The four people called to Dr. Heidegger’s study have known one another for more than fifty years. Each has been successful in some field of endeavor, but their successes were long ago. Now they are failures. Colonel Killigrew, whose title indicates that he rose in the ranks of the military, is a physical wreck. Mr. Medbourne has lost the fortune he amassed, and Mr. Gascoigne is such a failure as a politician that people do not even remember his shortcomings; they do not remember him at all. Clara Wycherly was loved because of her good looks, but aging has taken those looks away, leaving her vanity unfed.
The story indicates from the beginning that these people are unhappy when they arrive at the doctor’s house. When they are given the chance to be young again, they are happy once more, indicating that aging results in sadness and youth is the cause of happiness. This situation does not remain stable, though: after a while of enjoying their restored youth, of dancing and joking and carousing, they end up fighting each other with such destructive intensity that the thing that is most precious to them is destroyed. Their enjoyment is tainted by the ‘‘follies of youth’’ that Dr. Heidegger warns them about. The result of the experiment appears to be that the troubles that are associated with aging are actually problems that come from the bad behaviors that these individuals exhibit. The story does not examine what would happen if they followed the doctor’s advice and went into their second youth wisely, since none of them take that course.
The first thing that these four old acquaintances do when they are given back their youth is to revert back to their individual forms of foolishness. The men make proclamations about politics, commerce, and drink, while the Widow Wycherly stares at the mirror, engrossed in her own beauty, just as she was years ago. After a while, though, their separate obsessions meld into one. The men fight over the widow, and she encourages their fighting as a way of affirming her own attractiveness. They become so engrossed in their fighting, in fact, that they are willing to allow jealousy to destroy the one thing that has brought them happiness, the Water of Youth.
Dr. Heidegger could have expected these people to give in to jealousy, because that is how they behaved when they were together fifty years ago, when the men were all Clara Wycherly’s lovers. It seems likely that that is actually the outcome that he intended when he contacted them. If he had not wanted jealousy to be a part of his experiment, then he could have found subjects who did not have a romantic link.
Jealous behavior is not the first reaction each man falls to upon finding himself young, a fact that seems to indicate that Hawthorne sees jealousy as more than just another foolish behavior— it is the ultimate foolish behavior. Greed, gluttony, vanity, and hunger for power are all regrettable, but they can be acted on individually until they lead these foolish people to their independent downfalls, just as they did before. Jealousy, however, is able to destroy the happiness of all involved in just a matter of minutes.
Hawthorne prepares readers for the appearance of a supernatural elixir that can turn back the results of time by establishing Dr. Heidegger’s study as a place immersed in magic. The skeleton that is hanging in the closet, the mirror that shows the images of his former patients, the bust that allegedly talks, the book that is supposed to hold magical spells, and even the dust and the spider webs are all, even to this day, standard props in a story about mad scientists who cross the line between science and the supernatural. The sketchy story of Dr. Heidegger’s ill-fated wedding adds to the atmosphere. His fiance´ e died on the night before their wedding, and the doctor’s medicines had something to do with her death. When the mood is established, the water from the Fountain of Youth, a mysterious substance that can alter the fundamental course of time, is presented.
Although the mood is set to make a supernatural occurrence believable, Hawthorne holds back from claiming that any magic actually occurs. The weird events attributed to Dr. Heidegger’s study, such as the talking bust of Hippocrates, the strange images in the mirror, and the portrait of his dead fiance´ e coming alive, are all presented as gossip. The restoration of youth might be nothing more than the power of suggestion. The guests’ actual physical condition is carefully described in terms of how it seemed or how it looked, indicating that their youth might only be in their minds.
There are two supernatural occurrences in the story that are not easily explained away. The first is the rejuvenation of the old, withered rose when Dr. Heidegger drops it into the magic water. There seems to be no explanation for its new life other than the water’s supernatural properties. Skeptical readers, however, could assume that Dr. Heidegger, who has called his old acquaintances together to participate in an experiment about what they would do if they felt young again, may have found some way to perform a conjurer’s trick that is within the rules of nature. The story does not say this, though. Even more inexplicable is the dying butterfly that is touched by the Water of Youth and then flies up to settle on the doctor’s head. There is no explanation for this, as there is no way that Dr. Heidegger could have known that the vase would spill onto the floor where the butterfly lay. There is much in this story to indicate that its claims to supernatural events are a sham, but this one element hints that the supernatural actually does take place in Dr. Heidegger’s study.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale Group, 2010