Study Guide

Dr. Heidegger's Experiment Versions of Reality

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Versions of Reality

"My dear old friends,'' said Dr. Heidegger, motioning them to be seated, "I am desirous of your assistance in one of those little experiments with which I amuse myself here in my study.'' (2)

This is a very telling line with regards to Dr. Heidegger's character. The word "amuse" should jump out at the reader – it suggests that Heidegger already knows the outcome of his little "experiment" and is simply watching his four poor guests squander their youth – again – for his own pleasure.

If all stories were true, Dr. Heidegger's study must have been a very curious place. (3)

Notice how the narrator calls his own statements into question. Just like Dr, Heidegger's guests, the reader isn't sure of exactly what's happening here.

It was a dim, old-fashioned chamber, festooned with cobwebs, and besprinkled with antique dust. (3)

The narrator's word choice is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Words like "festooned" and "besprinkled" exaggerate the anachronistic, spooky nature of the Doctor's study. The prose, too, is somewhat curious and out of place.

Such was Dr. Heidegger's study. On the summer afternoon of our tale a small round table, as black as ebony, stood in the centre of the room, sustaining a cut-glass vase of beautiful form and elaborate workmanship. The sunshine came through the window, between the heavy festoons of two faded damask curtains, and fell directly across this vase; so that a mild splendor was reflected from it on the ashen visages of the five old people who sat around. (4)

There is an air of theatricality to this set-up – almost as though Dr. Heidegger is putting on a show.

Now Dr. Heidegger was a very strange old gentleman, whose eccentricity had become the nucleus for a thousand fantastic stories. Some of these fables, to my shame be it spoken, might possibly be traced back to my own veracious self; and if any passages of the present tale should startle the reader's faith, I must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction monger. (6)

This is an odd and somewhat confusing paragraph. The narrator suggests that he is the source of many stories about Dr. Heidegger – but are these stories true or not? He uses the word "veracious," which basically means "truth-telling." It's possible that this is used ironically; the narrator admits that he has made-up these tales and then calls himself "veracious" with a touch of sarcasm. On the other hand, he might be asserting that these tales are true, but with little or no faith that we'll believe him. He's reconciled himself to this, as we see in the final line.

While he spoke, Dr. Heidegger had been filling the four champagne glasses with the water of the Fountain of Youth. It was apparently impregnated with an effervescent gas, for little bubbles were continually ascending from the depths of the glasses, and bursting in silvery spray at the surface. As the liquor diffused a pleasant perfume, the old people doubted not that it possessed cordial and comfortable properties; and though utter skeptics as to its rejuvenescent power, they were inclined to swallow it at once. (18)

This can be read as a metaphor for the narrator's story, in which we, his guests, are drinking the liquor, or reading his story. We may be skeptical – we very much doubt, as he earlier asserted, that this all really happened – but we're entertained enough by the "pleasant aroma" of his bubbling prose to stick around and take a nice long sip.

While the bubbles were yet sparkling on the brim, the doctor's four guests snatched their glasses from the table, and swallowed the contents at a single gulp. Was it delusion? even while the draught was passing down their throats, it seemed to have wrought a change on their whole systems. (26)

Notice that the narrator poses the very question we as readers ought to be wondering: "Was it delusion?" Hawthorne makes sure that we are aware of the text's ambiguity by drawing our attention to it time and time again.

His guests shivered again. A strange chillness, whether of the body or spirit they could not tell, was creeping gradually over them all. They gazed at one another, and fancied that each fleeting moment snatched away a charm, and left a deepening furrow where none had been before. 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)

The uncertainty of the guests – and of the narrative – increases as the story nears its conclusion. As readers, we are only met with more questions and ambiguity.