With an economy of words, Hawthorne skillfully presents four characters in the first paragraph of his story. All four are elderly people whose life has turned sour. Mr. Medbourne, a once prosperous businessman, has lost his wealth through frantic speculation. Colonel Killigrew is suffering various diseases because he pursued sinful pleasures in his youth. Mr. Gascoigne, formerly a notoriously evil politician, is now an obscure figure whom no one remembers. Widow Wycherly lives in seclusion because of scandals associated with her name. Her former relationships with the other three characters have contributed to her evil fame.
Dr. Heidegger, of course, is the fifth and most important character. Hawthorne tells us that he is an unusual personality and reinforces this judgment by a description of his study. It has dust, cobwebs, and a host of curious quartos and folios. It has a bust of Hippocrates that the doctor is thought to consult when confronted by difficult cases. It has a mirror from which the spirits of deceased patients stare at Dr. Heidegger. It has the picture of Silvia Ward, who would have married Dr. Heidegger if she had not died from medicine prescribed by her betrothed. Most interesting of all, there are a skeleton and a ponderous volume reputed to have magical properties.
As the action begins, all five people are present. Dr. Heidegger has invited the other four to participate in an experiment that he plans to conduct. He first opens the ponderous volume, takes out a dried rose, and throws it into a vase containing an elixir. The rose becomes as fresh as it originally was more than a half century before.
Dr. Heidegger claims that the elixir comes from the fountain of youth. An acquaintance has found this fabled spring in Florida and has sent him a sample. He fills some glasses and offers it to his guests. He suggests that they learn from their past mistakes and become models of virtue and wisdom when their youth is restored to them.
The guests become young, or at least so it seems. Whenever Hawthorne describes something miraculous, he veils the miracle with clever ambiguity. He compares the effects of the elixir to those of wine, implying that their youthful feelings might result from inebriation.
Instead of wisdom and virtue, the rejuvenated guests are as irresponsible as they were before. Widow Wycherly flirts with the three men. All three dance with her at the same time and then begin to fight with one another. In the process, the table is overturned. The vase shatters, and the elixir spills over the floor.
The effects of the elixir prove to be transient. The four guests soon become as old as they were before.
As a result of this experiment, Dr. Heidegger decides that he would not drink of the fountain of youth even if it were gushing at his very doorstep. In contrast, his four guests head for Florida, intending to drink morning, noon, and night.
Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment is presented online by Classical Authors.