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 be interpreted to have been a mere illusion—either the product of drunkenness, deceit, or an unreliable narrator. The deft ambiguity of the story suggests that Hawthorne deliberately lays the groundwork for a double interpretation, thereby unsettling a reader’s assumptions about the reliability of their own perceptions.
Hawthorne gives multiple indications throughout the story that the elderly characters’ reversion to youth may not be literally true. One possibility is that the narrator is unreliable. Hawthorne explicitly raises this at the beginning of the story when he writes (in the narrator’s voice) that “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.” The narrator also twice interjects to ask directly whether what the characters are experiencing is real or illusory. This opens the door to interpreting not just the fantastical details of the story, but the entire story itself, as an elaborate rumor.
Another possible explanation for the story’s events is that the water from the Fountain of Youth is actually alcohol. The characters drink the bubbly water out of champagne glasses, and the narrator states that its effects were, at first, indistinguishable from the intoxicating flush of wine. After three glasses of the water, one of the characters has taken to singing a drinking song, and a general state of madness has taken hold of the room. All told, this leaves open the possibility that the physical transformation experienced by Dr. Heidegger’s subjects didn’t actually occur at all, but was merely a drunken whimsy.
It’s also possible that Dr. Heidegger is manipulating the subjects of his experiment using stagecraft and illusion. When the four friends see him bring a rose back to life, they’re not impressed, remarking that they’ve seen more convincing staged magic tricks before. At one point during the three friends’ jealous brawl over Widow Wycherly, the narrator remarks that the enchanted mirror on the wall had reflected their true forms: “three old, gray, withered grandsires” fighting over “the skinny ugliness of a shriveled grandam.” The detail again raises the question of whether the four friends had really undergone a magical transformation, or merely been under the delusion that they had.
Lastly, the narrator explicitly calls into question the sanity of all the characters when he remarks at the outset that “Dr. Heidegger and all his four guests were sometimes thought to be a little beside themselves.” It is therefore unclear whether the story that follows is an objective treatment of what took place, or whether it is meant to capture the experience of the characters, who are known to have an unstable relationship with reality.
The fact that Hawthorne was so deliberately ambiguous about whether the events described literally occurred presents yet another complication to the moralistic aspects of the story. If the whole thing was brought about by alcoholic intoxication, for instance, does the story contain a hidden message about temperance? (The story did emerge, it should be noted, at the same time that the temperance movement was gaining broad support in America). Or, if the entire thing was an illusion, how can the reader take seriously Dr. Heidegger’s moralizing about the virtues of old age? Ultimately, whether the moralism of the story has any teeth depends entirely upon how the reader interprets what actually occurred—but coming to a clear interpretation is a task that Hawthorne makes nearly impossible.
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Reality and Illusion 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.
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!”