Ambiguity and Uncertainty in Dr. Heidegger's Experiment

Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, Dr. Heidegger's Experiment, reveals that people have a futile and self-destructive desire to relive their pasts instead of moving onward and accepting their fates. In Dr. Heidegger's Experiment, Hawthorne uses a point of view that allows ambiguity to enter the narration. The unnamed narrator opens many aspects of the story to more than one interpretation and enhances the revelation of the theme through uncertainty as he tells of the reactions of four old people to the water of the Fountain of Youth.

The narrator himself seems unsure whether the events he is relating have even occurred. "Was it delusion?" he asks, "Even while the draught was passing down their throats, it seemed to have wrought a change on their whole systems." Commenting on the many tales that have sprung up around the mysterious Dr. Heidegger, the narrator even admits his own unreliability, stating, "Some of these fables, to my shame be it spoken, might possibly be traced back to mine own veracious self; and if any passages of the present tale should startle the reader's faith, I must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction-monger." These uncertainties divorce the story's happenings from reality, enhancing the allegorical meaning of the tale.

The narrator is uncertain whether Dr. Heidegger's four old subjects have attained a second youth. As they drink the water, their actions become those of youths, but have their bodies changed too? "...the three gentlemen behaved in such a manner, as proved that the water of the Fountain of Youth possessed some intoxicating qualities; unless, indeed, their exhilaration of spirits were merely a lightsome dizziness, caused by the sudden removal of the weight of years." When they lose their newfound "youth," the same doubts are shown: "A strange chillness, whether of body or spirit they could not tell, was creeping gradually over them all. They ... fancied that each fleeting moment snatched away a charm, and left a deepening furrow where none had been before. Was it an illusion? Had the changes of a life-time been crowded into so brief a space... In truth, they had [grown old]. The Water of Youth possessed merely a virtue more transient than that of wine." The Elixir of Youth is likened to an alcoholic drink, yet the effects of an actual loss of age, and later a loss of their new-found youth, are felt in the four subjects. The narrator, and thus the reader, does not know the true extent of Dr. Heidegger's "experiment." This does not obscure the truths that the subjects reactions reveal; whatever interpretation the reader chooses, the theme remains.

This uncertainty also highlights the multiple meanings of certain lines. When the four old subjects cry, "'Are we grown old again, so soon!'" their lamentation comments not only on the short length of their chance at a new youth, but on the general regret shown by almost anyone who has grown old. The doubt that the four ever grew young again has a similar effect on the line, "Had the changes of a life-time been crowded into so brief a space?" This question reflects the stunned sentiment of anyone who feels that their life has slipped away without their ever taking notice.

Ambiguity affects symbols as well. Dr. Heidegger's mirror, of which "it was fabled that the spirits of all the doctor's deceased patients dwelt within its verge, and would stare him in the face when he looked thitherward," symbolizes regret, in Dr. Heidegger's case, of his past failures. Later, the mirror reflects the three now-young men contesting over the favors of their past lover. "Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty as the prize. Yet, by some strange deception, owing 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 shriveled grand-dam." The mirror's revelation seems to metaphorically show the depths of the subjects' souls, made old by the regrets of their youthful mistakes. However, the ambiguity of the situation adds other meanings. Does the mirror merely show the situation as it really is? Are the four still truly old? Both interpretations contribute equally to the theme, showing both the debilitating effects of dwelling upon the past and the futility of wishing for one's youth.

While it might be thought that ambiguity would conceal the theme of a story behind layers of confusion, the technique used by Hawthorne in Dr. Heidegger's Experiment serves to bring the theme into sharp relief.