Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment | Summary and Analysis

Critical Appreciation of Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment


Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment is a fascinating tale that revolves around the idea of the insatiability of human desires, humanity’s age-old vices that accompany such desires and the fact that people do not learn from their past mistakes. It is also a play on how people believe whatever suits them the most, regardless of truth or propriety. This supposedly sci-fi piece of fiction shows that all it takes is a seemingly successful experiment by an eccentric “doctor” to showcase the shortfalls of humanity. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment was published in 1837

 Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment | Summary

The story opens with Dr. Heidegger, a rather eccentric individual inviting four of his friends to his study to partake in a questionable experiment. Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, Mr. Gascoigne, and Widow Wycherly who agree to join in are all elderly people who have more love for their youth than their current selves. Each had rich lives when they were young and had lost it all as the years went by.

Mr. Medbourne, who used to be a rich merchant has now turned into a beggar for all practical purposes. Colonel Killigrew wasted his life doing as he pleased and is now harassed by multiple health concerns. Mr. Gascoigne who was once a politician is ruined by his corruption, and Widow Wycherly, who was once young and beautiful, now hides away from the town due to her many scandals.

These peculiar personalities meet in Dr. Heidegger’s study, an odd place full of books, papers, dust, and a bust of Hippocrates. There’s a mirror that’s said to show the faces of all of Dr. Heidegger’s dead patients, and a portrait of his deceased fiancée. But, most importantly, there’s a mysterious book, a book of magic. This is the book that Dr. Heidegger brings to the fore as he explains his experiment.

He shows them an old, withered rose and claims to be able to revive it. The incredulous guests watch it blossom and brighten after Dr. Heidegger throws it into a vase full of water that he claims has been derived from the Fountain of Youth. These folks who yearn for their youth are immediately convinced and beg to drink the water from the vase.

Dr. Heidegger obliges to the request. This is when the magic happens. Dr. Heidegger’s guests turn progressively younger as they drink more and more of this water. They reach a point of perfect youth, full of health and energy, and they lose all connection to the lives they lived just a few minutes ago. They begin to mock the mannerisms of the elderly and are filled with youthful energy.

Widow Wycherly is entranced by her beauty, and Colonel Killigrew is similarly entranced with the Widow’s youthful figure. Mr. Gascoigne speaks the empty words of politicians, vague and all-encompassing, and Mr. Medbourne is lost in his world of money, talking of wealth and trades.

They are enchanted by their own youth, and their ability to shake off the old age they detested so much. Their wrinkles fade, their fatigue dissipates, the marks of old age no longer exist in them anymore. The three men, who were lovers of the Widow many years ago, fall back into their fights for her attention. Yet, the mirror in the corner does not reflect their youth and shows the figure four old people pretending to be young and free!


Dr. Heidegger tries stop them from fighting. They break the vase full of the water from the Fountain of Youth, when it falls onto the floor, thanks to the commotion created by the rambunctious lot. At the same time, the blossoming rose begins to shrivel, and soon the bright youth of the four guests also begins to fade away. The water from the fountain of youth deludes them into believing they are young, and they are unwilling to let go of that delusion. The four resolve to search out the Fountain of Youth, and drink of it all day so that they never have to meet their old age again.


Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment | Analysis

In this short story, we see a portrayal of the narcissistic and gullible side of humanity, with each character showing a different type of vice. We also see how easily people are deluded into believing whatever they want and how easily they can go astray. The theme of human desires, the insatiability of such desires and the hopeless futility in trying to attain the unattainable has been explored in this story. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment also touches upon the various vices that humans possess and shows the ease with which the vices can run amok under conducive conditions, much like a chemical experiment which, under conducive physical conditions of the lab, can momentarily trigger changes in the object of experimentation.


Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment | Character Analysis

To break down the characters, we must first see what they represent. The four guests, on drinking the water from the fountain of youth exhibit the four vices that they’ve housed within themselves. These four vices are narcissism, greed, lust, and corruption. A close analysis of characters in Dr. Heidegger’s experiment clarifies this point.

Dr. Heidegger – Dr. Heidegger seems to be a rather eccentric character at first. He is obsessed with his study and experimentation and his constantly onto something or the other.  This is one way of looking at him – from the perspective of an outsider.

However, one must realize that the man is a seeker. He thirsts for new knowledge, not for the fountain of youth. Like every good scholar of the sciences, he is not afraid of failure. Trial and error are his close companions and he does not shy away from his failures. This is reflected by the fact that portrait of his deceased fiancée, who supposedly dies in a failed experiment hangs on the walls of his study.

Contrary to other characters, he does not drink the fountain of youth. In fact, he says that wouldn’t drink from it even if it gushed at his doorsteps. This is because he has accepted his life and his mistakes, has learnt from them and thus does not regret growing old. On the whole, this doctor who appears as a rather odd fellow is full of wisdom and understanding.

Furthermore, the character of the doctor also seems to represent a person who has been misunderstood. Much of what is said about him is based on how he appears to others and what the world makes of him and his actions. Most of it is hearsay ad some seem to be plain rumors. A case in point is the mirror in his room that is said to show the faces the doctor’s dead patients. People draw their own conclusions when faced with something they don’t understand. Sometimes, these conclusions may be outrightly outlandish. Because the outside world doesn’t understand the doctor, this wise man is held to be an odd character.

Widow Wycherly – Widow Wycherly is the representation of narcissism. The only thing she cares about when the fountain gives her back her youth is how she looks. She rushes to the mirror to check whether her face really does look younger, and remains there for ages, scanning every inch of her face and hair. She stares at herself as though she was the one whom she loved the most in the world. This is reminiscent of Narcissus from the Greek myths who took “self-love” wayyy too seriously. The chap kept on staring at his own reflection in a pool of water until he drowned into it. He took being too much into oneself quite literally. Anyway, the widow, like Narcissus, loves being the center of attention, and ends up being the center of affection of the three men fighting over her. Her youth gives  back her beauty, and this beauty is what she values most about herself. Talk about beauty being skin deep. “So what do you expect? A beautiful pair of kidneys?” This is the kind of thing that the next character, Colonel Killigrew, would say. So, let’s move on to that bloke.

Colonel Killigrew – Killigrew never grew out of his prurient lust. He’s wasted his life pursuing sinful pleasures. Read: excessive drinking and sex. Well, booze and belle don’t go too well, as far as the Colonel can tell. His first response when he returns to his youthful form is to start hitting on the widow. Additionally, it’s clear that he can’t keep his eyes away from Wycherly’s figure. *Creep*

Mr. Medbourne – This guy a representation of avarice. Once a prosperous trader, he became as good as a beggar when he lost all his money in ill-fated and uneducated speculation. As he returns to his sprightly youth, he begins to talk of money again. He speaks of dollars, and of trades. It is clear he hasn’t learnt from his mistakes, as his new trade idea is outlandish, involving whales and icebergs – basically, the equivalent of today’s NFTs.

Mr. Gascoigne –  He’s not a corrupt chap. He is corruption. Like the shameless beggars of vote who go by the name of politicians. A politician in his time, Gascoigne was infamous for his evil, yet is buried by the new generation as they’ve moved on. OK Boomer. He, in his ill-gotten youth, began to make long speeches about patriotism, and other vague political topics that spanned years. Yet, his corruption has caught up with him, as he whispers cunningly, hiding his evil secrets, and switching to a tone of respect and reverence while talking to people. Quite like most of those slick and slimy slugs that slyly slide on the Left and Right.


Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment | Literary Devices


Setting – Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment makes a masterful use of the setting to set the tone of the story. The doctor’s study, where he invites the gullible folks and where this outlandish “experiment” takes place is a world in itself. Not only is it different from the world outside, it completely overturns the rules of the “normal” world. This is a place full of books, papers, dust, a bust of Hippocrates, a mirror that’s said to show the faces the doctor’s dead patients, and a portrait of his deceased fiancée. One clearly feels like asking “What’s up doc?”. The room is thus an extension of the doctor’s supposedly eccentric persona. Furthermore, it is in this chaos of a place that people’s now-repressed personalities emerge, once they’ve tasted the water from the Fountain of Youth.

Foreshadowing – This story also uses foreshadowing to show us that the Fountain of Youth experiment would never really work. Dr. Heidegger is referred to as eccentric, and he’s lost his wife due to his medical negligence. Let’s just hope that was actually a failed experiment. The mirror that ostensibly shows his dead patients allows us to understand that there have been several failures in his journey as a doctor, and he is more likely to fail than succeed. It is no coincidence then that the mirror reflects the four youths as being old, as it sets the scene for their youth to wear off.  So, the Fountain of Youth is nothing but a Fugayzi, it’s a fake. Fugayzi, fugazi. It’s a whazy. It’s a woozie. It’s fairy dust. It doesn’t exist.

Contrast – There is a clear contrast between the calmness of Dr. Heidegger and the excitement of his four guests. He’s accepted his life and his mistakes, learns from them and thus does not regret growing old. His four guests, however, hate their old age and do not learn from the mistakes of their youth. They begin participating in the same lives they should have grown out of. Dr. Heidegger’s comment about loving the withered rose just the same shows us that he loves the journey he had to pass through to get to where he is. His guests on the other hand, disregard everything and decide to search out the Fountain of Youth. Good Luck with that.



Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment | About the Author

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804. He is a short story writer who wrote mainly on topics like religion and morality. His stories are characterized by gloom, as he is a writer of the Dark Romantic era, and focuses on stories surrounding guilt, or sin. His writing style involves using symbolism and metaphors to get his point across to the reader.

His most well-known works are ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and ‘The House of the Seven Gables’. Hawthorne is honored in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans as an author and editor.

He died in 1864, in Plymouth, New Hampshire.








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