Allegory and symbols in Dr. Heidegger's Experiment by N. Hawthorne


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Allegory and symbols in Dr. Heidegger's Experiment by N. Hawthorne ( Korotina M.).


Nathaniel Hawthorne is remembered as one of the greatest shot-story writers of American literature. And one of the reasons for his popularity is that he saw each human life as a single unit, a separate, isolated case of conscience. Due to the fact that he was a Puritan, Hawthorne was mainly interested in what happened in the minds and hearts of people when they were conscious that they had done something wrong. In the story “Dr. Heidegger's Experiment” he mainly focuses on the problem of a man's making the same mistakes if given a chance and analyses the changes in this man's nature with the help of allegory and symbols.


A symbol is “something that represents something else, an object that has a meaning beyond itself. The object is concrete and the meaning is abstract” (Griffith, 75). Symbols are used throughout the whole story and it is the characters themselves that are primarily regarded as symbols..

First of all, Dr. Heidegger himself can be regarded as a symbol. He plays a quasi-god role, as he is given the right and the ability to control magic. He is just a magician at the beginning of the story and he is "Father Time" at the end. He is "god" when he plays with the natural order of things and the very souls of his friends. He takes no risk, does not drink the water, but he irreversibly corrupts the minds and hearts of others. He also represents an alternative to other four characters (Mr. Medboune, Colonel Killigrew, Mr. Bascoigne and Widow Wycherly). Heidegger, like the others, is a failure, though he learns from the mistakes of his youth and understands the wisdom that is derived from age and experience. He himself states that he is “in no hurry to grow young again". Mocking at old age again ("strove to imitate the venerable dignity of Dr. Heidegger"), the author emphasizes that the doctor is an intelligent person, who knows that losing years of life would require losing the wisdom that comes with age. The other characters of the story are also regarded as symbols.

Mr. Medbourne lost his money by making bad business decisions. He didn't learn from his mistakes. The author shows that he will repeat the same stupid mistakes. Colonel Killigrew wasted his life with "sinful pleasures". He was a liar and even in his newfound youth he hasn't learned to tell the truth. Mr. Gascoigne was a "ruined politician". After he drank some water from the Fountain of Youth, his "mind seemed to run on political topics, but whether relating to past, present or future could not be easily determined." The author thinks that it's the problem of any politician, as they say one and the same thing over and over again and have no new ideas. This seemed to have happened to Mr. Gascoigne and he seems to have learned no lesson in his new youth. So, these three characters symbolize three destructive things that are harmful to life: money and greed (Mr. Melbourne), lie and "sinful pleasures", which probably include drinking and promiscuity (Colonel Killigrew), no change of ideas within years (Mr. Gascoigne).

As for Widow Wycherly, she displays an urgent need for a drink ("My dear old doctor…pray favor me with another glass"). This symbolizes how youth can be a drug that people can't get enough of and that forces people to make rash decisions such as to live anew again. If we think of the reasons for people's desire to relive their lives, the first thing that will come to our mind is the world around us, people who inhabit it and their strong influence.

The study where the experiment takes place is the symbol of the world we live in, which is "a very curious place" containing a lot of interesting objects, each of which symbolizes something.

"A small round table, as black as ebony", the symbol of our life which is a veracious circle ("round"). The life of men is very difficult, often far from being ideal. Yet there are bright happy moments in the life of any person ("the sunshine").

The mirror represents the failure of Dr Heidegger, both as a doctor and as an ordinary person. The Doctor's shortcomings appear numerous and have cost him his true love. In this case the mirror serves as a reminder of his failure. Later as the story unfolds, the mirror symbolizes the truth by reflecting the men who are competing for the affection of the youthful Widow Wycherly, not in their seeming youth but as ugly and aged. The mirror's revelation seems to show the depths of a person's soul, made old by the regrets of one's youthful mistakes. Does the mirror merely show the situation as it really is? Are these four really old as they are shown in the story? Both interpretations show absurd reasons for dwelling upon the past and the futility of wishing one's youth back.

As for the Water from the Fountain of Youth, it is another symbol that shows the change (to be more exact- no change) of any person's life. First, taking into account the description of the water, given by the author, we notice that it "was impregnated with an effervescent gas" which was "bursting in silvery spray" throughout the whole story. At the end of the experiment it is still "effervesced from the surface", resembling "the tremulous glitter of diamonds". No change at all. The author shows that it had nothing to do with magic water. It has another symbolic meaning: when "streaming across the floor" the "precious" water from the fountain of Youth shows the fact that their last hope of becoming young is lost. The author stresses that one of the reasons for the inability to relive one's life is the greed and struggling of people, and it is for this reason that the vase "dashes into a thousand fragments". All the bright thoughts and ideas escaped. The whole essence of youth was destroyed.

The Fountain of Youth symbolizes absurd attempts of a human being to attain permanent life. It is a magic object created by the author that has nothing to do with reality. It is the device used by the doctor to observe the reaction of his friends when he demands them to muse upon their past, trying to think over the mistakes and find the ways to correct them. The author stresses that life is very short.

The Rose serves as a powerful symbol of natural balance. The rose which was given to Dr Heidegger by his fiance immediately before their failed wedding, responds to the Water of Youth's magic but soon fades again. It restores its natural balance as well as the four participants of the experiment who remain "old, gray" and ugly. The Rose also symbolizes the recollection, the remembrance of lessons learned in youth. Dr Heidegger, who realizes the mistakes of the past and accepts his fate, treasures the rose for half a century as a reminder of what has happened to him.

It is the Butterfly that represents the symbol of the brevity of life. It responds to the water from the Fountain of Youth, but it dies very quickly. The death of the poor insect symbolizes the end the characters of the story will come to after the useless search for the non-existent Fountain of Youth.

The skeleton behind the closet door is another symbol that undoubtedly foreshadows the fated state of death that the three greedy victims will come to when they find the Fountain of Youth. The skeleton also shows the spiritual death of their souls because of their foolish neglect to learn from their past mistakes.

As for the portrait of Heidegger's bride, it is the second element of foreshadowing in the story (The Rose is the first). The bride's death from the Doctor's prescriptions foreshadows the failure of the experiment. The portrait also represents the impetuousness and folly of Youth, as Dr Heidegger has never recovered from the desire for his beloved bride. A "full- length portrait of a young lady" that hangs on the wall demonstrates the war that rages between the old and the young throughout the story.

Another symbol which adds to the ambiguity of the story is a "ponderous folio volume, bound in black forces" that very often become the reason for one's misfortunes in life. These forces are very strong ("with massive silver clasps") and one should have great moral stability to "forbear".

An allegory is a story that shows philosophical and religious beliefs in which characters and events have abstract meaning. “Dr Heidegger's Experiment” can surely be described as one due to the fact that the true purpose of the whole story was to ask a question: if young again, will a human being remember the mistakes made by him during his life? To "forbear" from the desire of being always young or to accept one's fate and become "old, gray, withered" but very wise "grandsire"- this is the hidden allegorical meaning of the story. Throughout the whole story the author seems to demonstrate philosophical beliefs concerning the problem of growing old, the aim of people's life. On the one hand, juvenile instincts return with youth which is full of bad, impulsive decisions that an older person would prefer to avoid. On the other hand, with growing old one becomes full of sage ideas and thoughts and one comes to understand the mistakes made in life. And the question is: do people really realize their mistakes; do they have a desire to correct them?

Mr. Gascoigne, Colonel Killigrew, Mr. Medbourne are an example of ordinary people who surround us, who are victims of life experiment, who are given the chance to improve themselves but practically ignore it. They refuse to look back at the past and that is the reason why no change has ever happened to them throughout the story. "Was it delusion?" Yes, it was. This fact enhances the allegorical meaning of the story.

In his story Hawthorne with the help of allegory and symbols presents and discusses the problem of life, the problem of youth and wisdom, the problem of the lessons from our past. Each reader should decide for himself due to his or her philosophical beliefs what is more valuable: to live in the present without looking back or live a quiet life, analyzing and correcting mistakes, with the aim to live calm and happy life when you are old.

Work cited

•  Kelly Griffith. Narrative fiction. Harcourt Brace Cell Publishers, Orlando.1994




•  The Influence of Puritanism in Hawthorne's Creative Activity

•  The Moral Mystery of Hawthorne's Philosophy

•  Nathaniel Hawthorne. Dr Heidegger's Experiment


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