs of intoxication. Dr. Heidegger suggests to them that they allow their experience in life to guide them in virtue and wisdom when they gain a second chance at youth. As they drink, their inhibitions vanish.
Colonel Killigrew takes interest in the widow’s charms and flatters her; Mr. Gascoigne waxes eloquent in periods of a sort dear to politicians; Mr. Medbourne projects a plan to supply the East Indies with ice by means of whales harnessed to icebergs. Dr. Heidegger does not take part in the rejuvenating experiment; he witnesses their antics with gravity. Young again, they laugh at their quaint clothes, showing contempt for the traits of old age that they have shed. Finally, the widow asks the doctor to dance with her, but he pleads old age and rheumatism.
The three other guests seek to join her in dance, and in the ensuing riot, the table with the vase of the Water of Youth and rose overturns. The liquid reaches a dying butterfly, reviving it so that it flies to rest on Dr. Heidegger’s white hair. The rose fades; the guests show their age again. The doctor states that he is glad not to have partaken of the liquid; he has learned that this unnatural return to youth was no occasion for satisfaction. His guests, however, undaunted, determine to sally forth in search of the Fountain of Youth in order to drink from it three times a day.
Themes and Meanings. 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 Moliere.
The name of the long-dead lover of the doctor, Sylvia Ward, may suggest that of the quack doctor Joshua Ward (1685-1761), famous for “Ward’s remedy,” a “drop and pill” intended as a cure-all, which may have killed as many as it cured. Dr. Heidegger’s fiance, appropriately, swallowed one of her lover’s prescriptions with fatal results. It was indeed a “Ward’s remedy” in this case. It seems more than possible that Nathaniel Hawthorne modeled his characters on these people for their dissoluteness and effect of recalling a bygone age.
Most, too, lived well into old age. The doctor does not partake of the potion himself, but the elderly group undergoes a temporary rejuvenation. They all represent some vice or weakness and, despite the lessons experience should have taught them, remain true to their flawed characters during their return to youth. For the doctor, who does not strive to combat the effects of Father Time in his own life, the experiment proves that people of shallow, vicious character do not benefit from the passing of the years but persist in pursuing illusory pleasures. The guests may be considered as allegorical—the widow representing scandalous coquetry, Mr. Medbourne exemplifying mercantile avarice, the colonel embodying self-indulgent lechery, and Mr. Gascoigne epitomizing political corruption. They continue in accordance with their natures throughout the story, paying no attention to Dr. Heidegger’s advice to behave with mature wisdom. The precious elixir spills and they lose their fleeting youth but not the desire to seek the unattainable. Hawthorne amusingly teaches a moral lesson and satirizes human shortcomings. The transient nature of youth and beauty are symbolized by Sylvia’s rose, and by the butterfly, which revives in the spilled fluid.
Style and Technique 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 they set out in their quest for the elixir, will not be much helped by the reference to Lake Macaco; the name itself, applied to a type of lemur, is humorous. In addition, adjectives used to describe the guests, such as “venerable,” “respected,” and “respectable,” gain humor from their inappropriateness, given the questionable nature of the guests’ character and behavior. Hawthorne is mindful of readers filled with skepticism when confronted by a miracle. He holds out alternative explanations for the phenomena depicted.
For example, the youthful actions of the three men are attributed to intoxicating elements in the water from the Fountain of Youth, “unless, indeed, their exhilaration of spirits were merely a lightsome dizziness caused by the sudden removal of the weight of years. ” Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment Summary •Old Dr. Heidegger, a peculiar individual, invites four of his elderly friends over to his study one night. His guests are: Mr. Medbourne, who was once a rich merchant but lost all his money on speculation; Colonel Killigrew, who is suffering in old age from the wild lifestyle he lived when he was young; Mr. Gascoigne, a ruined politician who is now all but obscure; and the Widow Wycherly, who was once beautiful but whose reputation had long ago been ruined. •The first-person narrator informs us that, at one point, all three men had been the Widow’s suitors, back when they were all young and foolish. They nearly killed each other competing for her. •Now we get a good look at Dr. Heidegger’s study, which is a very odd place indeed. It is dusty and old-fashioned. There are several bookshelves stuffed with papers and quartos. One features a bust of Hippocrates which, supposedly, Dr. Heidegger consults with from time to time.
In one corner is a closet with a skeleton inside. There is also a large mirror; rumor has it that all Dr. Heidegger’s dead patients live in there and will look at you if you peer into it. •There is also the large portrait of a woman, once the Dr. ‘s fiancee, who very unfortunately took one of his prescriptions the night before their wedding and died. •Most interestingly, says the narrator, is a large black folio with silver clasps that is supposed to be magic. Once, when the cleaning lady tried to pick it up, the skeleton rattled in its closet, the young lady stepped out of the portrait, and the bust of Hippocrates said, “Forbear! (A fancy word for “Cut that out! “)
•Anyway, back to the summer afternoon of our story. Dr. Heidegger has set out four champagne glasses and a large, beautiful vase on the table in his study. As his guests take their seats, Dr. Heidegger asks for their help in an experiment. •The narrator notes that Dr. Heidegger is a strange man, and that the narrator himself is the source of many of the stories that circulate about him. If you don’t believe him as you read, he’ll just have to accept that. •Back to the story. Dr. Heidegger opens his mysterious, magic black folio with the silver clasps and removes an old, withered rose. This rose was given to him fifty-five years ago, he explains, by his now-dead bride-to-be. He then drops the old, withered rose into the vase on the table. •The guests peer at the rose on the surface of the water. It quickly regains its color and youth and soon appears as though it has just bloomed. Dr. Heidegger’s guests think it is a nice parlor trick. •But Dr. Heidegger explains that this was no magic trick. He asks if his guests have ever heard of the Fountain of Youth.
As the story goes, Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon went looking for the mythological fountain in Florida and never found it. •Recently, explains Heidegger, his buddy in Florida found the fountain and sent some of the water to Heidegger. •Colonel Killigrew is skeptical. He asks what the water is supposed to do for a person. •Dr. Heidegger promises that it will make them young again. He himself has no desire to return to youth – he’s had enough trouble the first time around – but his guests are welcome to try it. He fills the four champagne glasses with water from the vase. Before the four guests drink, Dr. Heidegger offers them a warning. They ought to remember what they learned from their first youth. They shouldn’t make the same sort of mistakes again. •Of course, reply the guests, and they drink. Sure enough, they sense themselves beginning to grow younger. They clamor for more water, but Heidegger tells them “with philosophic coolness” to chill out and be patient (25). Still, he pours them another round, which they drink. •The men start acting a little weird; either the water is making them drunk, or “the sudden removal of the weight of years” is making them dizzy (28).
Mr. Gascoigne is occupied thinking about politics, though it’s unclear whether he’s dealing with politics of the present or the past. Colonel Killigrew is belting out drinking songs, and Mr. Medbourne is preoccupied with money matters. •The Widow, who we remember used to be beautiful, runs to the large mirror to check out her new, young self. She’s ecstatic with her looks. The four of them dance around and mock the old-people clothes that they’re wearing. •Meanwhile Heidegger is just sitting back like “Father Time” and watching this scene play out (32).
The Widow asks him to dance with her, but he says he’s too old and recommends one of the other men instead. This sets the three men at each other’s throats over who gets to dance with the Widow. •Oddly enough, the mirror in the corner of the room shows a strange reflection; in it, the four guests still appear to be elderly. No one notices this, however. •As the three men fight over the Widow, they tussle and wrestle and knock over the vase full of water from the fountain of youth, which hits the ground, shatters into a thousand pieces, and spills the water across the floor. A butterfly, old and near death, catches its wings in the water and is immediately made young and lively again. It flies over to Dr. Heidegger and settles on his snowy head.
•Dr. Heidegger asks that his guests please calm down and he picks up his rose from the shattered fragments on the floor. •The three men stop their fighting and look over at Dr. Heidegger. The rose is his hand begins to shrivel up again. “I love it as well thus as in its dewy freshness,” says the Doctor (47). The butterfly, at that point, falls dead to the floor. The four guests begin to feel that they, too, are growing old again. They cry out. •Dr. Heidegger affirms that this is the case, and points out that the water from the fountain of youth has all been spilled on the floor. He does not regret this, however; watching the four of them has taught him a lesson, and he wouldn’t drink from the fountain for anything. •The four guests, however, do not share the Doctor’s point of view. They vow to travel to Florida, find the fountain, and drink from it morning, noon, and night.