Dr. Heidegger's Experiment
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Dr. Heidegger's Experiment Introduction
In A Nutshell
Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American writer in the first half of the 19th century, famous for his novel The Scarlet Letter and his numerous short stories. "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" is the story of an eccentric doctor who gives four of his friends an "elixir" from the Fountain of Youth and observes their behavior as they grow "young" again. Like many of Hawthorne's other tales, the story is highly moralistic and even Puritan in its values. Hawthorne is often cited as a member of the so-called "Dark-Romanticism" genre, in which the supposed inherent evil of mankind is held up to scrutiny. We talk more about this in the "Genre" section of this Shmoop Guide.
"Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" was first published anonymously in the January 1837 issue of Knickerbocker magazine under the title "The Fountain of Youth." Hawthorne republished it in book form later that year, under his own name and its current title, in a collection of stories called Twice-Told Tales (in the sense that every tale had been published somewhere else before and hence was being told for the second time).
Interestingly, in 1860, Hawthorne added to his story a note addressing a supposed accusation of plagiarism against him. It seems that an English review of his story insinuated that he lifted the idea from Mémoires d'un Médecin, a novel by Alexandre Dumas (whom you know as the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo). In his note, Hawthorne points out that he wrote "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" twenty years earlier and long before Dumas's novel, but that the far more famous Dumas is welcome to lift any ideas he pleases from Hawthorne's own work.
Why Should I Care?
As long as we can remember, young people have been associated with foolishness. Our grandmother told us as much when we were kids, our parents warned us of as much when we went started high school, and we may have proved them all right in college. There's a reason that movies like Clueless, Can't Hardly Wait, and 10 Things I Hate About You are set among teens and twenty-somethings, instead of the average group of adults. They don't call it "the folly of youth" for nothing.
So just what is it about being young that drives that urge to do foolish things? Growing up is about making mistakes (like trying to eat an entire bowl of Jell-O in under forty-five seconds without throwing up) and, hopefully, learning from them. Whether those mistakes are silly (like our Jell-O example) or serious (think lessons in relationships, family, work), we have to make them in order to realize that they are, in fact, mistakes. The idea is that, once we're old, we've learned our lesson, and there will be no more Jell-O free-for-alls.
Hawthorne challenges the idea that mistakes are made because we don't know any better. Instead, he seems to say that young people make mistakes simply because they are young. Even if we were graced with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, he argues, it's unlikely we would do any better on a second time around through the perilous minefield that is youth.
Is this reasonable? Possible? Totally ridiculous? Before you answer, we suggest to you the delightfully peculiar and creepy "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment." Who knows – it might be one less life lesson you have to learn the hard way.