Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1837)
Tuesday’s Tale of Terror July 2, 2013
Since it’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birth date anniversary on July 4, I chose this week to feature one of his short stories. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment deals with aging, a dash of morality, and the tampering with nature.
Do we shun the old? Do we fear our own old age and decline, or do we value the wisdom of experience? What horrors to find ourselves wrinkled, sagging, grey, stumbling through our end years with knotted joints and weakened muscles. What if you found the legendary fountain of youth? Would you drink the elixir? Then what?
Dr. Heidegger is an eccentric old man who lost his bride-to-be, Sylvia, the night before their wedding. It is some fifty years later since Sylvia gave him a rose to wear on their wedding day—a rose he kept inside a book all this time. We are in his study, a chamber with cobwebs and books, a skeleton in the closet, a bust of Hippocrates who is said to converse with the good doctor from time to time.
Such a chamber would not be complete without a magic mirror whose glass might reveal faces of the good doctor’s deceased patients. And of course, a black book of magic.
Dr. Heidegger has invited four of his oldest friends to his study: a politician, a merchant, a womanizer, and a once beautiful woman. Heidegger is conducting an experiment. On the table is Sylvia’s withered rose, a tall vase of water, four goblets. He pours from the vase, filling the goblets. Out comes a clear bubbling liquid that sparkles like diamonds. He places the withered dry rose into the water and the four friends watch the rose curl back into a moist bloom, fresh, green, with delicate bright red leaves.
A pretty deception? Or does that water have true healing powers?
“Drink!” says the good doctor.
With palsied and veined hands, the four friends raise the glasses to their lips.
If you know Hawthorne’s work, you know he wrote rather dark views of human nature; his uses of symbolism and allegory to communicate his messages are classic. So, what happens to these four friends? Watch for the dark chill of the butterfly as it flutters in the chamber. Do you think the good doctor knew the results of his experiment ahead of time?
For a full text read, go to Online Literature:
Also, I have two film adaptations of the short story that are quite good if you happen to enjoy vintage productions.
YouTube presents Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment (30 minutes) as part of Twice-Told Tales (three tales including House of Seven Gables and Rappaccini’s Daughter) starring Vincent Price, Richard Denning, and Sebastian Cabot. This adaptation is much altered, the story line different, and the ending has an interesting twist. I actually liked this film better than the original short story:
Short Story Showcase presents Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment on film at Encyclopedia Britannica.com, a precise classic adaptation of the story as Hawthorne wrote it:
I’d love to hear your comments about the Vincent Price film.