Study Guide

Dr. Heidegger's Experiment Foolishness and Folly

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Foolishness and Folly

That very singular man, old Dr. Heidegger, once invited four venerable friends to meet him in his study. (1)

It's interesting that the narrator uses the word "venerable" to describe Heidegger's four guests. Venerable means worthy of respect, often because of age and wisdom. Yet Heidegger's four guests are anything but. Indeed, the story seems to prove that old age and wisdom do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Mr. Medbourne, in the vigor of his age, had been a prosperous merchant, but had lost his all by a frantic speculation, and was now little better than a mendicant. Colonel Killigrew had wasted his best years, and his health and substance, in the pursuit of sinful pleasures, which had given birth to a brood of pains, such as the gout, and divers other torments of soul and body. Mr. Gascoigne was a ruined politician, a man of evil fame, or at least had been so till time had buried him from the knowledge of the present generation, and made him obscure instead of infamous. As for the Widow Wycherly, tradition tells us that she was a great beauty in her day; but, for a long while past, she had lived in deep seclusion, on account of certain scandalous stories which had prejudiced the gentry of the town against her. (1)

Each of Heidegger's four guests represents a different vice. Each has squandered his or her youth in a different way.

Before proceeding further, I will merely hint that Dr. Heidegger and all his foul guests were sometimes thought to be a little beside themselves. (1)

This is one of the rare lines in the text where we explicitly see the narrator's judgment of Dr. Heidegger's guests (he calls them "foul," which is pretty clear as judgments go).

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

This adds to our growing notion that there is something odd – possibly supernatural – about Dr. Heidegger. Not only are the objects in his study somewhat mystical (like the black folio or the skeleton in the closet), but Dr. Heidegger himself has a supernatural relationship with these objects (in plain words, he talks to a statue on his bookshelf).

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.'' (20-21)

As readers, we are in on Dr. Heidegger's little joke here. He knows that the guests are full of it – he anticipates their foolish behavior. When he says that he's chosen well, however, he means it – just not in the way his guests interpret. He has chosen them well in the sense that they will affirm his hypothesis about the folly of youth.

"Patience, patience!'' quoth Dr. Heidegger, who sat watching the experiment with philosophic coolness. (25)

Dr. Heidegger's wisdom is contrasted with the foolishness of his guests. Even his name – Doctor Heidegger – gives him a certain gravitas. This mention of his "philosophic coolness" adds an interesting dimension to this gravitas. He is not just a medical doctor, but a philosopher as well. This brings us back to the statue of Hippocrates – check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more.

"My poor Sylvia's rose!'' ejaculated Dr. Heidegger, holding it in the light of the sunset clouds; "it appears to be fading again.''

And so it was. Even while the party were looking at it, the flower continued to shrivel up, till it became as dry and fragile as when the doctor had first thrown it into the vase. He shook off the few drops of moisture which clung to its petals.

"I love it as well thus as in its dewy freshness,'' observed he, pressing the withered rose to his withered lips. (45-47)

Dr. Heidegger's quiet serenity contrasts with the loud, raucous, foolishness of his guests. He has a wisdom and a gravitas that they lack.

But the doctor's four friends had taught no such lesson to themselves. They resolved forthwith to make a pilgrimage to Florida, and quaff at morning, noon, and night, from the Fountain of Youth. (52)

Clearly, the guests are as foolish as ever. But take a closer look at Hawthorne's word choice here – why does he choose to call their journey a "pilgrimage"?