“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 they will learn from their mistakes when given a second chance to be young. The three men in Dr. Heidegger’s experiment were once romantic rivals, competing for the affection of Widow Wycherly (the fourth friend in the experiment). For this reason, they make good test subjects: they have a history together, and they can either learn from it, or be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Dr. Heidegger, before commencing the experiment, offers the four friends an opportunity to reflect on their mistakes and give some advice to their younger selves—an opportunity which the friends decline, thinking they would never repeat the same mistakes. This leads Dr. Heidegger to remark that he has chosen his subjects well, implying that he had anticipated the chaos that is about to unfold. As soon as the four friends have become young again, each reverts to their own foolish, youthful ways: preening in front of the mirror, hatching half-baked business schemes, fighting violently over their beautiful mutual friend. Ultimately, not one of the four friends’ behavior suggests they have reflected on the mistakes of their youth enough to avoid making the same mistakes again. Their immaturity is confirmed by their joint decision to travel to the Fountain of Youth and drink its waters forever: they don’t wish to learn, they wish only to live comfortably in the grasp of illusion. This reveals the story’s clearest moral message: that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Though this message is superficially clear, a deeper examination of the structural flaws of the experiment complicates the story’s moral message. Dr. Heidegger and his subjects seem to be fundamentally different types of older people. While Dr. Heidegger learned from his minor youthful mistakes and is living a passionate and successful—if eccentric—elderly life, his subjects seem to have made mistakes so severe that they have been ruined by their pasts. Hawthorne describes them as bitter and miserable with such difficult lives that they no longer even want to be alive. There’s little reason to believe, then, that these are the kinds of older people who would keep their wits about them when made young again. Though Dr. Heidegger seems to seek confirmation through the experiment that he should never drink from the Fountain of Youth, he also seems to have lived a reasonably upright youth, so it’s not clear that he would actually have become foolish upon drinking the water. After all, he—unlike his subjects—did not ruin his happiness and reputation through youthful recklessness, so it’s not logical that he would be in danger of repeating mistakes he never made.
Furthermore, there’s evidence that Dr. Heidegger’s subjects—even in old age—never had much wisdom or self-knowledge to lose, since they brushed aside Dr. Heidegger’s pre-experiment caution so carelessly, insisting that they would never revert to the bad behavior of their youth. Meanwhile, Dr. Heidegger—who is wise enough to not only predict the actions of others, but to refuse the intoxicating water lest it erase his hard-won wisdom—seems to have always been reasonably measured in his choices. Thus, Hawthorne’s opposition between youth and old age seems to actually be better described as an opposition between those who are capable of learning from youth and those who can only be ruined by it. Seen this way, the experiment is perhaps less an attempt to test a hypothesis than a cruel demonstration of the innate immorality of Dr. Heidegger’s wretched subjects.
“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is a story that rewards its readers for probing deeper into the contradictions, presumptions, and inconsistencies of which the story and its characters are full. Peeling back the many layers of the story reveals a work that, quite contrary to what the reader might think based on a first read, resists an easy or uncomplicated moral message.
Mistakes and Morality ThemeTracker
Mistakes and Morality Quotes in Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment
And, before proceeding further, I will merely hint that Dr. Heidegger and all his four guests were sometimes thought to be a little beside themselves,—as is not unfrequently the case with old people, when worried either by present troubles or woeful recollections.
Now Dr. Heidegger was a very strange old gentleman, whose eccentricity had become the nucleus for a thousand fantastic stories. Some of these fables, to my shame be it spoken, might possibly be traced back to my own veracious self; and if any passages of the present tale should startle the reader's faith, I must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction monger.
“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.
“I love it as well thus as in its dewy freshness,” observed he, pressing the withered rose to his withered lips.
“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!”