Study Guide

Dr. Heidegger's Experiment Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Elixir

The big question you find yourself asking as you read "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" is whether or not the elixir he gives his guests is actually water from the Fountain of Youth that turns his guests young again; or whether it's just an illusion, a trick that Heidegger has cooked up in order to prove his point. You can make a case for either one.

Case #1: The elixir is real

There are enough mystical and spooky items detailed for us in the third paragraph to place the reader firmly in the realm of the supernatural. The narrator sets us up for other-worldly events before the hinge of the plot even unfolds. Heidegger has a book of magic, a bust that speaks, a skeleton in his closet, a portrait that can move, and a mirror that holds the faces of all his dead patients. This is not realism – it's fantasy, and so we should accept that the elixir is in fact fantastical.

The rose is great evidence for this as well; the guests haven't had anything to drink yet, booze or not, so they are in their right mind when Heidegger transforms the rose before their eyes. The actual transformation of the guests is equally explicit:

Even while the draught was passing down their throats, it seemed to have wrought a change on their whole systems. Their eyes grew clear and bright; a dark shade deepened among their silvery locks, they sat around the table, three gentlemen of middle age, and a woman, hardly beyond her buxom prime. (26)

Later, after the vase is broken, the rejuvenated butterfly reinforces our belief that the elixir is legitimate.

Case #2: The elixir is fake (namely, it's alcohol)

The narrator is careful to hint at the real nature of the elixir – it's not water from the Fountain of Youth; it's just alcohol. The sparkling bubbles on the brim immediately make us think of champagne, and this idea is reinforced by reference to wine over the next few pages of text. You'll also notice that the narrator never explicitly says the guests indeed are young again – he only says that they seem to grow young again. Take a look at the following passages (the bold sections are our emphasis):

  • The liquor, if it really possessed such virtues as Dr. Heidegger imputed to it, could not have been bestowed on four human beings who needed it more woefully. (22)

  • Assuredly there was an almost immediate improvement in the aspect of the party, not unlike what might have been produced by a glass of generous wine […]They gazed at one another, and fancied that some magic power had really begun to smooth away the deep and sad inscriptions which Father Time had been so long engraving on their brows. (23)

  • Was it delusion? even while the draught was passing down their throats, it seemed to have wrought a change on their whole systems. (26)

  • The three gentlemen behaved in such a manner as proved that the water of the Fountain of Youth possessed some intoxicating qualities. (28)

  • They stood still and shivered; for it seemed as if gray Time were calling them back from their sunny youth, far down into the chill and darksome vale of years. (44)

  • Was it an illusion? Had the changes of a lifetime been crowded into so brief a space, and were they now four aged people, sitting with their old friend, Dr. Heidegger? (48)
If the elixir is fake, then it means that all the showy theatricality of Dr. Heidegger's study is tantamount to a magician's set of props. Dr. Heidegger creates an atmosphere that lures in his guests. And the narrator is doing something very similar to the readers. We, his guests, are drinking the liquor, a.k.a. reading his story. We may be skeptical – we very much doubt, as he earlier asserted, that this all really happened – but like the champagne Dr. Heidegger offers his guests, we're entertained enough by the pleasant aroma of his bubbling prose to stick around and take a nice long sip.

Case #3: It doesn't matter

The point of "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" isn't science or superstition. Hawthorne isn't interested in the physics of growing young again, or the location of the Fountain of Youth, or the details of how Dr. Heidegger managed to procure the liquid, or any other trivial matters. He is interested in moral philosophy. The heart of the story lies in two key passages spoken by Dr. Heidegger:

"Before you drink, my respectable old friends […], 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!'' (19)

"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!'' (51)

As we discuss in "What's Up with the Title?", Dr. Heidegger's experiment tests and then proves a hypothesis: if man were allowed a second chance at youth, he will make the same mistakes again. One could test this hypothesis by procuring water from the Fountain of Youth, or by pretending to have procured water from the Fountain of Youth. But the hypothesis is proven either way. It ultimately doesn't matter whether or not the elixir is real.

The Bust of Hippocrates

Over the central bookcase was a bronze bust of Hippocrates, with which, according to some authorities, Dr. Heidegger was accustomed to hold consultation in all difficult cases of practice. (3)

For a prop that gets passing mention in a dense and cluttered paragraph, this little item sure packs a punch.

Hippocrates was an Ancient Greek who was alive around 400 BC. He's famous as the so-called "Father of Western Medicine," which is why we're not surprised to find his bust in the office of Doctor Heidegger. The first interesting thing you'll want to know about Hippocrates is that he's credited with being the first physician to separate medicine from the realm of superstition and religion. Where other men would credit the gods with afflicting illness, Hippocrates rejected this notion – he kept the supernatural out of medicine.

This is interesting in the context of "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment." As you know by now, one of the big questions for the reader is whether or not the water in the vase is really magical stuff from the Fountain of Youth, or whether Dr. Heidegger is simply deceiving his guests. Hippocrates would reject the idea that the water has supernatural powers – does Dr. Heidegger follow in the footsteps of his guide? This question gets more complicated when you realize that Dr. Heidegger consults with a bronze statue in times of difficulty. It's a bit of a contradiction to communicate in a mystical way with a doctor who rejected the supernatural.

The second thing you should know about Hippocrates is that he's supposedly one of the first men to unite the two disciplines of medicine and philosophy. In Dr. Heidegger's "Character Analysis," we ask the question: what kind of doctor is Dr. Heidegger? Is he a scientist? A medical doctor? A philosopher? Possibly he's a little bit of each, we conclude, which makes it all the more fitting that he keeps a bust of Hippocrates on his bookshelf.

The Skeleton in the Closet and The Portrait of the Lady

In the obscurest corner of the room stood a tall and narrow oaken closet, with its door ajar, within which doubtfully appeared a skeleton. (3)

You've probably heard the metaphor of the skeleton in the closet before. The phrase refers to some sort of dark secret a person is keeping hidden. It's both hilarious and sinister that Dr. Heidegger literally has a skeleton in his closet. Not only is this a perfect example of the narrator's attitude and technique (see "Writing Style" and "Tone"), but it does wonders for the complexity of Dr. Heidegger's character. What is he hiding in his past, exactly? What is his metaphorical skeleton in the closet?

This brings us rather quickly to the issue of Heidegger's dead fiancée, which is one heck of a closeted skeleton (though, we soon see, not so carefully closeted). We see a large portrait of a young lady, and get a brief explanation from the narrator: "Dr. Heidegger had been on the point of marriage with this young lady; but, being afflicted with some slight disorder, she had swallowed one of her lover's prescriptions, and died on the bridal evening" (3).

This is not much of an explanation, as explanations go. It's incredibly ambiguous; did Dr. Heidegger prescribe the wrong drug for his fiancée? If so, was this accidental, or intentional? Is his medical incompetence to blame for her death? Or is there something even darker going on here? Another possibility is that his fiancée (we later find out her name was Sylvia) took one of the drugs in Heidegger's stores without consulting him first, accidentally causing her own death. Suicide seems less likely here, but again, because of the ambiguity of this line, not outside the realm of possibility. (Her "slight disorder" could have been psychological for all we know.)

The point is that these two items – the skeleton in the closet and the portrait on the wall – raise more questions about Dr. Heidegger than they answer. The real nature of his character – in particular whether he is benevolent or sinister – is one of the story's biggest questions.

The Mirror

Between two of the bookcases hung a looking-glass, presenting its high and dusty plate within a tarnished gilt frame. Among many wonderful stories related of this mirror, it was fabled that the spirits of all the doctor's deceased patients dwelt within its verge, and would stare him in the face whenever he looked thitherward. (3)

Again, this is rather creepy. The mirror, like the black folio and the skeleton in the closet, complicates Dr. Heidegger's character and adds yet another sinister shadow to a growing collection of dark secrets. If Dr. Heidegger has that many dead patients, we might wonder if he's a very good doctor at all. Is he haunted by their spirits? If so, is it because he is guilty for their deaths? Or does he simply feel guilty because he's a good man, yet bears no actual responsibility? Or perhaps he is not haunted by these spirits, but as with Hippocrates, consults with and can learn from them. We really can't be sure. Add this to the list of quasi-supernatural Heidegger riddles we can't quite crack.

You've also got the mirror playing an interesting role later in the text. As Heidegger's four guests romp about the study, "never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize" (41). The narrator goes continues:

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 shriveled grandma. (41)

First of all, there's quite a bit of narrative trickery here in the phrase "is said to." The mirror is said to have reflected the guests as old. Said by whom? Who is telling this story, anyway? This makes it sound like the narrator heard the tale from someone else, despite having earlier insinuated that he is the source. Weird.

Also, we don't know what to make of the mirror's reflection. It might mean that the elixir is real, but only transforms its drinkers physically. The mirror, which has its own mystical powers, is able to reflect the real nature of the romping guests (in their souls, they are still old). Or, it could be that the mirror is perfectly ordinary, and the elixir is totally fake. The mirror shows us reality, whereas the guests are prancing about in an alcohol-induced stupor. One thing we can be sure of is that Hawthorne wants us asking these questions; the mirror is just another detail that keeps us guessing.

The Black Folio

The greatest curiosity of the study remains to be mentioned; it was a ponderous folio volume, bound in black leather, with massive silver clasps. There were no letters on the back, and nobody could tell the title of the book. But it was well known to be a book of magic; and once, when a chambermaid had lifted it, merely to brush away the dust, the skeleton had rattled in its closet, the picture of the young lady had stepped one foot upon the floor, and several ghastly faces peeped forth from the mirror; while the brazen head of Hippocrates frowned, and said – "Forbear!" (3)

Well, that sounds important. This description of the black book jacks up the story's suspense and raises the supernatural stakes (as if dead spirits and skeletons were not enough, right?). We want to know what's in it, and we fully expect it to play a role in the story's plotline.

Sure enough, Dr. Heidegger soon opens the mysterious black book. Except he doesn't read from it, and we never get to know what's written on its "black-letter pages." Instead, he takes out from it a rose, which his dead fiancée had given him.

As with most of "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," there are different ways to deal with this. The supernatural interpretation is that the book really is magic – perhaps even beyond the realm of our understanding – and that the rose held on its pages is similarly mystical. It could also be that this is part of Dr. Heidegger's grand scheme to dupe his guests (and for the narrator to dupe his reader). All this theatricality – the skeleton, the magic mirror, the spooky black book – may be just that: a conjurer's show. The fanfare and spectacle distract and deceive so that we misconstrue a rather ordinary reality.

The Rose

The rose anticipates what happens to the guests. Dr. Heidegger first uses it to demonstrate the rejuvenating power of the elixir; and later it withers right before the same thing happens to the old guests. If you believe that the elixir is nothing more than alcohol, then the rose is a key part of the dramatic show that Heidegger puts on for his guests in order to convince them that they are in fact growing young and then old again.

You also have to consider the importance of the rose to Dr. Heidegger. He reveals that his fiancée, Silvia, gave him the rose to wear to his wedding. Now that she's dead, of course, the rose has great sentimental value. "I love it as well thus," the doctor says to the withered rose "as in its dewy freshness" (47). This is another example of Heidegger's wisdom in contrast to the folly of his guests. While they place importance solely on youth and beauty, Heidegger's emotions, like his character, are not so shallow.