One day, a “very singular man” named Dr. Heidegger invites four “venerable” friends to his study: Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, Mr. Gascoigne, and Widow Wycherly. All four friends are very old and have experienced a great deal of misfortune in their lives, but the narrator remarks that their greatest misfortune is that they did not die long ago.
The story immediately establishes Dr. Heidegger as unique and perhaps even strange with its description of him as “singular.” The word “venerable” means to have respect because of one’s great wisdom and age—it’s a term, then, that connects wisdom and age. The story to follow will suggest that age and wisdom, however, should not be seen as connected. Finally, the line about the four being unlucky to have lived as long as they have could be taken as ironic — how could it be luckier to have died? — except that the story seems to suggest that the four friends themselves seem to feel the same way.
Mr. Medbourne was once a successful merchant, but he lost his fortune in a risky business investment and is now very poor. Colonel Killigrew “wasted his best years … in pursuit of sinful pleasures,” and now he suffers the negative effects of his behavior, both physically and spiritually. Mr. Gascoigne was once notorious for being an evil, crooked politician, but time has forgotten him. Widow Wycherly was a beautiful woman in her youth, but has lived in “deep seclusion” for many years because a scandal ruined her reputation and turned the townspeople against her.
Dr. Heidegger’s four friends are all characters whose careers, lives, and reputations were tarnished in some way by mistakes — ranging from greed for money or power, or sexually scandalous behavior — that they made in their youth. A typical story might proceed with the idea that each of these old people has learned from their mistakes. Dr. Heidegger’s is not such a story.
All three men—Medbourne, Killigrew, and Gascoigne—were once Widow Wycherly’s lovers, and at one time they had been locked in a bitter rivalry, competing for her attentions. The narrator pauses before proceeding with the story to note that Dr. Heidegger along with his four friends are thought by many to be “a little beside themselves.”
Here, the narrator foreshadows the primary conflict that later arises among the four friends (their rivalry over Wycherly). By suggesting that everyone in the room may have lost their minds (that they’re all “beside themselves”), the narrator foreshadows the chaos and foolishness that ensue. However, the possible mental instability of the four friends also raises the question of whether any of the characters’ perceptions of what happens in the story can be trusted.
Dr. Heidegger announces to his friends that he has invited them to his study because he would like their assistance in an experiment of the sort that he often conducts. The narrator then launches into a description of the study, and begins the description by saying: “If all stories were true, Dr. Heidegger’s study must have been a very curious place.” The study is a dark and dusty chamber, full of curiosities both medical and, as rumor has it, magical.
The narrator begins his description of the study not by actually describing it, but by saying that “if all the stories” about it were true, then it must be a curious place. That even the description of the study seems to be founded on rumor seems to imply that much of the information that the narrator shares may not be more than rumors. Put another way: the narrator seems to constantly cast doubt on the story he is telling.
The study is lined with bookcases, each packed with enormous folios. Over the central bookcase is a bust of Hippocrates, with whom it’s said Dr. Heidegger converses when a case has him stumped. In a closet in the corner stands a human skeleton. On the wall hangs a mirror that is rumored to contain the souls of all Dr. Heidegger’s deceased patients, who stare at Dr. Heidegger when he gazes at his reflection. On another wall hangs a portrait of a young woman, Heidegger’s fiancée, who died 50 years ago on the eve of their wedding, when she took some of Dr. Heidegger’s medicine.
The description of the study blends the scientific and the supernatural in unusual and unexpected ways. The bust of Hippocrates—a symbol of medicine, science, and reason—is said to have magical properties, as is the mirror on the wall, raising the question of what kind of doctor Heidegger really is and what types of experiments he conducts. Moreover, Hawthorne makes the slight implication that Dr. Heidegger may have had something to do with his fiancée’s death, since the narrator uses ambiguous language to describe the circumstances surrounding her sudden death.
The strangest thing in the entire study is a large, black, leather-bound book that was “well known to be a book of magic.” Once, when a chambermaid touched the book, the objects in the study came to life (the skeleton, the painting, the mirror) and the bust of Hippocrates said “Forbear!”
The magic book is presented as the strongest evidence of Dr. Heidegger’s use of magic, but the narrator’s description of it is based primarily on rumors and tall tales. The story about the study coming to life when someone tried opening the book is symbolic of the shroud of secrecy surrounding Dr. Heidegger more generally..
At the center of Dr. Heidegger’s study is a black table with a glass vase full of water sitting on it. The sun strikes the vase and refracts its light onto the ashen faces of the old friends gathered there. Four champagne glasses also rest on the table.
The light from the window hits the vase of water and scatters, brightening the ashen faces in the room; this foreshadows the youth-giving properties of the water inside. However, the champagne glasses are also a visual suggestion that perhaps what’s in the vase is actually just alcoholic—that it’s inebriating but not actually magic.
Dr. Heidegger asks his friends whether they consent to participating in his “exceedingly curious experiment.” The narrator remarks that Dr. Heidegger is very strange indeed, and is the subject of many fantastical stories—some of which might have originated with the narrator himself, he confesses. The narrator writes that if any of the story at hand seems unbelievable to the reader, he “must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction monger.”
Dr. Heidegger’s guests don’t expect to be particularly excited by whatever he has planned. Dr. Heidegger, without waiting for their response to his question of whether they consent, fetches the magic book off his shelf, and takes from among its pages a withered rose, which is very brittle and is now one uniform shade of brown. Dr. Heidegger explains that the rose was given to him fifty-five years ago by Sylvia Ward, his deceased fiancée whose portrait hangs on the wall, and that he had intended to wear it at their wedding.
The language used to describe the rose is similar to the language used to describe the old people’s colorless faces. Moreover, the rose was given to Heidegger by his long-dead fiancée, making it a clear symbol for the passage of time and its effects. The fact that Dr. Heidegger doesn’t wait for the four friends to respond to his question about consenting to the experiment raises questions about his motives and ethics.
Dr. Heidegger asks the four others in the room whether they think it would be possible for the rose to bloom again, and Widow Wycherly responds that it’s just as unlikely that an old woman’s face could “bloom” again. But when Dr. Heidegger puts the rose in the vase of water, it slowly comes back to life. His audience, however, is unimpressed; they remark that they have seen better staged magic tricks performed before.
Immediately, Dr. Heidegger’s friends doubt that what they’re seeing is real magic. This initial suggestion that the revival of the rose is merely an illusion hangs over the rest of the story, layering even more doubt on what happens by suggesting that perhaps all of Dr. Heidegger’s magic —and what happens to the characters — is just trickery and illusion.
Dr. Heidegger asks whether anyone in the room has heard of the Fountain of Youth that Ponce De Leon searched for centuries ago. Widow Wycherly asks whether Ponce De Leon ever found the fountain, and Dr. Heidegger says that he never did—but only because he hadn’t been looking in the right place. The real Fountain of Youth, Dr. Heidegger explains, is in Florida, overshadowed by ancient magnolias, and an acquaintance of his has sent him water from it, which now sits in the vase on the table.
That the water supposedly comes from the mythical Fountain of Youth makes it seem even more dubious. At this point, the narrator is constantly throwing doubt on the story he’s telling: is Heidegger actually a practitioner of magic? Is the liquid in the vase magic or just alcoholic? It’s worth asking why Hawthorne would write a story in this way. One potential answer is that, by casting doubt on the magic of the story, and making it seem like the whole thing might in fact just be the product of old people getting drunk, Hawthorne actually makes the story seem more credible to the reader. For the rest of the story, the reader will be caught in wondering whether the characters are being affected by magic or just getting drunk, rather than scoffing at the notion that magic water from the Fountain of Youth is making them younger.
Not believing Dr. Heidegger’s story, Colonel Killigrew asks what effect the water has on the human body. Dr. Heidegger responds by saying “You shall judge for yourself,” and explains that they may all have as much of the water as is necessary to restore them to their youthful prime. Dr. Heidegger himself, however, will not partake; “having had much trouble in growing old,” he says, he’s not in a hurry to be young again.
The reason Dr. Heidegger gives for wanting to observe rather than partake in the experiment is interesting. It might mean that growing old was hard, and therefore that youth is dangerous. It might also mean that he spent a lot of effort to grow old, and therefore values what old age has given him. This second reading suggests that Heidegger believes that he, at least, has gained wisdom in growing old, and wants to keep it.
Dr. Heidegger fills the four champagne glasses with the water of the Fountain of Youth. The “liquor” is effervescent and has a sweet fragrance, and although the four friends don’t believe that it will make them young again, they are eager to drink it.
The water is described exactly as though it were champagne (or some other bubbly form of alcohol), once again suggesting that the supernatural events that follow may be due to the influence of alcohol more than science or magic.
Before the four friends can drink, Dr. Heidegger suggests that they might want to “draw up a few general rules” so that their younger selves might benefit from all the lessons time has taught them. But the friends only laugh at the doctor’s advice, thinking it ridiculous that they would ever forget the lessons they had learned. Dr. Heidegger responds that, in that case, they should go ahead and drink, and that he’s glad he chose his subjects so well.
Dr. Heidegger’s remark—that he has chosen his subjects well—seems sinister rather than reassuring because it comes immediately after they’ve ignored his advice. In other words: he’s glad they’ve rejected his advice, suggesting that he may have set up the experiment with the intention not of exploring the magical attributes of the water, or the science of anti-aging. Rather, his experiment seems to be about morality or perhaps, more broadly, about humanity: about how people behave when they get younger. This realization also suggests a second reason why Hawthorne makes it unclear whether the “water” in the story is actually magical water or just alcohol. Ultimately, whether it’s one or the other seems not to matter: the story isn’t interested in how the four characters become young (whether through magic or drunkenness), but rather in what they do once they believe themselves young. By making it unclear how they become young, the story pushes those sorts of questions to the side and brings the moral questions front and center.
The four miserable, old friends drink the first glass of water, and immediately their spirits are lifted, just as they would have been by a glass of wine. Looking at each other around the table, their appearances seem to have improved: they look healthier, cheerier, brighter. Widow Wycherly begins to feel like a woman again. The friends plead for another glass, confessing that, though they were skeptics at first, they do in fact feel younger. Dr. Heidegger, watching “with philosophic coolness,” encourages them to have patience, but promptly pours another glass.
The skepticism of the four friends disappears almost instantaneously after drinking a first glass. Once more, the narrator describes the effects of the water (much like its physical appearance and smell) as being like wine, adding to the uncertainty surrounding the question of whether the four are actually growing younger, or merely feel that they are. Meanwhile, Heidegger watches them like they are the experiment, which in fact they are.
The four friends drink their second glass of the water. Instantly, their whole bodies seem younger, their hair grows darker, and suddenly they are all middle-aged again. Colonel Killigrew remarks on Widow Wycherly’s beautiful appearance. Knowing that the Colonel’s compliments were not always measured by “sober truth,” she runs to check her reflection in the mirror.
Still, the question of whether the reversal of age is real or an illusion remains open. When the Widow checks the mirror for her reflection, it is worth noting that even the reliability of the mirror has been compromised, since it, too, has been described as being enchanted. Further, it’s unclear whether Colonel Killigrew’s compliment is based in fact, or is merely the product of drunken excitement.
The friends’ behavior seems to prove that the water is at least slightly intoxicating. Mr. Gascoigne begins muttering nonsense about politics, though it’s not clear what he is talking about, or to whom, or what year he thinks it is. Colonel Killigrew is drunkenly singing “bottle songs” and eyeing Widow Wycherly. Mr. Medbourne has begun hatching a far-fetched business scheme involving whales moving polar icebergs. Meanwhile, Widow Wycherly remains at the mirror, adoring her own reflection. She returns to the table at last to ask Dr. Heidegger for another glass, but he has already filled them, and now sits with “gray dignity” in his arm-chair watching his friends like Father Time himself.
All of the characters are now behaving somewhat drunkenly. More interestingly, they all also seem to have reverted to the way they behaved as younger people—with the politician lapsing into nonsensical political speech and the merchant scheming new schemes. Meanwhile, Dr. Heidegger has already poured another glass — he wants them to go further. That the narrator compares the doctor to Father Time suggests that Dr. Heidegger, in the context of this experiment, is in complete control over his subjects just as time is inescapably in control over every human life.
The four friends drink their third glass of the water, which turns them into a group of “merry youngsters.” An “exuberant frolicsomeness” overtakes them, and they amuse themselves by mocking anything old or infirm: they laugh at their old-fashioned clothes, pretend to walk with a limp, and imitate Dr. Heidegger. Then Widow Wycherly proposes that Dr. Heidegger dance with her, but Dr. Heidegger declines, citing his old age, and suggests that she dance instead with any of the three young gentlemen present.
Despite having been infirm and decrepit mere moments ago, the now-young group of friends seem to have forgotten all about their own former misery and the misery of old age in general. Rather than view old age with understanding, they mock it. Their behavior seems like a direct defiance of Dr. Heidegger’s earlier advice that they try not to lose sight of the valuable lessons of old age. This, in turn, raises the question of whether they ever learned such lessons. Or, even more profoundly, whether there actually are any lessons to be learned form old age.
Colonel Killigrew, Mr. Gascoigne, and Mr. Medbourne argue over who will be Widow Wycherly’s dance partner. One of the men takes her by the hands, another by the waist, and a third by the hair. The three men struggle with one another over the widow’s young body, while the widow struggles to free herself—all of them laughing and breathing heavily. The scene is a lively image of youthful rivalry, and yet the narrator remarks that the mirror is said to have reflected, “by a strange deception,” the figures of three old, gray men struggling over the body of an ugly, shriveled, elderly woman.
Now restored to youth, the men and the woman engage in a ridiculously unsubtle sexual rivalry that they all find incredibly stimulating. The narrator’s description of the four actually still looking like their old selves in the mirror suggests once again that perhaps the group is under the spell of some sort of illusion rather than having actually grown young. More importantly, though, that they still look old in the mirror even as they grapple in youthful sexual vigor suggests that they were always the same people when old and when young. They didn’t gain wisdom as they grew old, they merely got old — and it was solely the limits of their physical age that stopped them from acting like young fools.
The playful brawl between the three men turns menacing as they begin to exchange more threatening glances, and finally they grapple violently at one another’s throats. In the shuffle, they overturn the table at the center of the room, dashing the vase of water onto the floor. The spilled water wets the wings of a dying butterfly, giving it new life. The butterfly takes flight and lands on Dr. Heidegger’s white head.
As the sexual rivalry grows fiercer, the men’s throat-grabbing echoes the narrator’s earlier remark about their rivalry (that the men were at one time ready to slit each other’s throats over Widow Wycherly). Once more, this highlights how little they have changed—age brought them no learning or wisdom. Meanwhile, the brawl among the friends results in the spilling and wasting of the rest of the water. Their youthful folly leads to the destruction of the very thing that gave them their youth back. It’s as if Hawthorne is saying that youth is wasted on the young.
Dr. Heidegger reprimands the group of friends for their riotous behavior. They all stand still, feeling as if “gray Time were calling them back from their sunny youth”—and indeed, there sits stately Dr. Heidegger in his arm chair, holding the rose, which he has rescued from among the broken glass of the vase. He beckons them to sit, and they do, weary from their activity. Dr. Heidegger exclaims that his rose is fading again, and indeed it is. They all watch as the rose wilts. Dr. Heidegger remarks that he loves the rose as much in its wilted state as in its “dewy freshness,” and kisses the withered rose with his withered lips. Then the butterfly falls from his head to the floor.
Once again Dr. Heidegger is described as though he himself were Father Time — and suddenly when he admonishes them they become, once again, old. This might suggest that Heidegger is in magical control of the spell they are under, but also could more metaphorically indicate how his admonishment calls them back to remember that they are, in fact, old. Meanwhile, Heidegger’s comments about the rose are interesting. Even though the wilting rose could make him mourn his lost youth and his long-dead fiancé, he instead seems fully at peace. Therefore, the rose is symbolic of Dr. Heidegger’s acceptance—and even appreciation—of the passage of time and its effects. And this appreciation makes him seem actually wise — and as if there might actually be wisdom in growing old after all.
Sitting around the table, the four friends now watch each other grow old again quite rapidly, the wrinkles forming once again over their faces. They ask dolefully whether it’s true, and Dr. Heidegger confirms that they are, in fact, old again. The water that made them young had an effect “more transient than that of wine.”
Not only does the water’s effect wear off after mere minutes, but the process of aging again is far more rapid than the process of growing young had been—suggesting that youth is fleeting. Once again, the story compares the folly of youth is compared to the folly of drunkenness, as if to say that old age is, by extension, akin to sobriety.
Widow Wycherly exclaims that if she can’t be beautiful, she would rather be dead. Dr. Heidegger remarks that he doesn’t mind that the water was spilled on the ground, since from watching them he now knows that even if the Fountain of Youth gushed at his doorstep, he wouldn’t drink from it.
The widow’s comment indicates that she does not share Heidegger’s peaceful acceptance of aging in the slightest. Reminded of her former beauty, she holds it up as more important than life itself. Her comment also recalls the narrator’s quip at the beginning of the story that the four friends were most unlucky in having lived so long. While the experiment has made the widow miserable, though, it seems to have given Dr. Heidegger what he needs. While he doesn’t state why he has decided against drinking from the Fountain of Youth, it seems that he wondered about returning to his former youth, but has from watching his “experiment” determined that youth is less valuable than the calm wisdom he has achieved in old age.
The four friends feel differently than Dr. Heidegger. They resolve promptly to journey to Florida, where they plan to drink morning, noon, and night from the Fountain of Youth.
But the four friends learn the opposite lesson from Dr. Heidegger. Rather than learning from their ridiculous behavior, the friends agree to seek out yet more water from the Fountain of Youth. The decision to seek the Fountain of Youth for themselves is akin to a commitment to live in a state of intoxication and illusion rather than come to terms with a sober—and ultimately unavoidable—reality. It is an effort to avoid and hide from death, rather than accept it. It’s an effort to slip the bonds of morality in favor of youthful indiscretion. While the story clearly indicts the four friends for this decision, it also quietly raises a broader moral point. Heidegger, remember, was at multiple points compared to Father Time, and when looked at in this way the four friends become stand-ins for all of humanity—the merchant, the army colonel, the politician, the beautiful woman (it is a sort of sexist way of describing humanity from a modern point of view). If the four friends stand in for humanity, then the story seems to indicate that most of —if not all of—humanity fails to learn Heidegger’s lesson. The wisdom of old age does exist, then, but humans almost always throw it away.