Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment


Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Nathaniel Hawthorne's Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne

A descendent of infamously harsh Puritans, Nathaniel Hawthorne grew up in Salem, Massachusetts. As a child, he developed a love for reading when he injured his leg and was forced to spend a year in bed. He attended Bowdoin College, then worked as an editor and wrote short stories, many of which were published in his 1837 collection Twice-Told Tales. In 1841 he joined the transcendentalist Utopian community at Brook Farm, which he left in 1842 to marry Sophia Peabody. In a remarkable streak that lasted from 1850 to 1860, Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, one of the first best-selling novels in the United States; The House of the Seven Gables, often regarded as his greatest book; The Blithedale Romance, his only work written in the first person; and The Marble Faun, a romance set in a fantastical version of Italy. Hawthorne died in 1864, after spending the last six years of his life living in Europe. His reputation in America was so great that the most important writers of the era, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Louisa May Alcott, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, were pallbearers at his funeral.
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Historical Context of Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment

The work of the Romantic writers—as well as the transcendentalists, with whom Hawthorne was briefly associated—is generally seen as a reaction against the values of the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Partly as a consequence of the scientific revolution, Enlightenment thinkers placed an emphasis on science, rationality, and reason as the primary sources of knowledge and authority. Romanticists and Gothic writers alike reacted against the age of Enlightenment by avowing the importance of faith and emotion in their work, and the danger of relying solely on the rational faculties—which explains, at least in part, the treatment of science as a sinister practice by many writers like Hawthorne. Additionally, the history of the witch trials in Salem (where Hawthorne grew up and lived) made a remarkable impact on his writing, despite the fact that Hawthorne lived and worked more than a century after the trials took place. Much of his writing deals explicitly with questions of morality in light of what he saw as the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Puritan moral code.

Other Books Related to Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment

Hawthorne’s writing is widely characterized as “Dark Romanticism,” a literary style that stems from both Gothic fiction (which includes elements of fear, death, and gloom) and Romanticism (a literary style often concerned with individualism and naturalism). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a great work of Gothic fiction that, like “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” is an ominous tale of a scientist who tampering with the natural order of things. Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw is a work of Gothic fiction that was written several decades after “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” and was likely influenced by Hawthorne’s work, if not this story in particular. Both stories are concerned with the supernatural, but they maintain an ambiguity about whether the events are real or illusion. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, while quite different from “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” in subject matter, is a work of American Romanticism that is similarly concerned with timeless and philosophical questions of mortality. Moreover, Melville and Hawthorne were good friends. Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark”—a similarly moralistic tale that takes a grim view of science—tells the story of a scientist who experiments on his wife in order to remove a birthmark from her cheek. Similarly, Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” tells the story of a scientist’s daughter who cares for his poisonous plants and becomes poisonous herself. Both stories show that Hawthorne often seemed to regard scientists, and science more generally, as morally suspect.
Key Facts about Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment
  • Full Title: Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment
  • Where Written: Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1837
  • Literary Period: American Renaissance, Transcendentalism
  • Genre: Short story, Dark Romanticism, Gothic fiction
  • Setting: Dr. Heidegger’s study
  • Climax: The vase of water gets knocked over
  • Antagonist: The foolishness of youth
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment

Early Publication: “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” was first published anonymously in 1837, with the title “The Fountain of Yonder.” It appeared later the same year in Hawthorne’s collection of short stories, Twice-Told Tales.

Name Change: Nathaniel Hawthorne was a direct descendent of John Hathorne, (1641-1717), a Puritan justice of the peace. Justice Hathorne is best known for his role as the lead judge in the Salem Witch Trials, in which he sentenced numerous innocent people to death for allegedly practicing witchcraft. Nathaniel added a "w" to his name to distance himself from his infamous ancestor.