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 story, upending the traditionally stark distinction between science and magic—a distinction, it’s worth noting, that many of Hawthorne’s readers would have considered to be morally significant.
Generally speaking, Puritan-influenced New England was not a friendly place to practitioners of magic (think, for instance, of the Salem witch trials). However, far from disparaging Heidegger’s use of magic, Hawthorne portrays Heidegger as the only character in the story with any real moral standing, associating him with wisdom, virtue, and reason. Given the era’s moral prejudice against magic and the scant but illuminating details about Dr. Heidegger’s medical practice, however, it’s impossible not to wonder whether Hawthorne’s characterization of Heidegger as moral is meant to be taken at face value.
For instance, it’s ethically questionable to subject four elderly people to an experiment in which they will almost certainly become intoxicated and act like fools. The presence of Dr. Heidegger’s bust of Hippocrates (the father of medicine and medical ethics) underscores the strained ethics of the experiment, particularly since doctors who take the Hippocratic oath are sworn to do no harm to patients, and Dr. Heidegger’s experiment seems to cause psychological damage. There is also the slight implication that the death of Heidegger’s fiancée may have occurred under similar circumstances. The narrator writes that, “being affected with some slight disorder, she had swallowed one of her lover’s prescriptions, and died on the bridal evening.” Therefore, despite Hawthorne’s portrayal of Dr. Heidegger as moral, nineteenth century readers would be unlikely to wholly accept this characterization. Dr. Heidegger—a practitioner of a supernatural and morally dubious form of science—would have likely alarmed readers, since any suggestion that science and magic could coexist for a moral good would seem menacing and even blasphemous.
Further undermining Dr. Heidegger’s credentials as a morally upright, rational scientist is the fact that his science experiment is notably unscientific. While Dr. Heidegger aims to scientifically test his hypothesis that youth necessarily leads to folly, his methodology is haphazard. For instance, he tries to coach his subjects before the experiment, reminding them that they should rely on their wisdom to avoid the perils of youth. Though they disregard this advice, Dr. Heidegger’s interference undermines the integrity of the experiment’s result. Furthermore, the premise of the experiment is that the wisdom of old age evaporates in the face of youth, but the experiment’s subjects are never portrayed as wise to begin with, even in their old age. Thus, their immature behavior after drinking the water hardly proves Dr. Heidegger’s hypothesis. Finally, the conclusion that Dr. Heidegger draws from his experiment is a moral one, rather than a rational inference. “If the fountain gushed at my very doorstep,” he proclaims to his guests, “I would not stoop to bathe my lips in it…. Such is the lesson have taught me.” In short, Dr. Heidegger’s conclusion is not that endowing his subjects with youth did what he expected, but rather that he’s pleased with himself for his moral commitment to avoiding the delirium of his subjects.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that Hawthorne himself was unaware of the sloppiness of Dr. Heidegger’s “scientific” methodology. On the contrary, it is possible that Hawthorne’s intention was to subtly cast doubt on Dr. Heidegger’s morality by showing him engaged in an ethically and scientifically dubious experiment. If that’s true, then the moral that Hawthorne might at first seem to be espousing (that the wisdom of age should be valued and the folly of youth should be feared) is not, in fact, the deepest moral of the story. Hawthorne was deeply impacted by the witch trials of the 17th century, which were characterized by judges and religious figures performing pseudo-scientific experiments on women to determine whether they were, in fact, witches (such as throwing them into water to see if they would drown). Perhaps, then, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is not an allegory about old age and youth, but rather a comment on the dangers of unexamined moral superiority and the ways people rationalize their own arrogance, cruelty, and superstition.
Science and the Supernatural ThemeTracker
Science and the Supernatural 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!”