“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 learned the lessons of old age—is capable of acting maturely. The results of the experiment, of course, confirm Dr. Heidegger’s hypothesis: youth is inseparable from vanity, immaturity, and folly.
To prove his hypothesis beyond a reasonable doubt, Dr. Heidegger tries to coach his subjects into proving him wrong. As they eagerly await the water, he cautions them to use “the experience of a lifetime to direct you…through the perils of youth,” reminding them to maintain their virtue and wisdom as they transform. His subjects, however, brush off his warning as ridiculous, thinking that they could never repeat their mistakes, since they have learned in their old age “how closely repentance treads behind the steps of error.” Of course, as soon as the subjects’ bodies become more youthful, they revert to their most foolish and immoral behaviors: political scheming, vanity, greed, and sinful indulgence. They mock the elderly and the men fight one another for the attentions of the only woman, knocking over the precious water in the process (symbolizing the precarious and fleeting nature of youth). Not even this foolishness dampens their enthusiasm for youth, though, as once the subjects return to their true ages, they all agree to go to Florida so that they might drink constantly from the Fountain of Youth. Overall, youth proves to be intoxicating and unhealthy for the subjects.
In contrast to his subjects, Dr. Heidegger values the wisdom of old age more than the beauty and recklessness of youth. He hints at this twice before his subjects drink the water, first, by saying that he won’t participate in the experiment because “having had much trouble in growing old, I am in no hurry to grow young again,” and second in his initial instruction to his subjects not to forget the virtue and wisdom of age. The wilted rose Dr. Heidegger revives also shows his appreciation for his own maturity. The rose, given to him by his fiancée who died on the eve of their wedding fifty-five years ago, blooms in the water and then wilts again. Instead of mourning his old losses anew, however, Dr. Heidegger simply remarks that he loves the rose as much in its wilted state as in its “dewy freshness.” The rose, then, is a symbol of Dr. Heidegger’s acceptance—and even appreciation—of the passage of time and its effects. Heidegger, as a learned man, seems to see youth as a series of experiments that, through trial and error, have made him a much better version of himself. The correctness of this belief is confirmed for him at the end of the experiment when he resolves that he would never drink the water himself, for he wants to avoid the folly of his subjects.
Hawthorne, then, forcefully argues for the moral superiority of old age over youth, since the elderly are more restrained in their choices and behaviors. Notably, this restraint seems to be physical more than mental—transforming the subjects’ bodies without transforming their minds and memories still makes them behave as foolishly as they once did. Thus, the wisdom of age is something to be cherished and protected, rather than taken for granted. Furthermore, the folly of youth seems to have enduring consequences, since the mistakes of the subjects’ youths have made them bitter and miserable in old age, and their return to old age after drinking the water does not restore them to a mature resignation to their fate—it leaves them almost hungover, desperately and foolishly planning a trip to Florida to find the Fountain of Youth. For Hawthorne, then, youth is a dangerous and fleeting stage of life to be learned from, not one to revisit or admire.
Youth, Old Age, and Death ThemeTracker
Youth, Old Age, and Death 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.
“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!”