‘Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Short Story Analysis
‘Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment’ is an anti-Puritan nineteenth-century dark Gothic short story penned by American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was one of the most famous writers of nineteenth-century America whose writings mostly focused on the darker side of man’s innate psychology and personality. He was the biographer and the college friend of Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States of America. This short story titled ‘Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment’ was first published anonymously in 1837 and then in Hawthorne’s short story collection titled ‘Twice-Told Tales’ the same year. The story is moralistic, sinister, haunting, and has a dark Gothic fantastical writing style and theme. It is a Romantic Period story but highly anti-Puritan in substance. An elderly scientist, Dr. Heidegger, calls four guests to his home to conduct an experiment. He has found the Fountain of Youth in the form of a bubbling effervescent clear liquid in a glass vase. He has procured it from a friend in Florida, not far from the Lake Macaco. That was where in the shadow of several evergreen Magnolias that Dr. Heidegger found this magical liquid. He now wants to try the liquid on his guests, representing several symbolic aspects, making them the perfect specimens for this experiment, the experiment of their lives.
The story begins with the author calling Dr. Heidegger a ‘singular man’, indicating a unique personality. We are not sure what kind of a doctor he was, but:
- We can see he dabbled in magic, from the Black Magic Book’s presence and the mirror that contained his past patients’ spirits.
- He was a man who dwelt on dark things, and he might have practiced black magic.
- He could have been an alchemist as he had looked for the Fountain of Youth with a lot of perseverance and found it in Florida. We are aware that alchemists usually deal in three significant mysteries of life: turning base metal to gold, creating a life without copulation, and finding the panacea of life. In other words, the Fountain of Youth.
- He was a medical doctor because he had patients who passed away and were trapped in his mirror. We also know that he gave his bride to be Sylvia Ward, a tablet or liquid prescription on their wedding day. She was suffering from some disorder and needed the medication, which ultimately took her life.
- The prescription to Sylvia could also indicate that the doctor was more a quack than a proper medical practitioner.
- The glass vase and the sunlight or moonlight pouring through the cut-glass vase indicate the many magnetic, prism, and other crystal using and gazing practices that the doctor must have been dabbling in. Crystal usage is a sort of alternative medicine. Sunlight passing through crystals of various types is said to give the liquid in these crystal glasses immense powers.
We know he is logical and has control over his emotions and faculties. He is neither swayed by any one’s demands or behavior, nor that of his four guests who had gathered together for the experiment. However, it is unclear what was the reason why Dr. Heidegger had conducted this experiment. Maybe it was to bring out a moral significance to this short story, but then that would point out to the narrator himself, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was probably making a statement in this text of how humans were not deserving of any fountain of youth or panacea of life because we are always a slave to our wicked ways. We see that all four guests were as shallow as they were when they were genuinely young and even after they became young again because of Dr. Heidegger’s liquid. There is also a slight hint that the narrator had found the Fountain of Youth and had provided the doctor with his vase and glasses. Hawthorne mentions in the text that it is possible that the Americans of his era would likely not believe his story, and therefore on that account, he was ready to be named a liar or rather ‘a fiction monger’.
However, he knows that the story he is describing to the readers gives a Puritan reader of old a sort of uncomfortable feeling while reading the story. Mind you, that ‘uncomfortable feeling’ is not because of the liquid or crystal glass but because of how the four guests behave so terribly once they are young, going back to their old ways. When we see that even time, old age, reflection on the flaws done as youth do not affect the four guests, we as readers certainly feel unnerved. In our hearts, we feel that the four guests ultimately deserved the price of turning back to their original state once the effects of the liquid wear off. We also feel the four guests are so lowly and shallow that they are even ready to go to Florida and keep drinking that Fountain of Youth even though its effects only last for a little while.
Dr. Heidegger seems to be a well-read man who possesses books whose contents seem damnable by a Puritan community but entice us as readers for their mysteriousness and dark nature. In the first half of this short story, Hawthorne makes excellent efforts to describe the folios and books on Dr. Heidegger’s study’s old oak bookshelves. He has a skeletal in a closet, the cliched symbol that he had a great sin that he was hiding from the world but in plain sight. That sin could probably be that he genuinely had killed his bride, Sylvia Ward, for some unaccountable reason. The doctor’s books line his bookshelves. He had black-letter quartos, which were books composed of pages whose size was obtained by folding a whole sheet into four leaves. He had duodecimos that describe the book’s size in which each leaf is one-twelfth of the printing sheet’s size. This indicates that he had rare and expensive books. He had a bronze bust of Hippocrates on his central bookshelf, who is the Greek father of medicine. There was a tarnished mirror between two bookshelves opposite which there was a portrait of Sylvia Ward.
I think Dr. Heidegger and I would have got along very well. I, too, have a personal library. There are numerous bookshelves with busts and statues of the personalities I admire like William Shakespeare, St. Francis of Assisi, Shivaji Maharaj, Swami Vivekananda, Tintin the Belgian reporter, Asterix the Gaul, and Obelix his best friend. My library collection amounts to almost 31,000 books. If you want to know more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir titled Scenes of the Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. You can purchase the text on the products page of my blog or Amazon. Dr. Heidegger was a man of letters and science, as presented to us through his study. This creates the dark and mysterious atmosphere of the story, making it clear to the reader that anything could be possible in this Nathaniel Hawthorne short story.
Coming to the four guests of Dr Heidegger that graced his study that day, they were all very old and had not lived exemplary lives. They felt terrible that they had lived to such an old age and would have instead been dead by then. The four guests are Mr. Medbourne, a greedy merchant, Colonel Killigrew, a perverse soldier, Mr. Gascoigne, a ruined politician, and Widow Wycherly, a woman who had lived a scandalous life. All four guests would have loved nothing more than to become young again and return to their old corrupt way of living. Dr. Heidegger probably knows this, yet he is keen on seeing what would happen if these four drank the liquid. There is no indication given in the story that Dr. Heidegger himself had ever tried the liquid. We are sure that he was certainly not keen to try the liquid himself after seeing what became of the other four guests. He was happy with who he was, his advancing age, infirmities, victories, and losses. He doesn’t wish to change anything of his life, but the other four were wretched as older and equally horrid when they became young.
It is conclusive to say that Dr. Heidegger and Nathaniel Hawthorne were out to prove that man’s sinful behavior prevents the divine from really coming into his realm and creating a positive effect on his life. As humans, we, like the four guests, are so easily lured back to our sinful ways. Nothing good can last in us or with us. This is especially true where the Fountain of Youth was concerned. The Fountain of Youth was also an example of temporary pleasure, heightening a person’s inadequate feelings and doesn’t fill it up. Dr. Heidegger mentions his gout, his slow movements, which makes it difficult to dance, his old age with a lot of reverence and respect. He knows these four guests and is wise enough to know that they are to blind to their faults and are people who have aged:
- Without gaining wisdom about the real pleasures of life, one of which was to reject temporary joy for the later joy, which would be permanent. The joy indicated here in this short story was to know oneself and not be so fixed on outward beauty and show.
- They have aged without learning from past mistakes. They do not consider that they were sinful in their youth and middle age and have reached a bitter and wretched old age. Hardly do they grow young again than they are back to their old ways.
- They have also aged without remorse for their many evil ways, and that is sad. They are too filled up with faithfulness to the dross and exterior image of beauty, youth, grandeur, vitality, et al., that they worship all these external beauties and not people’s goodness.
The four guests go through a four-step process with regards to their drinking the liquid.
- They drink the liquid the first time and grow younger but still are what we in the everyday world would call ‘elderly’. They find their movements to be slow, but they look a trifle younger and ask for more of the liquid.
- They drink the liquid the second time and grow younger and become as they were in their mid-life or middle-age. They go back to their middle-aged behaviors of singing, counting money, doing business deals, courting, et al. Notice that they were perverse in middle-age, primarily where the widow was concerned because she even tries to seduce Dr. Heidegger. From the men, it is Colonel Killigrew, who is the most perverse who likes to admire the buxom middle-aged assets of the widow. The other two are mainly caught up with their careers.
- They drink the liquid the third time and grow younger, so young that they reach the prime of their life. This was when the three men used to court the self-loving widow whom they then knew as Clara. They start fighting with each other and are ready to kill each other for the sake of Clara. On the other hand, Clara is so vain and proud of her beauty that she was impervious to the attention lavished on her.
- Dr. Heidegger tells them through the rose of Sylvia Ward that their time as youths were up, and they turn to their old selves again. There is a beautiful line mentioned in this instance, describing that they took a lifetime to go through these changes; their youth was returned to them but taken away so soon. Thus, the changes of a lifetime had been crowded into so short a space in time.
Dr. Heidegger here takes the form of Father Time as it was tolling the bell of the four guests and their short-lived happiness. He has proven that there is no use of the Fountain of Youth except for temporary joy. Therefore, he was not interested in drinking it, even if it were gushing right near his doorstep. But the shallow and self-loving four guests were already enchanted by the promises of the liquid. They spend the rest of their lives searching for the Fountain of Youth to drink it all their lives day and night.
There are a few takeaway points which I would like to dwell on, after which I will close this analysis:
- There is a mention of the politician in his middle-age talking again of politics and giving political speeches. According to Hawthorne, the irony of it was that the speeches were fifty years old, but they are still current topics of discussion even to this day. This is because politicians have been making promises and not solving problems since time immemorial.
- There is mention of a dead butterfly coming to life with the liquid and flitting about till it rested on Dr. Heidegger’s head. The butterfly here represents or symbolizes temporary joys of life. These joys only give superficial satisfaction and do not provide lasting happiness.
- There is a mention of the Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon, known for his quest for the Fountain of Youth. Juan Ponce de León, commonly known as Ponce de León, was a Spanish explorer and conquistador known for leading the first official European expedition to Florida and serving as the first governor of Puerto Rico. In pursuit of a rumored fountain of youth located on an island known as Bimini, Ponce de León led an expedition to Florida in 1513. Thinking it was the island he sought, he sailed back to colonize the region in 1521 but was fatally wounded in an Indian attack soon after his arrival. Dr. Heidegger says that he was victorious, while Ponce De Leon was a failure because he didn’t know the correct place to look.
- Dr. Heidegger points out clearly to the four guests before they drink their first sip of the liquid to remember the lessons they had learned through their old age and live better lives. All four laugh it off and drink the liquid, not at all inclined to reform themselves even if they became young again.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story. I have his entire collection in my possession and hope to re-read and analyze his short stories and his novels in the coming weeks. I hope to read, analyze, and review more books and stories by American writers during this election season. A crucial American Election is taking place at this time. In keeping with that, I will be reviewing and analyzing books, short stories, essays, and other bookish works by American writers. Keep watching this site if you want more information or reference material on American writers and their works. I have also analyzed another short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne titled ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ on this blog. Do check it out for your reference.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out the products page on my blog or the author’s page on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy. Happy reading to you always!
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