The idea of Youth in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”
On the surface, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is a story about several troubled adults who are given the chance to go back to their youths and enjoy their former, more beautiful selves. The idea of youth in this story, however, is much deeper than that. Youth is used as a metaphor to represent psychological growth, recklessness, and human nature. This short story explores the idea that mistakes or errors inherently come with youth and even if one could go back in time, one would likely make the same mistakes.
First, youth is represented by psychological growth — a period in life when one makes mistakes and learn lessons from those mistakes. This metaphor is illustrated in Dr. Heidegger’s choice of people for the experiment and the whole idea behind Dr. Heidegger’s experiment. Dr. Heidegger chooses three elderly people who have experienced some scandal or fall from fame in their lives. His whole motive behind this experiment is to see if these troubled people will actually learn from their big mistakes and correct them. This is shown when he says,”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” (Hawthorne 241). In the reality, nobody gets the “peculiar advantages” of being able to go back in time with the wisdom of life experience. Hawthorne is trying to illustrate that mistakes inherently come with youth and that the only way to grow is by trying to learn from them.
Second, youth is used as a metaphor to represent the recklessness and poor decision-making that is shown in the actions of the three guests once they become youthful again. Immediately after the widow and two men drink the water of youth and become young once again, they begin to mock their elderly selves. Instead of learning from their prior experience and putting it to use, they throw it aside and mock it. In addition, the two men revert to their youthful, immature ways and begin to fight over the now beautiful widow. They both want to dance with her and before long they are grappling at each other’s throats. To justify this, the narrator says, “But they were young: their burning passions proved them so. Inflamed to madness by the coquetry of the girl-widow.” (Hawthorne 244) In this aspect, Hawthorne explores the idea that with youth comes recklessness. Even with their prior experience and wisdom, the three guests’ newfound youth and “burning passion” makes them revert back to their immature ways. Youth makes one feel as if nothing is permanent and that there will be a chance to fix everything later. So, even if one could go back in time, one would likely make the same mistakes because of getting caught up in the moment and thinking recklessly.
Third, the idea of youth is used as a metaphor in this story to represent human nature. This metaphor is displayed at the end of the story when the three guests spill the rest of the water of youth and Dr. Heidegger concludes his experiment. While the three guests are fighting regarding over immature reasons, they knock down the vase and render the remainder of the water of youth useless. At this sight, Dr. Heidegger comes to a conclusion. He says, “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” (Hawthorne 246). The experiment has taught Dr. Heidegger that it is human nature to make mistakes and get caught up in the recklessness of youth – there is no getting around it. However, it is more wise to learn from these mistakes and move on than to go chase youth and try to change what has already happened. The three guests spend the rest of their lives searching for the Fountain of Youth. Clearly, they did not learn the same lesson Dr. Heidegger did.
In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” youth is used as a metaphor to represent psychological growth, recklessness, and human nature. In this story, Nathaniel Hawthorne is trying to show that mistakes come inherently with youth and that even if one could go back in time, one would be very prone to making the same errors. Nonetheless, that does not mean that people cannot learn from their errors instead of letting their youthful mistakes destroy them.
Blaisdell, Bob, ed. The Dover Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2014. Print. From the Origins through Civil War.
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