At the center of the story is the vase full of water from the Fountain of Youth. The water, which makes those who drink it temporarily young again, is a symbol of the fleeting and precarious nature of youth. Hawthorne argues in the story that youth is inseparable from foolish behavior—behavior that can permanently ruin one’s life, as seen with the experiment’s subjects. Therefore, when the subjects knock the vase over and spill the water, Hawthorne calls attention to the risks inherent to youthful folly. In addition, it’s significant that the water comes from a fabled source—the Fountain of Youth—that the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon sought for many years but never found. This echoes the ways in which the subjects of the experiment are consumed by a desire to regain their youth, and the association between the water and the Fountain of Youth frames the subjects’ desire to be young again as delusion. Finally, the water, which is served in champagne glasses, is described as effervescent and sweetly intoxicating, which creates a strong symbolic association with alcoholic drinks. This association underscores that youth, like drunkenness, is fleeting, foolish, and even dangerous. Indeed, the story ends with the four subjects of Dr. Heidegger’s experiment deciding to travel together to Florida to find the Fountain of Youth so they can drink from it eternally—as if “hungover” from the drunken revelry of their youth, and addicted to experiencing it again.
Water Quotes in Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment
“Before you drink, my respectable old friends,” said he, “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 and shame it would be, if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!”
The doctor's four venerable friends made him no answer, except by a feeble and tremulous laugh; so very ridiculous was the idea that, knowing how closely repentance treads behind the steps of error, they should ever go astray again.
“Drink, then,” said the doctor, bowing: “I rejoice that I have so well selected the subjects of my experiment.”
Yet, by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grandsires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam.
“Yes, friends, ye are old again,” said Dr. Heidegger, “and lo! the Water of Youth is all lavished on the ground. Well—I bemoan it not; for if the fountain gushed at my very doorstep, I would not stoop to bathe my lips in it—no, though its delirium were for years instead of moments. Such is the lesson ye have taught me!”