A mendicant, a hedonist, a ruined politician, and a scandalous widow all answer the summons of their friend, a doctor, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1837 tale “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment.” He calls these ageing friends to his study to participate in an experiment—one that intrigues them because “They were all melancholy old creatures” (67) and because the experiment Dr. Heidegger has in mind appeals to their vanity. Watching them experience its results seems to appeal to his sense of entertainment. Is that entertainment a mere masquerade, a magician’s trick, an evening of intoxication due to alcohol and vivid imaginations, or something more than any of these labels suggests? Does the tale offer a cynical statement about humans and their history, or does it actually comment upon the magical effects of fiction?
The magic of the evening centers around the ageold quest for the Fountain of Youth. Dr. Heidegger—a bachelor whose fiancée died on the eve before their wedding because she accidentally took one of his medicines, who practices his science not in a laboratory but in a study complete with a mirror and a big black book of magic, and who has somehow managed to age gracefully—invites to his home the friends he labels “venerable” (67). Those supposedly respectable individuals, however, include Mr. Medbourne, a once-successful merchant who has lost everything because of risky speculation; Colonel Killigrew, who has made a life of pleasure seeking and now suffers the physical ailments of the debauched; Mr. Gascoigne, a politician who has lost all credibility because of his disreputable deals; and the widow Clara Wycherly, a once-beautiful woman of questionable sexual morals who once was lover to all three men but now has become a wrinkled recluse. Dr. Heidegger announces that he would like to share with them another of his “experiments with which I amuse myself” (67) and even offers a convincing preview to persuade them to agree to participate. Dr. Heidegger restores a withered, dead rose to life by dipping it in what he calls the Water of Youth. In spite of Dr. Heidegger’s performance, the group believes it can be nothing more than “a very pretty deception” (70), and as if to emphasize that point for Hawthorne, the narrator asks the reader twice, “Was it illusion?” (72, 75).
But before Dr. Heidegger’s guests have the opportunity to contemplate the validity of the results, he pours them large wine glasses full of the Waters of Youth, and they imbibe. He, however, remains but a scientific observer, a voyeur of sorts, for he says—or perhaps warns—“For my part, having had much trouble in growing old, I am in no hurry to grow young again” (70). He also issues an explicit edict before he allows them to drink heartily of the waters: “It would be well that, with the experience of a lifetime to direct you, you should draw up a few general rules for your guidance, in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin it would be if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns if virtue” (71). But they barely heed his words or his sarcasm or even pause to consider the fact that he refuses to join them. Instead, immediately after the first round, they begin to feel the effects of the concoction and beg for another round because they want to feel and look even younger. They begin to see each other and themselves as much younger and begin to act accordingly. The narrator says of the politician’s ramblings that no one could tell whether they were “relating to the past, present, or future . . . since the same ideas and phrases have been in vogue these fifty years” (72). His emphasis on time—and repetition—seems calculated to slant the reader toward a view that the text demonstrates that the present is no better than the future. An accentuation of such a conclusion is the behavior of all four: They repeat the unwise actions of their youth, for the men begin fighting over Clara. In their struggling, they knock over the vase containing the Water of Youth, and all of its contents spill on the floor, where it revives a dying butterfly.
To restore the civility of his friends, Dr. Heidegger must step in and break up the fight. As he does so, the rose—now out of the water—withers and dies and the butterfly, too, falls to its death again. They only foreshadow what soon becomes of the four guests: They too revert to their aged status. Dr. Heidegger announces that they have taught him a lesson: “I would not stop to bathe my lips in [the Water]” (75). He expresses pure dismay at their actions, their mere repetition of the past, as if their life knowledge has had no effect upon their second chance at youth. They, however, have learned nothing—either from their lives or from their recent experience with the experiment. They tell Dr. Heidegger that they will themselves go to Florida and find and drink constantly the Waters of Youth. They seek a recaptured vitality that Dr. Heidegger has already proven they will waste. Or has the tale merely woven its magic for a fleeting time to suspend its players and its readers in the land of imagination? Have the artist and his art been but illusion, with no moral to convey?
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