Term Paper, 2001
14 Pages, Grade: 2,7 (B-)
2. Rapprochement to the Gothic literature
2.1 The origin of Gothic literature
2.2 The elements of Gothic literature
2.3 Hawthorne and the Gothic literature
3. The Plot
3.2 A Summary of the action
3.3 The place and the Gothic elements
4. Characterization and Symbols
4.1 The Background of the Experiment
4.2 Hawthorne’s definition of sin
4.3 The result of the experiment
How narrow – how shallow and scanty too – is the stream of thought that has been flowing from my pen, compared with the broad tide of dim emotions, ideas, and associations which swell around me1
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), the well-known author of the famous novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), wrote this short story on the base of the Gothic kind of literature, which played a considerable role in his life.
What are Gothic tales? Do they represent the origin of modern horror shockers like the works of Stephen King and Thomas Harris? Do they have the intention to enhance our fantasy so that the reader does not switch off the light when he goes to bed and suffer from horrible nightmares? Obviously this short story creates a shiver, but I will try to show, that there is more implied than just a creepy suspense.
The starting point is the definition of Gothic literature, then I will investigate Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment to find out common aspects to this kind of literature. At the end, I will show the reader that there is much more implied than you will know after the first reading of the story.
I may set a point thinking about …
The term `Goth´ originated from the east-germanic people in Middle Europe (2nd-6th century), later it described a style in architecture2 (12th-16th century), which inspired the authors of the 17th century much. With the Publication of Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto in 1764, the horror story appeared in literature for the first time. The predominant genre of the Romanticism in this time distinguished the novel, which describes reality, life and time, from the Romance, relating what will not happen in the real world. The Romance was subdivided into historical, oriental and Gothic but often those three melted into one - the Gothic Romance. The themes of the Gothic Romance were better suited for a shorter treatment – so, the genre of the short story became influenced too. In Germany, Gottfried August Bürger’s ghost ballad Lenore (1773) was the beginning of literary Romanticism. The Gothic short story was imported in America about 1820 by Washington Irving’s Tales of a Traveller. The most significant authors of this period were E.T.A. Hoffmann and L. Tieck in Germany, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Brockden Brown in America and George Sand and Honore´ de Balzac in the French literature. The Monk by Gregory Lewis was the climax of Gothic craze.
The dark settings and the abrupt invasion of supernatural powers are two significant basic principles in the Gothic Romance. Bleeding statues, living paintings, obscure castles with many secrets, old magical books or an unordinary and mysterious crime are also important elements. The role of the villain, often an Italian, is very special because sometimes he has a deformed body (compare with the Hunchback in Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo or the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or, the modern Prometheus) and is in an alliance with the devil or controlled by him.3
The Gothic literature was inspired from the nature and fascinated of its dark unreality which of course only exist in the people’s mind. Natural elements like rain, thunder, fog or sunset rise up the suspense and were combined with magical objects like books or amulets beside persons like the witch, the wizard or ghosts and demons.
York: Haskell House Publishers LTD., 1964, p. 17 - 23
Later on, the creepy suspense was transformed into real shockers with psychological horror originated from the figures themselves. Anticlerical opinions created monasteries as breeding-places of evil and controversial themes like burning of sorceresses, exorcism, alliances with the devil and cannibalism became popular.
From his early youth Hawthorne was acquainted with the English classics literature, later he read a lot of Gothic novels, for example Melmoth by Charles R. Maturin, which inspired him much. This kind of literature guided him his whole life although it declined in the middle years of his career and rose again at the end. The figures in his stories are embodiments of his own ideas, thoughts and people he had met or been impressed by. Hawthorne is like a puppet-master who tries to express himself through his creations. But he isn’t a simple Goth like E.A. Poe or E.T.A. Hoffmann. He used this kind of narrative style to elaborate his own thoughts and ideas, which are on a higher lever than the rather simple constructed Gothic Tradition, to show the reader the implacable psychological truth, his constant theme : the question of the role of sin in human life4.
The story was first printed in the „Knickerbocker Magazine“ (January 1837) under the title The Fountain of youth and was published in the first edition of the Twice-Told Tales the same year. The critics weren‘t much interested in it. Hawthorne used the elixir of life-motif the first time and repeated it in Septimius Felton (1861) and The Dolliver Romance (1876). Neither the time nor the exact place of the action is clear, probably it is thought to play in New England. The technique of the story is far more subtle than other tales of Hawthorne and although it is full of comic surface the psychological plot disturbs the reader more than just a simple black Gothic Fairytale. The portentous atmosphere, the minutely reported behaviour of the figures and the simple action, which starts in a summer’s afternoon and ends at sunset, create a creepy suspense in the reader’s mind.5
Dr. Heidegger, an old scientist, invites four friends to participate in an experiment. He has found the Fountain of youth and wants to find out whether the elixir is working or not.
There were three white-bearded gentleman, Mr. Medbourne, Colonel
Killigrew, and Mr. Gascoigne, and a withered gentlewoman, whose
name was the Widow Wycherly. (...) Melancholy old creatures, who
had been unfortunate in life.6
Before his fellows start drinking he warns them not to repeat their mistakes they have done during their long life. The first glass effects just a small optical change, but they are starting to feel younger. The second one causes a mutation into middle-aged people, the enthusiasm is rising among them. After they have drunken the third glass they are transformed into the prime of youth. Life awakes in their bodies again and they return to their desires, attitudes and propensities they had when they were young. They start to dance, sing and beg for the favour of the attractive Widow Wycherly.
The situation escalates, a struggle for her arises and causes the overturning of a table, on which the vase containing the elixir of youth is standing. The precious liquid floats on the ground and the four friends become old again because the elixir effects a temporary restoration of their youthful personality, but lasts just a short time.
1 as cited by Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Wife, Vol.1. Cambridge 1884, p.250 from Richard J. Jacobson, Hawthorne’s conception of the creative
process, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1965, p.15
2 see Notre-Dame in Paris or the cathedral in Freiburg for an example of this kind of architecture
3 Jane Lundblad, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Tradition of Gothic Romance, New
4 Ibid, p.36
5 Neal Frank, Hawthorne’s early tales – a critical Study, Durham: Doubleday Duke
University Press, 1972, p. 178 – 182
6 Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Dr.Heidegger’s Experiment”. The Centenary edition of the
works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. 23 Vols./Vol. 9. Ohio: State University
Press, 1974, p. 227
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