‘‘Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment’’ begins Dr. Heidegger has four old acquaintances meet him in the study of his home. They are Mr. Medbourne, a once-prosperous merchant who has lost his fortune; Colonel Killigrew, who ruined his body with food and drink; Mr. Gascoigne, a former politician who has fallen into obscurity; and the Widow Wycherly, who was once a great beauty with a scandalous reputation but has lost her looks as she aged. At one time, the three men were all violently in competition with each other for Widow Wycherly’s attentions. All of the people in the room—Dr. Heidegger and his four guests—are far advanced in age, and they all behave in a worried manner, which the narrator explains is normal for old people.
Dr. Heidegger’s study is a strange, mystical place. Caked in dust and cobwebs, it is filled with unusual artifacts that indicate the unusual interests of its owner. There are folios (large books), of which the most striking is a leather-bound volume with silver clasps, which is rumored to be a book about magic. No one dares to open it, and rumor has it that a maid once touched it and the inanimate objects in the room moved about. There are regular-sized books, quartos, which are a quarter of the folio size, and duodecimos, a twelfth of the size of folios. There is a bust of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek philosopher who is credited with a logical, scientific approach to medicine. When he finds himself faced with difficult problems while he is pursuing his practice, the narrator says, Dr. Heidegger sometimes talks to the Hippocrates bust. A closet has its door ajar, and the people in the room can see a skeleton hanging in it. There is also a large mirror and a full-length portrait of a young lady. The narrator explains that the woman in the painting (later identified as Sylvia Ward), was engaged to be married to Dr. Heidegger more than fifty years earlier, but that she became sick with a minor illness, took some of the doctor’s medicine, and died. In the mirror, the faces of former patients of Dr. Heidegger, dead now, appear when he looks at it. In the middle of the room is a table that holds a vase and four champagne glasses. Dr. Heidegger explains to his four guests that he has called them to his study to participate in one of his experiments.
The doctor takes the black folio book and opens it, but instead of reading from it, he takes out a pressed rose. It was given to him, he says, by his fiance´ e, to wear at their wedding. He drops the dried old flower into the vase on the table, and as it floats there, it becomes young and fresh again; its stem becomes green, and its leaves deepen in their redness. The assembled people say that it must be a trick, but Dr. Heidegger explains that a friend of his who was in Florida, searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth that brought the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leo´ n to that area, actually found it, and sent him a bottle of its magical waters. His experiment is to give this youthregenerating water to the four people he has called together. Dr. Heidegger feels that growing old was enough trouble the first time, so he himself will not drink the elixir, but will only watch them.
Just before giving his guests the water, which is effervescent like champagne or some mineral waters, Dr. Heidegger warns them: they should remember that with this second chance they should not make the same mistakes that they made the first time they were young. They find the idea that they might follow the old ways ridiculous, and they laugh and then drink the water down.
As soon as they have drunk the water, they all start looking younger. They look at each other and see the color coming back to their pale faces and the wrinkles smoothing out in their skin. The Widow Wycherly asks for more of the enchanted water. Dr. Heidegger asks everyone to be patient, but says the water is there for them to take, and so they all have another drink.
After the second drink, they seem even younger. Widow Wycherly goes to the mirror to stare at herself, while the three men act as they did when they were young. Mr. Gascoigne makes declarations about his political opinions, though they are so generalized that it is difficult to tell whether he is talking about modern politics or the political situations from fifty years ago. Colonel Killigrew, who squandered his youth with hard drinking, sings an old drinking song, clanging his glass to accompany his vocals. Mr. Medbourne thinks up a new money-making scheme that involves training whales to drag icebergs, to sell ice to the tropical islands of the East Indies. After staring at her newly young image for a while, Widow Wycherly asks for more water, and Dr. Heidegger supplies it.
With this drink, they all become even younger still. They take to mocking the old, decrepit people they had been, laughing as they walk around stiffly, amused that they are wearing the kind of clothes old people would wear. They pantomime reading with glasses, which they do not need any more, and one sits stiffly and sternly in a chair, imitating Dr. Heidegger, who is still old.
The Widow Wycherly steps up to Dr. Heidegger and asks him to dance with her, but he declines, saying that he is too old. In short succession, though, the three other men, her former suitors, come to ask her to dance with them. They all reach for her at once. One grabs her hands, one her waist, and one her head. As they tussle, the mirror shows Widow Wycherly to still be the same thin, pale, old woman she was before she drank the water.
As the three men wrestle with each other, they knock against the table, tipping over the vase holding the water: it falls to the floor and shatters. On the floor is an old, dying butterfly. Once the spilled water hits the butterfly, it rejuvenates and takes flight, landing on Dr. Heidegger’s head.
The crash of the vase and the loss of the remaining water shocks them, and they turn quiet and return to their seats. Dr. Heidegger walks over to the rose that Sylvia gave him and picks it up, noting that it is already fading and aging. He says that he still loves it just as much when it is aged as he did in when it was young and fresh.
His guests notice that they are turning old again, too. They complain to the doctor about this, and he points out that the effect of the Water of Youth lasts no longer than the effect of wine would. The lesson that he has learned from watching how they behaved, Dr. Heidegger tells them, is that he would not drink the water from the Fountain of Youth even if an endless supply of it poured to his door.
The story ends by noting that the doctor’s four friends learned nothing from their experience. They make a pact to go to Florida and find the Fountain of Youth.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale Group, 2010