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Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment is a short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 19th century. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment is about a doctor who claims to have water from the fountain of youth. He then he invites his friends over and conducts an experiment on them. He uses the water from the fountain of youth and makes them young again, but they break the vase holding the water and it wears off. Nathaniel Hawthorne is an American novelist and writer. He is known for his allegorical tales and excellent usage of literary devices. In Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment, Hawthorne uses symbolism, allegory and characterization to describe how people don’t learn from their mistakes.
Hawthorne uses the characterization of Dr. Heidegger to describe how people don’t learn from their mistakes. Right before Dr. Heidegger lets his friends drink the water from the fountain of youth he says, “‘Before you drink, my respectable old friends,’ said he, ‘it would be well that, with the experience of a lifetime to direct you, you should draw up a few general rules for your guidance, in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it would be, if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!'” (Holt 231). Dr. Heidegger is characterized as uninterested in the how growing young again happens, or how the water from the fountain works. It is also revealed that Dr. Heidegger is wise, and is seeking answers about people’s behaviour and the folly of man. Dr. Heidegger has the intention of testing whether if given the opportunity, will people change their ways and learn from their mistakes. After the vase holding the water from the fountain breaks, Dr. Heidegger says, “Yes, friends, ye are old again,” said Dr. Heidegger, “and lo! the Water of Youth is all lavished on the ground. Well–I bemoan it not; for if the fountain gushed at my very doorstep, I would not stoop to bathe my lips in it–no, though its delirium were for years instead of moments. Such is the lesson ye have taught me!'” (235). It is revealed that Dr. Heidegger is curious about whether one will learn from his/her mistakes of the past. Dr. Heidegger’s experiment’s hypothesis that people don’t learn from their mistakes was proven to be accurate. “For my own part, having had much trouble in growing old, I’m in no hurry to grow young again” (231). Dr. Heidegger is characterized as one who values age and experience which he understands gives him wisdom. He remembers the mistakes he made in the past and learns from it.
Hawthorne wrote Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment as allegory, where the four friends taking part in the experiment stand for mistakes and flaws which they don’t change, to describe how people don’t learn from their mistakes. As Hawthorne introduces the characters at the beginning of the short story he writes, “Mr. Medbourne, in the vigor of his age, had been a prosperous merchant, but had lost his all by a frantic speculation, and was now little better than a mendicant” (228). Mr. Medbourne stands for greed. He lost money making bad business decisions in the past. After the four friends transformed into their younger selves, Hawthorne writes, “Mr. Medbourne was involved in a calculation of dollars and cents, with which was strangely intermingled a project for supplying the East Indies with ice, by harnessing a team of whales to the polar icebergs” (233). Mr. Medbourne made the same foolish greedy business ventures again when he transformed. He has not learned from his mistakes. As Hawthorne introduces the characters at the beginning of the short story he writes, “Colonel Killigrew had wasted his best years, and his health and substance, in the pursuit of sinful pleasures, which had given birth to a brood of pains, such as the gout, and divers other torments of soul and body” (228). He also describes Colonel Killgrew later in the story, “Colonel Killigrew’s compliments were not always measured by sober truth” (232). Colonel Killigrew stands for dishonesty and sin. He was a liar and pursued sinful pleasures, such as drinking and lusting. After the four friends transformed into their younger selves, Hawthorne writes, “Colonel Killigrew all this time had been trolling forth a jolly bottle song, and ringing his glass in symphony with the chorus, while his eyes wandered toward the buxom figure of the Widow Wycherly” (233). Colonel Killigrew is once again lusting and drinking excessively when he transformed. He is repeating the mistakes he made in the past. As Hawthorne introduces the characters at the beginning of the short story he writes, “Mr. Gascoigne was a ruined politician, a man of evil fame, or at least had been so till time had buried him from the knowledge of the present generation, and made him obscure instead of infamous” (228). Mr. Gascoigne stands for stagnation. He failed as politician due to the lack of new ideas. After the four friends transformed into their younger selves, Hawthorne writes, “Mr. Gascoigne’s mind seemed to run on political topics, but whether relating to the past, present, or future, could not easily be determined, since the same ideas and phrases have been in vogue these fifty years” (233). His mind ran on the same ideas and topics just as he did in the past. He didn’t learn from his mistakes and change. As Hawthorne introduces the characters at the beginning of the short story he writes, “As for the Widow Wycherly, tradition tells us that she was a great beauty in her day; but, for a long while past, she had lived in deep seclusion, on account of certain scandalous stories which had prejudiced the gentry of the town against her” (228). Widow Wycherly stands for vanity and promiscuity. She was very beautiful and did many scandalous things which forced her to go into hiding. After the four friends transformed into their younger selves, Hawthorne writes, “As for the Widow Wycherly, she stood before the mirror courtesying and simpering to her own image, and greeting it as the friend whom she loved better than all the world beside. She thrust her face close to the glass, to see whether some long-remembered wrinkle or crow’s foot had indeed vanished. She examined whether the snow had so entirely melted from her hair that the venerable cap could be safely thrown aside” (233). Hawthorne also writes, “‘Doctor, you dear old soul,’ cried she, ‘gets up and dance with me!'” (234). Widow Wycherly is repeating her obsession with looks and vanity. She is also not changing her old promiscuous ways. She doesn’t learn from her mistakes. When introducing the characters, Hawthorne also writes, “It is a circumstance worth mentioning that each of these three old gentlemen, Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, and Mr. Gascoigne, were early lovers of the Widow Wycherly, and had once been on the point of cutting each other’s throats for her sake” (228). The three men used to fight over Wycherly. This conflict between the characters stands for hate. After the transformation, Hawthorne also writes, “‘Dance with me, Clara!” cried Colonel Killigrew. ‘No, no, I will be her partner!’ shouted Mr. Gascoigne. ‘She promised me her hand, fifty years ago!’ exclaimed Mr. Medbourne. They all gathered round her. One caught both her hands in his passionate grasp another threw his arm about her waist–the third buried his hand among the glossy curls that clustered beneath the widow’s cap. Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself, yet still remained in their triple embrace” (234). The four of them repeated what happened in the past and the men started fighting over Wycherly again. They all again didn’t learn from their mistakes.
Hawthorne uses symbolism of items belonging to Dr. Heidegger to describe how people don’t learn from their mistakes. When describing Dr. Heidegger’s study, it says, “Between two of the bookcases hung a looking-glass, presenting its high and dusty plate within a tarnished gilt frame. Among many wonderful stories related of this mirror, it was fabled that the spirits of all the doctor’s deceased patients dwelt within its verge, and would stare him in the face whenever he looked thitherward” (229). The mirror symbolizes Dr. Heidegger’s failures as a doctor. The mirror reminds him of those failures and he learns from them. After the transformation and when they are fighting over Wycherly, it says, “Never was there a lovelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty as the prize. Yet by some strange deception, owning to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of three, old, gray, withered grand-sires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grand-dam” (234). The mirror reveals that they are making the same mistakes as they did in the past and how foolish they are. The mirror symbolizes their repetition of those mistakes. When first introducing the experiment Dr Hiedegger says, “‘This rose,’ said Dr. Heidegger, with a sigh, ‘this same withered and crumbling flower, blossomed five and fifty years ago. It was given me by Sylvia Ward, whose portrait hangs yonder; and I meant to wear it in my bosom at our wedding. Five and fifty years it has been treasured between the leaves of this old volume. Now, would you deem it possible that this rose of half a century could ever bloom again?'” (230). Dr. Heidegger kept this rose as a reminder of his mistakes in his relationship with his dead wife. It symbolizes Dr. Heidegger’s learned lessons of the past. Also in the description of Dr. Heidegger’s study, it says, “In the obscurest corner of the room stood a tall and narrow oaken closet, with its door ajar, within which doubtfully appeared a skeleton” (229).The skeleton symbolizes people’s refusal to learn from their mistakes and as a result being internally dead. The skeleton being kept in the closet reveals that Dr. Heidegger has past horrible mistakes that he now learns from.
The usage of the literary devices characterization, allegory and symbolism by Hawthorne excellently reveals the theme of the story, which is that people don’t learn from their mistakes. Hawthorne characterizes Dr. Heidegger as wise and seeking answers about people’s behavior. Dr. Heidegger’s real intention of the experiment was to find out whether his friends will learn from their mistakes. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment is written as an allegory. The four friends taking part in the experiment stand for the mistakes of the past which stay unchanged. Mr. Medbourne represents greed, Colonel Killigrew represents dishonesty and sin, Mr. Gascoigne represents stagnation, and Widow Wycherly represents vanity and promiscuity. The three men’s conflict over Widow Wycherly represents hate. Items owned by Dr. Heidegger symbolize different aspects of learning from mistakes. The mirror represents Dr. Heidegger’s mistakes as a doctor and the repetition of mistake. The rose symbolizes Dr. Heidegger’s learned lessons of the past. The skeleton symbolizes Dr. Heidegger’s mistakes and also people not learning from their mistakes.
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