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Dr Heidegger'S Experiment Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” (1837) is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne is a famous American writer from the early nineteenth century, best known for his novel The Scarlet Letter. He is also famous for his short stories. Most of Hawthorne’s works are puritanical in nature, and “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is no different. In this story, Hawthorne examines youth and morality. He begs the question if the foolishness of youth is based on a lack of experience and wisdom, or if it just comes from the age itself.
The story introduces us to four older friends. They have known each other for a long time. Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, and Mr. Gascoigne were all former admirers of the Widow Wycherly. They all had difficult and tenuous lives. Mr. Medbourne used to be a successful merchant, but lost all his money. He has been reduced to begging. Colonel Killigrew was a glutton, which has punished his health in later years. Mr. Gascoigne is a failed politician; he was famous at one point, but now has been lost to obscurity. The Widow Wycherly used to be a venerable beauty, but has lived out recent years in seclusion.
Dr. Heidegger asks if they would consider being a part of one of his experiments. His abode is strange—it is slightly creepy, adorned with cobwebs and dust. There is a bust of Hippocrates, with which Dr. Heidegger is rumored to converse. There is a mirror where it is rumored his deceased patients stare at him when he looks in it. On the wall is a portrait of the woman Dr. Heidegger was going to marry. She supposedly died the night of their wedding by mistakenly taking some of Dr. Heidegger’s medicines. There is also a large black book rumored to be a magical one—when it is picked up, the skeleton in the closet purportedly rattles.
In the center of the room, there is a black table, with a crystal vase and four champagne flutes. Dr. Heidegger takes a rose out of his black book. The rose, given to him by his deceased bride-to-be, is withered and dead, turned brown by time he informs his guests that he had meant to wear the rose fifty-five years ago on his wedding day. He asks his guests if they believe it could bloom again. The Widow Wycherly scoffs at him.
He puts the rose into the vase, where there is water. At first, nothing seems to happen. Then, the rose begins to come back to life. The guests are impressed but believe it to be a trick. Dr. Heidegger explains the water comes from Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth. A friend of Dr. Heidegger’s has sent him the water. Dr. Heidegger asks if his guests are willing to try the water, as he is uninterested himself.
He warns them before they drink to think about what they have learned in their lives and to use their wisdom to guide them, if they become young again. They drink the water. The guests believe that the results are immediate. They feel lighter, with color coming back to their cheeks. The Widow Wycherly begs Dr. Heidegger for more. He obliges, and they seem to grow younger, at least to themselves. They ask if the effects are a delusion. It seems as if they have reached middle age. Colonel Killigrew remarks how stunning the Widow Wycherly has become.
Mr. Gascoigne begins to ruminate on political topics, speaking of patriotism and man’s rights. Colonel Killigrew sings a drinking song, and Mr. Medbourne begins running numbers. The Widow Wycherly admires herself in a mirror, searching for imperfections.
With one more glass, the group becomes young again. They celebrate, but laugh at their old-fashioned clothing, mocking their previous old age. The Widow Wycherly asks Dr. Heidegger for a dance. He says he is much too old for that, but points her towards the supposed young men before her.
The men begin to fight about dancing with the Widow, now referring to her as Clara. They all begin to try, one grasping her hand, the other her hair, the third with his hand around her waist. She attempts to disengage, but is unable to. The mirror is rumored to reflect them in their old age. Yet, they certainly feel young as they began grasping for each other’s throats over a dance with Clara. In the tussle, the table with the vase of water is knocked over. With the water lost on the floor, along with the rose, Dr. Heidegger begs them to stop.
Dr. Heidegger remarks that the rose has begun to wither again. He comments that he is still fond of it, even as it decays. The feeling of youth is snatched away from the group. Illusion or not, the guests feel their age once again. Dr. Heidegger confirms, but says he does not mourn the lost water. He is not interested in the delirium the water caused the group.
Those who drank the water decide to make a pilgrimage to Florida, to continue to drink from the fountain forever.