Mr. Gascoigne is one of the three former suitors of the Widow Wycherly to be summoned to Dr. Heidegger’s house to participate in the doctor’s experiment. When he was young, Mr. Gascoigne was a politician, but he had lost any prospects he had in politics. First, he acquired a bad reputation, though Hawthorne does not say what his bad reputation is based on or whether it is deserved. As if that were not bad enough, after his reputation was ruined, he was then forgotten, which Hawthorne implies might be an even worse fate for a person who lived to be in the public eye.
Once the Water of Youth has transformed Mr. Gascoigne, his mind goes back to the same state it once had as well. While the others are reveling in their young looks and their ability to perform physical feats that were beyond their capacity when they arrived at the doctor’s study, Mr. Gascoigne stands and gives speeches on political topics. His speeches are not very focused, however, and cover only such vague but important-sounding subjects as patriotism and glory. The story specifically states that someone hearing his speech would not be able to tell whether Mr. Gascoigne was talking about the current political situation or about matters that were contemporary when he was a young, active politician.
Mr. Gascoigne joins with the other two men who participated in the experiment in fighting for the attention of the Widow Wycherly. In struggling with them to keep his hold on her, they all bump the table, knocking over the vase that holds the Water of Youth and spilling it on the floor. Like the others, though, Mr. Gascoigne does not look at his experience as a sign that he would only waste a new chance at youth. Instead, he enters into a pact with them at the end of the story to try to find the real Fountain of Youth, apparently thinking that he can control the foolishness that came out of him while under the water’s influence.
Dr. Heidegger is the main character of this story. Hawthorne is not entirely clear about who Dr. Heidegger is. The bust of Hippocrates in his study and the fact that he prescribed medicine for his fiance´ e indicate that he is probably a medical doctor. However, he refers several times to bringing his friends together and giving them the alleged Water of Youth as an ‘‘experiment,’’ indicating that his studies might also be in the field of philosophy, which at that time would have included psychology. It is suggested but not confirmed that he has an interest in the supernatural. He dwells in a creepy study with cobwebs and dust and old books, but there is nothing in the story to support the superstitious rumors about it. The big black unmarked book is said to be a book of magic, but the doctor never reads any incantations from it. Rumors say that he can see the images of dead patients when he looks in his mirror, but those are just rumors. The news that mystical things happened cleaning woman touched the magic book has no support beyond the word of the frightened woman herself.
What is known about Dr. Heidegger is that he is old, like the other characters in the story. Fifty-five years earlier, he was engaged to marry a woman named Sylvia Ward, but, in response to ‘‘some slight disorder,’’ she ‘‘swallowed one of her lover’s prescriptions’’ and died on the night before their wedding.
Dr. Heidegger gathers four old friends to his house to participate in an experiment. To prove that the water he has in the vase on the table is actually enchanted water from the Fountain of Youth, he puts a shriveled rose into it, and the rose becomes new and fresh. He warns his friends to not behave as they did the last time they were young. As his friends drink the water, Dr. Heidegger sits back and watches their behavior. His experiment is not about the powers of the water but rather about the ways that people behave when given a chance to be young again. The story is ambiguous as to whether the water actually makes them young or just makes them think they were made young.
In the end, Dr. Heidegger declares that what he has seen makes him not want to ever be young again. He says he loves Sylvia’s rose as much when it is old as he did when it was young, and he feels he would, like his friends, act like a fool if given a second chance.
Colonel Killigrew is one of the three former suitors of the Widow Wycherly to be summoned to Dr. Heidegger’s house to participate in the doctor’s experiment. All are about the same age, but Colonel Killigrew seems to be in worse physical shape than the others: he ‘‘wasted his best years.. .in the pursuit of sinful pleasures.’’ What this means is unclear, but it implies a wide range of possible afflictions, such as drug or alcohol addiction or sexually transmitted diseases. One ailment that is specifically mentioned is gout, which is a form of arthritis that is generally associated with eating rich, fatty foods.
Like the three other men who participate in Dr. Heidegger’s experiment, Colonel Killigrew has a history with the Widow Wycherly, and his rivalry made him almost want to kill the others at one time. In the fifty years since he dated her, Colonel Killigrew’s body has deteriorated. When Dr. Heidegger gives them the Water of Youth, Killigrew is skeptical about how it will affect their aged bodies. Like the others, though, he finds himself able to once again perform physical feats that he felt were behind him. He is the first of the men to turn his attention to Widow Wycherly once the rejuvenating formula works, noticing the change in her before the others. As they all become absorbed in their newfound youth, the Colonel reverts to the old ways that caused the wreckage of his body. He sings drinking songs, clanging the side of his glass in accompaniment, and he keeps his eye on the newly young Widow Wycherly. He is the first one to reach out to the widow, asking her to dance with him, which leads the others to reach out to her too. Their competition ends in a wrestling match that causes the table to shake, spilling the water that is left.
Colonel Killigrew does not learn from his experience. Rather than giving up the idea of regaining his youth and accepting that youthful pursuits were what wrecked him, he makes a pact with the other three subjects of the experiment to go to Florida and hunt down the fabled Fountain of Youth.
Mr. Medbourne is one of the three former suitors of the Widow Wycherly to be summoned to Dr. Heidegger’s house to participate in the doctor’s experiment. Once, long ago, Mr. Medbourne was wealthy, having made his fortune as a merchant, but he made risky investments that turned out badly. He is now very poor: ‘‘little better than a mendicant,’’ or beggar.
When Dr. Heidegger gives his guests a drink that will make them young again, Mr. Medbourne does not raise any objection. He goes along with the others and drinks the proffered potion. As he feels younger, he, like the others, falls back to his old ways. He becomes preoccupied with adding up figures of dollars and cents in his head. Then he comes up with a new moneymaking scheme, calculating how much there is to be made if he were to harness a team of whales and have them tow icebergs from the polar regions to the tropics of the East Indies, to sell ice.
As the men become younger, they all, including Mr. Medbourne, become involved in a brawl for the Widow Wycherly’s attention. Mr. Medbourne says that she offered him her hand in marriage a half a century earlier. When the Water of Youth is spilled, he does not realize that he behaved like a fool under its influence; instead, Mr. Medbourne joins with the others, who moments earlier had been his rivals, in a plan to go to Florida and hunt down the real Fountain of Youth.
The Widow Wycherly is the woman who has been romantically involved with the other three people summoned to Dr. Heidegger’s house to participate in his experiment. Clara Wycherly was romantically involved with Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, and Mr. Gascoigne at one time. The story implies that all three were courting her at the same time, since they once would have killed one another over her. Their involvement was more than fifty years ago.
In the years since then, the Widow Wycherly has been living a life of seclusion; some of the townspeople are biased against her because of some unspecified scandals. When she is reunited with her three old lovers, they show little interest in her, but when they are all given the Water of Youth to drink, the Widow Wycherly moves over to the mirror, entranced to see that the beauty that had left her with age is returning. The men notice the same thing. At first they pester her for a dance, but then, as they notice that they all want her attention, a fight breaks out among them. Clara Wycherly, who once centered her life around her beauty and the admirers of that beauty, does nothing to stop their fight: she struggles against them as they all grab for her, but only slightly, allowing them all to keep a hold on her. This fight results in the Water of Youth being spilled out on the floor, giving them all a chance to see that they have been behaving like fools in the same ways that caused them to lose their good names. They pay no attention to the opportunity for a lesson, however, and the Widow Wycherly, with the others, pledges to try to find the Fountain of Youth, apparently seeing no problem with their behavior.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale Group, 2010