There are different ways to appreciate a story like Hawthorne’s ‘‘Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment.’’ It is often read as a story about growing old gracefully, a message that is buoyed up by the creepy elements that make the story interesting. On the other hand, the fact that it is written by one of the great names of American literature means that the story earns itself serious consideration. In most cases, this means that critics are willing to accept the way that Hawthorne balances his story along the thin line that separates reality from fantasy, accepting that its psychological elements might be the key to a greater appreciation, even if it does seem simple. The psychological interpretation, however, often stops short, dismissing Hawthorne’s achievement as a moralistic lesson about accepting the inevitable. Dr. Heidegger himself is too often treated as a wise and benevolent force who enters the lives of his friends to, for some reason, make them better people, or maybe to make humanity better with his unexplained experiment. Literary critics, who give more attention to the author’s clearer allegories such as ‘‘The Minister’s Black Veil,’’ tend to treat Dr. Heidegger as just another one of the sinister trappings or background effects Hawthorne lavishly describes, and so they forget to look at him as a human.
To some degree, it is understandable that critics would dismiss Dr. Heidegger as being just another gothic element of the story. Hawthorne followed the romantic tradition of equating the person with his surroundings, and in doing so crossed the line that separates what can be considered symbolic and what should be considered real. Reading this as an example of Gothic romanticism, all that needs to be known about Dr. Heidegger is on display right there in the setting. The bust of Hippocrates, the reflections of his dead patients, the picture of his deceased fiance´ e, and the skeleton hanging in a wardrobe are not just props or hints; they are the sum of who he is. The problem with such a reading is that there is no way of confirming what is there and what is not. Hawthorne gives details about what is in the doctor’s study all right, but his narrator does not claim that they are factually true, only that they are things that have been rumored by unnamed persons. Without any claim of reality, the elements that seem to be supernatural are still grounded in common reality. Dr. Heidegger’s behavior, therefore, should be grounded in reality too.
In trying to understand a story like this, the first place to look is at the simplest interpretation, which is that it is just a good scare story, with a moral thrown in to justify the author’s use of Gothic elements, which really are there simply to amuse. This interpretation is supported by the fact that there is no clear reason for the careful, detailed description of Dr. Heidegger’s study. Readers know about the bust, the picture, the mirror, and the closet, as well as about the dust and cobwebs and books of various sizes. It is said that they all come to life when a maid touched an unmarked book, allegedly of magic, though the narrator does not claim to know that this is actually so. Without any solid confirmation, all readers really know is that the mood of Dr. Heidegger’s study is eerie.
Later in the story, evidence of real magic shows up. Dr. Heidegger takes a dead rose and drops it into the liquid that he claims is water from the Fountain of Youth that Spanish explorer Ponce de Leo´ n sought in Florida. The rose revivifies. He gives the water to four old friends—a drunk, a politician, a financier, and a flirt— whose lives burned out long ago from their wild ways. They come into his study old and bitter, but drinking the water makes them young again. A butterfly, lying on the floor to die, is unexpectedly splashed, and it flies with renewed energy, perching atop Dr. Heidegger’s head. The effects on the rose and the people can easily be explained by the doctor’s actions, while the butterfly, which is beyond his control, might just be an example of the principle that even in fiction random acts are due now and then.
Most psychological readings of this story assume that Dr. Heidegger is indeed a magician, but a magician in the modern sense: not an occultist but a showman. Reputation aside, there is nothing to show that he has any magical powers. The rose, for instance, changes its appearance just when he wants it to do so, in front of the people he has called together to witness exactly that event. Either he reverses the rose’s aging process or he simply makes them think that he has. In light of what goes on later in the story, the second seems most likely. The way that he makes his four acquaintances appear to be young is easily explained without resorting to any mystical explanations. Hawthorne is fairly clear that they are not drinking a magic potion, that they are simply getting drunk and losing the inhibitions that have grown in them over the years. He uses the word ‘‘liquor’’ to describe the water several times (this word has other meanings and does not necessarily refer to alcohol, but it does suggest it). He gives no indication that there is any real mystical transformation of the four old people, either, qualifying nearly every statement of their change with the caveat that it only appears that way. If they are just tricked into believing that the water they drank has made them young, then it would stand to reason that the doctor’s elaborate show with the dead flower is part of the trick, accomplished with some simple but unexplained sleight-of-hand.
Although it is easy to understand how Dr. Heidegger might manipulate his friends into thinking that they have turned young, finding out why he might do this requires some picking through the text. It could be that as a man of science, he is simply curious about what humans would do if they could regain their youth, and so he experiments on these four subjects in order to record their responses. It is a very unambitious experiment, though. If he wants to see the effects of the power of suggestion and a placebo, Dr. Heidegger could have chosen a wider range of subjects than four who are so similar, who have been acquainted with one another for more than half a century. His sampling base is neither broad nor varied.
Dr. Heidegger probably has more motivating him than just scientific curiosity. The key to understanding him must necessarily lie in his dead fiance´ e. Dr. Heidegger brings four people of dubious intelligence to his house, tells them he will make them young, shows them a flower made young, and then loosens their lips with drink. Certainly he cannot take their behavior as a surprise, or even a revelation. The experiment in ‘‘Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment’’ is not just a matter of seeing whether he can bend others to his will. The doctor is experimenting with himself.
If the Water of Youth is the fraud it appears to be, Dr. Heidegger knows all along that he has no question about whether to choose youth or not. There is, though, a choice to be made about whether to focus on the past or on the future. In this, the antics of his test subjects, who are old but behaving childishly, offer little help. A simple interpretation of the story might hold that the doctor learns from them that youth was and always will be a time of foolishness. A closer reading reveals that his lesson, his test result, is about how ill-served one is to focus on the past. Before the story, Dr. Heidegger has surrounded himself with memories. The picture of the young woman who died fifty years ago dominates his study, and the images of dead patients that show up in his mirror must be appearing to him, if to anyone. The bust of Hippocrates does not offer advice about magic or about medicine; when disturbed, the word it says is ‘‘forbear’’—that is, it commands the hearer to take no action or to show restraint.
It is naı¨ve to think that Dr. Heidegger finds out from this experiment only that he does not want to go back to his youth. Presumably, he knows that; the past haunts him like a skeleton in his closet, like the faces of his dead patients and his lost lover. What he learns from watching three men fighting over the one woman in the room is that he loves the present. The mark of his revelation is when he says that he loves the rose Sylvia gave him. Loves—present tense. If there is no magic and he has faked the whole situation, then he has always known that he can never go back to youth, a prospect that his four gullible friends never accept. What changes for Dr. Heidegger is that he decides to stop living his life by looking to the past. It is a colossal change for a man whose study is dominated by a painting of a woman who died fifty years earlier. He does not accept age, as so many interpretations have it. He embraces it.
This story is often underestimated. Hawthorne did such a good job of blending weird and interesting details together that readers tend to finish it with a feeling of satisfaction, even if they cannot quite say what the story is about. But Hawthorne was more than a masterful storyteller. He was a writer who understood the depth of his character. Most readers would be content to think that Dr. Heidegger has somehow learned to give up a dream of going back, though such a dream is never mentioned. His shift in focus toward the future, though, is a lesson that is worth learning, a result that makes his experiment worthwhile.