Literature Annotations


Hawthorne, Nathaniel
Dr. Heidegger's Experiment


On-Line Text
Genre Short Story
KeywordsAging, Body Self-Image, Medical Testing, Time
Summary

An eccentric aging physician, Dr. Heidegger, calls together his old friends and contemporaries to test his waters of the "fountain of youth." As the doctor himself sits by to enjoy the show, each of his four aged friends eagerly quaffs more and more of the magic potion, each draught further carrying them backwards into their shared youth. Having grown young, smooth-skinned and agile again, the three men begin to fight for the favors of the fourth compatriot now restored to her former beauty.

In the heat of the fracas, they begin to grow tired and within minutes the effect of the "waters" has worn off. The participants in the brief respite from old age are devastated by the transience of the experience. Despite Heidegger's warning that he has learned to appreciate the advantage of age by watching the four of them make themselves fools, they learned no such lesson and resolve to make a pilgrimage to Florida to seek the Fountain.

Commentary

Unlike Hawthorne's other stories about wicked scientists, who operate in isolation and whose experiments result in the death of one who is ignorant of the power of the science (see The Birthmark and Rappaccini's Daughter in this database), this little vignette is airy. No one dies; the scientist's intent seems to be benign and the experimental effects are reversible.

However, there is just a hint of the sinister in the setting, in the author's description of the doctor's study, and in the host's decision not to partake of the magic liquid with his friends. The moral of the little story is evasive, perhaps adding to the vaguely troubling effect it has on the reader who is familiar with the general tone of Hawthorne.

SourceNathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches
PublisherLiterary Classics of the U.S.
Edition1982
Place PublishedNew York
Alternate SourceMedicine in Literature
Alternate PublisherLongman
Alternate Edition1978
Alternate EditorsJoseph Ceccio
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousFirst published: 1837, in Twice Told Tales.
Annotated by Willms, Janice L.
Date of Entry 11/10/95
Last Revised 01/28/97