Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment


Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Themes and Colors
Youth, Old Age, and Death Theme Icon
Science and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Reality and Illusion Theme Icon
Mistakes and Morality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is a moralistic story that cautions readers about the folly of youth. In the experiment of the story’s title, Dr. Heidegger offers his four elderly subjects—all of whom made ruinous mistakes when they were young—the opportunity to make their bodies young again by drinking water from the Fountain of Youth. By seeing how elderly people react to feeling young, Dr. Heidegger hopes to determine whether a young person—even one who has already…

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In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” Hawthorne blurs the distinction between science and magic. The objects in Dr. Heidegger’s study that are traditionally “scientific” (the human skeleton in the closet, the bust of Hippocrates, the volumes of books) possess magical qualities, and Dr. Heidegger’s science experiment—which one might expect to be fully governed by reason—involves the magical properties of the water from the Fountain of Youth. This comingling of science and the supernatural suffuses the entire…

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In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” Hawthorne allows for ambiguity about whether the story’s supernatural events are literally occurring, or whether they are all an illusion. On the one hand, the story’s many supernatural details—the rose un-wilting, the butterfly coming off the floor, the skeleton rattling, or the wrinkles fading away—are described so vividly that Hawthorne seems to be asking readers to believe that they are literally occurring. On the other hand, everything “supernatural” that occurs could…

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“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” can be—and often is—read as an allegory: a tale meant to deliver a clear moral message. On the surface, it’s easy to support an argument that this story is an allegory about the virtues of learning from one’s youthful mistakes.

Dr. Heidegger’s four friends are all characters whose reputations were tarnished in some way by mistakes they made in their youth. He chooses them as subjects because he wishes to see whether…

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