“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” by Nathaniel Hawthorne Lesson Plans

THAT VERY SINGULAR teacher, old Mr. Heidegger, once invited four venerable teachers to meet him in his classroom. There were three white-bearded gentlemen, Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, and Mr. Gascoigne, and a withered gentlewoman, whose name was the Widow Wycherly.

They were all melancholy old teachers, who had been unfortunate in their career, and whose greatest misfortune it was that they hadn’t written a lesson plan in 12 years. It is a circumstance worth mentioning that each of these three old gentlemen, Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, and Mr. Gascoigne, were early lovers of the Widow Wycherly’s ditto machine, and had once been on the point of cutting each other’s throats to make copies of vocabulary worksheets.

And, before proceeding further, I will merely hint that Mr. Heidegger eventually handed the four out-of-touch teachers a “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” lesson plan.

None of the four used it, but you can.


It’s right here: Dr. Heidegger’s Elixir Lesson Plan.

“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” Summary

Dr Heidegger's Experiment Lesson Plan

Dr. Heidegger’s a bit of an odd duck. Think of your middle school science teacher who liked to mix things and start the occasional fire, causing the alarm to go off and necessitating the evacuation of the entire school.

Heidegger invites four old acquaintances over for an experiment. All four of these “friends” have made a mess of their lives and squandered whatever gifts they’d been given. The four are now old and miserable, without hope—well, without hope until Heidegger presents them with an opportunity to drink an elixir which will make them youthful once again.

The experiment comes, however, with a warning: Don’t make the same stupid mistakes.

The four guests skeptically drink the potion vowing not to partake in past foolishness. The effects of the liquid are almost immediate—but not quick enough for the four, who gulp down another glass immediately.

Although it’s ambiguous whether or not the four actually become younger, they certainly believe they are. And with their new found youth, they demonstrate no signs that they learned from past mistakes. They even ridicule the doctor on account of his old age.

After a great deal of tom-foolery, which leads to spilling the rest of the water, the four return to their elderly state, having learned nothing from the experiment, and resolve to journey to Florida and find the actual Fountain of Youth.

Dr. Heidegger's Experiment Discussion and Lesson Ideas

Gotta feeling this might be the "magic" elixir.

  1. Reality vs. Appearance. This story is full of ambiguity. The Elixir lesson plan pdf above covers the primary ambiguity of the story. Other ambiguities include Heidegger himself. Just what kind of doctor is he? How did his fiancée die? Is that really a book of magic?
  2. Theme. Theme's worth discussing include the aforementioned Reality vs. Appearance, The evasiveness of truth, the transience of youth, and human inability to learn from mistakes. A theme chart works here. Write the theme in one column. Write evidence in the middle column. Write the explanation in the third column. My "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" Lesson Plans Unit has this and other graphic organizers.
  3. Symbolism. In addition to the elixir, the rose, the book of magic, the skeleton, and the time of day all add meaning to the story.
  4. Characterization. Dr. Heidegger is an odd fellow, but it is uncertain if he's simply odd or evil odd. He's had quite a few dead patients, including his fiancée. And that skeleton in the closet is certainly a symbolic idiom, is it not?
  5. Setting and Atmosphere. The details of Dr. Heidegger's study add an element of mystery and the supernatural to the story.
  6. Irony. The ultimate irony is the nature of the experiment itself. Heidegger has little interest in whether or not his water has magical properties. He just wants to find out about human nature. The four guests ironically repeat the same mistakes as they did in their youth. And the ultimate irony is there's a fairly good chance the water isn't even a magic potion at all.
  7. Narrator and Point of View. The reader learns everything about Heidegger and his laboratory from an unreliable narrator who, it seems, is not in the laboratory during the experiment and who admits that many of the stories surrounding Heidegger are of a dubious nature. Furthermore, the dubiousness of the stories can be partially credited to himself. I wonder how the story would be different if written with a first person account?

I'll admit I'm a fan of Nate Hawthorne. If you are too, check out these other Nathaniel Hawthorne stories.

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