She’s a Blessed Angel on Earth

I had planned on discussing Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful” today, but after reading Alvin Hawkin’s page and seeing that he was expecting something curmudgeonly, I decided I’d better switch to “Young Goodman Brown,” a tale that may well explain the grouchiness of some of our most noble citizens, and might even explain Bush’s desire to destroy the forces of evil.

“Young Goodman Brown” seems to be an attempt to explain what happens when a man loses “faith,” faith in God, faith in himself, and, most of all, faith in others. It follows the adventures of a recently married young man who on his first night away from his wife. As he is about to leave on his journey, his wife Faith approaches him and says, “A lone woman is troubled with’ such dreams and such thoughts, that she’s afeard of herself, sometimes. Pray, tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year!” Now, I’m not sure what “tarry” meant in 1850, but I can imagine what it must mean today. Despite, her pleas, though, Brown says he must make his journey this very night. Of course, he doesn’t bother to tell her he has an appointment in the woods with the Devil.

At least for a moment he feels badly about leaving her:

Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Well; she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven.”

With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose.

It’s interesting that he, too, talks of “dreams.” Of course, he’s counting on his Faith to save him from whatever “evil purpose” he has for this trip. The hypocrisy, of course, needs no comment.

It’s not long, though, before we find out the purpose of his trip, but since the Puritans associated the woods with the devil, there’s little surprise here. Although the gentleman’s name he is meeting never comes up, the description of his staff leaves little doubt:

But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable, was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought, that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent.

Ambiguous as always, Hawthorne quickly adds, “This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.” Deception be damned, we have certainly met the devil himself, or at the very least one of his minions.

Before long, it becomes very clear that the devil is trying to recruit this “young, good man.” At first Brown argues that he can’t possibly join because he comes from a long line of upstanding Puritan forefathers. The devil counters nicely:

“Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight.

And here we’ve always been taught those Puritans were fine, upstanding Christian gentlemen, the true forefathers of American democracy. Ah, but what’s a few heathen women or children or Quakers among real Christians?

Obviously shaken by this discovery that his noble ancestors had had dealings with the devil, Goodman plays his trump card:

“Well, then, to end the matter at once,” said Goodman Brown, considerably nettled, “there is my wife, Faith. It would break her dear little heart; and I’d rather break my own!”

“Nay, if that be the case,” answered the other, “e’en go thy ways, Goodman Brown. I would not, for twenty old women like the one hobbling before us, that Faith should come to any harm.”

Ah, yes, his adorable Faith left home alone at night troubled by the same dreams that brought him here, hopefully not watching the Playboy Channel.

Soon the devil introduces him to several of the people in the forest apparently on their way to the coven meeting. First there is Goody Cloyse, who taught Goodman his catechism. Next he hears the minister and Deacon Gookin talking on their way to the meeting. He is nearly, but not quite, overcome by this revelation:

Young Goodman Brown caught hold of a tree, for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint and overburthened with the heavy sickness of his heart. He looked up to the sky, doubting whether there really was a Heaven above him.

“With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” cried Goodman Brown.

It’s not, however, until Goodman hears a familiar voice flying over head and finds a familiar pink ribbon on the ground that he really seems to lose faith:

“My Faith is gone!” cried he, after one stupefied moment. “There is no good on earth, and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given.”

Knowing that his beloved wife is on her way to the same meeting he is on his way to is too much for Goodman.

Overcome by this evidence that all are tempted by the devil, Goodman rushes through the woods on his way to the devil’s meeting:

In truth, all through the haunted forest, there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. On he flew, among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter, as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him. The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man.

Ironic, indeed, that within a short amount of time this righteous man could be transformed into such a hideous shape.

When he finally reaches the coven, Goodman is confronted with more confirmation of the sinful nature of mankind:

Either the sudden gleams of light, flashing over the obscure field, bedazzled Goodman Brown, or he recognized a score of the church members of Salem village, famous for their especial sanctity.


It was strange to see, that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints.

The proceedings begin with a voice calling out, “Bring forth the converts” and:

At the word, Goodman Brown stepped forth from the shadow of the trees, and approached the congregation, with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood, by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart. He could have well-nigh sworn, that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance, looking downward from a smokewreath, while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back.

Again, the voice calls out, as if in confirmation of Goodman’s worst fears:

“Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream! Now are ye undeceived!-Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness.

Who could believe that the heart, that symbol of love, could be the seat of all that was wicked?

Still, despite the overwhelming evidence that almost everyone he has ever loved has joined forces with the Devil, Goodman is able to resist the devil’s temptations and call out in despair:

“Faith! Faith!” cried the husband. “Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!”

Unfortunately, he never finds out whether his wife is able to resist or not:

Whether Faith obeyed, he knew not. Hardly had he spoken, when he found himself amid calm night and solitude, listening to a roar of the wind, which died heavily away through the forest.

Notice how Hawthorne almost makes it appear that Goodman has been whisked away as in a dream? We know Goodman has saved himself from the Devil’s immediate temptation, but the question remains whether he has truly been able to save himself from the Devil.

Goodman is never the same man after this night. When he returns home he refuses to kiss his wife Faith, as if he suspected her of being in alliance with the devil. As a result of that single night, he became a “stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man.”

Old Goodman Brown, that noble, righteous Puritan ancestor apparently lost faith in everyone except himself, and as a result:

And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.

Despite having everything in life that most people would wish for, he lived in gloom the rest of his life, sure of his own righteousness, but doubting the virtue of everyone else.

If he, himself, was able to resist the devil, why is he so convinced that his wife Faith was unable to resist the devil? Was she guilty of anything he wasn’t also guilty of? Or, did he also lose faith in himself? Is that the real source of his gloom? If we are all sinners, and that may well be the case, then why wasn’t he able to recognize that and forgive those who have sinned?

When I served in Vietnam, I certainly saw the dark side of human nature, both on our side and the Viet Cong side. There’s little doubt in my mind that in the wrong place at the wrong time most human beings will do things they shouldn’t do and wouldn’t normally do.

We are all sinners, or at least potential sinners, and the only thing that saves us is the forgiveness and love that we hold in our hearts for each other.

If there is a Devil, his ultimate victory would certainly be our losing faith in each other. We can deny that victory not by denying our own nature, but by overcoming it and forgiving those who sin while trying to overcome it.

Loren Webster

In the Eye of the Beholder

Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” explores the results of man’s attempt to attain perfection. Though never entirely clear whether Hawthorne is criticizing science’s attempts to change the world, questioning the Idealist’s attempts to attain spiritual perfection, or, even, damning the Puritan’s attempts to eliminate earthly desires, the story should serve as a warning to all who would hope to attain a perfect world. The simple plot focuses on Aylmer’s attempts to remove, with the help of his assistant Aminadab, a birthmark in the shape of a small hand from the cheek of his recent bride, Georgiana, but the symbolic implications are complex and far-reaching.

Aylmer is introduced as “a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy.” This during a time when:

The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself.

Hawthorne, with his usual ambiguity, does not accuse Aylmer of holding these beliefs, “We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature,” but he does say Aylmer “had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own.”

Although Aylmer seemed perfectly happy to marry Georgiana despite her small birthmark, his preoccupation with it is developed step-by-step in the first part of the story. Ironically, it is Georgian’s very beauty that makes the birthmark so objectionable to Aylmer:

… you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.

Hawthorne suggests that the birthmark is merely a sign of nature:

It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain.

But Aylmer, in his drive for perfection, becomes increasingly obsessed with the birthmark for he sees it as “the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death.” Soon every happy moment is destroyed by this obsession. Even his sleep is haunted by dreams of the flaw:

He had fancied himself with his servant Aminadab, attempting an operation for the removal of the birthmark; but the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana’s heart; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away.

Although Georgiana was at first insulted by Aylmer’s response to her birthmark, which many had seen as a beauty mark, she is worn down by his obsession and by her own deep love for him. Soon she seems as desirous as he of having the blemish removed:

"If there be the remotest possibility of it," continued Georgiana, "let the attempt be made at whatever risk. Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust,–life is a burden which I would fling down with joy. Either remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life!

Reading his journals during her treatment Georgiana, although realizing his
weaknesses, admires his love of the ideal:

He handled physical details as if there were nothing beyond them; yet spiritualized them all, and redeemed himself from materialism by his strong and eager aspiration towards the infinite. In his grasp the veriest clod of earth assumed a soul. Georgiana, as she read, reverenced Aylmer and loved him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore. Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed.

In the end, she, too, seems caught up in his desire for perfection:

Her heart exulted, while it trembled, at his honorable love–so pure and lofty that it would accept nothing less than perfection nor miserably make itself contented with an earthlier nature than he had dreamed of.

In the end, though, it his her absolute love for Alymer that drives Georgiana to accept, and, indeed, urge Aylmer to continue the operation.

It is however, something very different than love that drives Aylmer. Whether it is an admirable desire for perfection or merely scientific arrogance might be debatable, but it is clear that if he had truly loved her he would have accepted Georgiana as she was. At the very least, Aylmer seems to have too much confidence in science:

He gave a history of the long dynasty of the alchemists, who spent so many ages in quest of the universal solvent by which the golden principle might be elicited from all things vile and base. Aylmer appeared to believe that, by the plainest scientific logic, it was altogether within the limits of possibility to discover this long-sought medium; "but," he added, "a philosopher who should go deep enough to acquire the power would attain too lofty a wisdom to stoop to the exercise of it."

Ironically, this confidence seems entirely unjustifiable judging from his own past performances as revealed by his journal:

The volume, rich with achievements that had won renown for its author, was yet as melancholy a record as ever mortal hand had penned. It was the sad confession and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man, the spirit burdened with clay and working in matter, and of the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part. Perhaps every man of genius in whatever sphere might recognize the image of his own experience in Aylmer’s journal.

Where a lesser man might have been paralyzed by indecision, Alymer proceeed “for he was confident in his science, and felt that he could draw a magic circle round her within which no evil might intrude.” His last words before administering the fatal potion, though, are truly ironic:

"The concoction of the draught has been perfect," said he, in answer to Georgiana’s look. "Unless all my science have deceived me, it cannot fail."

It would be easy to blame her death purely on science, but truthfully it is his ego, allied with science, that is responsible for her death.

Aylmer would have been far better off if he had taken his assistant’s advice. Aminadab, who seems “ to represent man’s physical nature” and mutters to himself during the operation, "If she were my wife, I’d never part with that birthmark." Aylmer is successful in removing the birthmark, but it has unintended consequences:

Its presence had been awful; its departure was more awful still. Watch the stain of the rainbow fading out the sky, and you will know how that mysterious symbol passed away.

As the birthmark slowly fades away Georgiana speaks to Alymer for the last time:

"My poor Aylmer," she repeated, with a more than human tenderness, "you have aimed loftily; you have done nobly. Do not repent that with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the earth could offer. Aylmer, dearest Aylmer, I am dying!"

What sets Hawthorne apart from the transcendentalists and the romantics is not his condemnation of scientists, that’s almost a given, but his apparent insistence on the necessary imperfectability of humanity:

The fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame. As the last crimson tint of the birthmark–that sole token of human imperfection–faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight.

The only perfect people are those in Heaven. Perhaps this belief is a carry over from his Puritan heritage, but there is little evidence to believe that Hawthorne felt mankind was evil, just flawed.

Not satisfied to merely demonstrate the foolishness of Aylmer, Hawthorne implies at the end of the story that it was possible for Aylmer to have attained happiness and perfectibility if only he had a “profounder wisdom:”

Yet, had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present.

Of course, it’s not really clear what this “profounder wisdom” is, but it seems to have something to do with happiness making it possible to live “once for all in eternity” and finding the “future in the present.” Perhaps it was as simple as loving Georgiana for her eternal qualities, overlooking her flaws as the minor blemishes they were, and eventually allowing that love to reach all the way to eternity. Then again, maybe it’s never that simple.

Loren Webster

The Wisdom of Old Age

Whenever you’ve immersed yourself in too much Emerson or Thoreau and feel yourself being uncontrollably lifted away by positive thoughts, it’s a good time to read a Hawthorne story or two. Perhaps that’s why Diane and I decided to spend a week on Hawthorne before beginning to review some modern poets again. Despite the fact that early in his life Hawthorne joined Brooks Farm, a burgeoning transcendental commune, he came to reject much, though not all, of the optimism of the Transcendentalists. Perhaps his long Puritan heritage was simply too great of a burden to be rid of in a single lifetime, but, for whatever reason, Hawthorne spent the rest of his literary lifetime challenging the pure optimism of his famous neighbors.

Seldom does Hawthorne directly reject the ideas of the transcendentalists, though. In fact, his multi-level ambiguity is, for me, one of his most endearing traits. This very ambiguity seems to suggest that it is impossible to know virtually anything absolutely. Life is by its very nature ambiguous, and there is seldom an absolute right or wrong. His unwillingness to give a definitive answer to the questions he raises forces his reader to make those decisions for themselves, which is as it should be.

“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is no exception here. The story appears to attempt to answer the age-old question of whether a fountain of youth would improve mankind’s lot. It’s easy to see the story simply in terms of the four characters who actually take the magical potion, but the narrator must also be seen as a direct participant in this experiment, even if he never actually takes the potion himself.

The four characters who quickly choose to take the potion given the chance are “melancholy old creatures, who had been unfortunate in life, and whose greatest misfortune it was that they were not long ago in their graves.” Mr. Medbourne had lost his fortune through speculation. Colonel Killigrew “had wasted his best years, and his health and substance, in the pursuit of sinful pleasures.” Mr. Gascoigne was “a ruined politician, a man of evil fame.” The Widow Wycherly, “a great beauty in her day” had lived a scandalous life.

The story begins as a fabulous fairy tale with magical mirrors and a faded rose magically restored to its original beauty. Even this magical setting is shrouded in mystery, “it was fabled that the spirits of all the doctor’s deceased patients dwelt within its verge, and would stare him in the face whenever he looked thitherward. The author himself admits that “some of these fables, to my shame be it spoken, might possibly be traced back to my own veracious self,” leaving us to wonder how a veracious person can spread “fables.”

It’s important to note that Dr. Heidegger does not take the potion himself because “having had much trouble in growing old, I am in no hurry to grow young again.” He also urges them to “draw up a few general rules for your guidance, in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it would be, if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!"

After taking the youth potion, Mr. Gascoigne’s immediately turned back to political topics, and: “

he rattled forth full-throated sentences about patriotism, national glory, and the people’s right; now he muttered some perilous stuff or other, in a sly and doubtful whisper, so cautiously that even his own conscience could scarcely catch the secret; and now, again, he spoke in measured accents, and a deeply deferential tone, as if a royal ear were listening to his well turned periods.

Sound familiar? Watched any national news lately? Apparently age is not guarantee of wisdom.

Surely the Widow Wycherly whose reputation had been besmirched by her actions would have learned from experience, right?

As for the Widow Wycherly, she stood before the mirror courtesying and simpering to her own image, and greeting it as the friend whom she loved better than all the world beside.

This, in turn, leads to the rivalry for her affections that had earlier condemned these four to sorrow and misery, a rivalry that seems all the more macabre because of their real age:

Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. Yet, by a 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 the three old, gray, withered grandsires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam.

Revealing just how little they have learned from age, the three men struggle over the woman, and in doing so “the table was overturned, and the vase dashed into a thousand fragments. The precious Water of Youth flowed in a bright stream across the floor…” Symbolically and literally, any chance for a new life was destroyed by the old rivalries that had originally destroyed their lives.

Ironically, the four friends have learned nothing through experience and they are anxious to head out for Florida to find more of the Fountain of Youth. Only Dr. Heidegger seems to have no desire for the potion:

Well–I bemoan it not; for if the fountain gushed at my very doorstep, I would not stoop to bathe my lips in it–no, though its delirium were for years instead of moments. Such is the lesson ye have taught me!"

The reader, or at least this reader, though, is left wondering whether Dr Heidegger himself might not be wise enough to benefit from the potion. He seems to have gained wisdom over time. Isn’t someone wise enough to know the dangers of a potion precisely the one most likely to be able to overcome those dangers? Surely some people are capable of learning through experience how to overcome the emotions that threaten to destroy their lives. Or is the idea of regaining youth so dangerous that no one can be trusted with its knowledge?

There certainly seems to be many cases of older people acting just as foolishly at an old age as they did during their youth. One might, for instance, even wonder if this parable wouldn’t serve equally well to illustrate the problems Sharon and Arafat face in the Middle East. Why has neither of them gained enough wisdom through their struggles to lead their people to a successful peace? Can life and experience teach us nothing when it comes to emotional struggles? Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes until we are wiped from the face of the earth?


Must Old Age be a Shipwreck ?

American Transcendentalist Nathaniel Hawthorne, (1804-1864) was a questioner, and the questions he answers in this story are how do the actions of one’s youth affect his old age? In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment “ he asks If one were given the opportunity to return to his youth, would he have sense enough to live more productively, thus providing a more contented old age?

To begin his experiment, Dr. Heidegger, a “very singular old man,” invites his “four venerable friends,” “melancholy old creatures who had been unfortunate in life and whose greatest misfortune was that they were not long ago in their graves” to his house one summer afternoon and asks them to drink water he has obtained from the fabled Fountain of Youth once sought by Ponce de Leon in Florida.

His friends have lived regrettable lives. Mr. Medbourne, “once a prosperous merchant who had lost all in a frantic speculation now lives little better than a mendicant.” Colonel Killigrew wasted his best years, his health and substance in the pursuit of sinful pleasure and now suffers from “gout and divers other torments of soul and body.” Mr. Gascoigne, “ruined politician, man of evil fame, became obscure instead of infamous.” And Widow Wycherly, “a great beauty in her day, now lives in deep seclusion because of scandalous stories.”

All of the friends know each other. In fact, the three old gentlemen had been “early lovers of the Widow and had at one point been at each other’s throats for her affections.”

The five gather in Dr. Heidegger’s study which is itself a “very curious place,“ filled with cobwebs and antique dust.” Old oak bookcases line the walls, the cases themselves lined with “gigantic folios and black-letter quartos.” A bust of Hippocrates stands over the central bookcase. A skeleton peeks out from the open door of one of the oak closets. Between two of the bookcases hangs a mirror which projects the good doctor’s dead patients.

A full length portrait of a lady, Dr. H’s young bride, hangs on a wall. She had swallowed one of the doctor’s prescriptions and died on her wedding night.

But the most outstanding of the room’s accouterments is a large book bound in black leather with a silver clasp well known to be a book of magic. When a maid once dusted it, the skeleton rattled, and the bust of Hippocrates cried “Forbear!”

On a table in the center of the study is placed a cut glass vase that catches the refraction of the sun’s rays which strike it from the window. The five people can see their faces in the sparkling glass. Four champagne glasses are placed beside the vase.

Thus the reader has been introduced to one scary old doctor and four of his friends, troubled failures all, who are sitting in a study filled with gloomy old books and furniture. The story teller warns us at this point that he may be simply telling a story too fantastic to be true.

The four friends listen to the suggested experiment and anticipate something simple like looking at a cobweb under a microscope or watching a mouse die in an air pump. But Dr. H opens the old book of magic and removes a pressed rose given him by his bride, Sylvia Ward, 55 years ago. He asks the question, “Is it possible that this rose of half a century could ever bloom again?”

The rose is placed in the vase which contains the Fountain of Youth water, and soon the rose brightens, the leaves are renewed green and the rose looks as “fresh as when Sylvia Ward had first given it to her lover.”

Dr. H. answers the excited questions of his guests, telling them the water is from the Fountain of Youth from Florida, once sought by Ponce de Leon.

Colonel Killigrew is first to ask if the water would have such an effect on humans even though he believes nothing of the doctor’s story.

It is time to find out–that is the experiment. The champagne glasses are filled with the water. Dr. H. chooses to watch the progress of the experiment rather than participate.

The guests are skeptical but nevertheless consider drinking the water from the Fountain of Youth.

Dr H. suggests that before they drink they should “draw up a few general rules for your guidance, in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it would be, if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!”

The four guests ignore the doctor’s advice in their haste to drink the potion. Guilty of hubris, they know “how closely repentance treads behind the steps of error,” figuring they would never make the same mistakes twice.

These are particularly unattractive old people. “They looked as if they had never known what youth or pleasure was, but had been the offspring of Nature’s dotage, and always the gray, decrepit, sapless, miserable creatures, who now sat stooping round the doctor’s table, without life enough in their souls or bodies to be animated even by the prospect of growing young again.”

But the water appears to produce a miracle. As the four old guests drink from their champagne glasses, an immediate improvement is seen. “A sudden glow of cheerful sunshine brightens over all their visages at once.” A “healthful suffusion” colors their cheeks.

“We are younger–but we are still too old! Quick–give us more!” they shout.

“Their eyes grew clear and bright; a dark shade deepened among their silvery locks.”

The intoxicating qualities of the water of the Fountain of Youth begins to be felt.

But the change is superficial. No insight accompanies the return of the youthful appearance. The repetition of the old ways begins. “My dear widow, you are charming!” Colonel Killigrew says, renewing the Widow’s suspicion concerning the Colonel’s sincerity.

“Mr. Gascoigne’s mind seemed to run on political topics, but whether relating to the past, present, or future could not easily be determined, since the same ideas and phrases have been in vogue these fifty years.” This is Hawthorne’s jibe at politics.

“Colonel Killigrew all this time had been trolling forth a jolly bottle song, and ringing his glass in symphony with the chorus, while his eyes wandered toward the buxom figure of the Widow Wycherly…Mr. Medbourne was involved in a calculation of dollars and cents, with which was strangely intermingled a project for supplying the East Indies with ice, by harnessing a team of whales to the polar icebergs.”

The Widow Wycherly stands in front of the mirror, “curtseying and simpering to her own image and greeting it as the friend whom she loved better than all the world beside.”

For the moment, “They were now in the happy prime of youth” as Dr. H looks on, resembling Father Time. “Age, with its miserable train of cares and sorrows and diseases, was remembered only as the trouble of a dream…”

“We are young! We are young! the old people cried. They were a group of “merry youngsters almost maddened with exuberant frolicsomeness.”

As young folk, they probably made fun of the old, oblivious to their own inevitable aging. Even after experiencing old age, they revert to youthful insensitivity.

“The most singular effect of their gayety was an impulse to mock the infirmity and decrepitude of which they had so lately been the victims.”

“They laughed loudly at their old-fashioned attire, and made fun of their gouty limps and bespectacled faces. They even make fun of the old doctor who sits watching them dance.

The three old men gather around the widow, pushing each other away to have her solely in their arms. One “threw his arm about her waist…one holds her hand in a passionate grasp…the third buries his hand in her glossy curls…” All are in a huddle of “blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, …a triple embrace, competing for her “bewitching beauty.”

But all of this youthful romping is in their minds. The mirror reflects the reality of the “three old, gray, withered grandsires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam.”

The dance turns ugly. The men lose their tempers in the struggle for the widow’s attention and soon begin to threaten each other. In the struggle the table with the vase in overturned, spilling the water on the floor. A butterfly now facing the end of its life is moistened by the water. It feebly flies to Dr. H and lights on his head. His young bride’s rose begins to fade.

The first lesson of the experiment is beginning to dawn for Dr. H. He knows now that he loves the withered rose as much as he did when it was fresh. The butterfly tumbles from his head to the floor. It has lived a brief but beautiful life and now it must die.

A strange chill settles on the four guests. ‘Was it an illusion? Had the changes of a lifetime been crowded into so brief a space, and were they now four aged people, sitting with their old friend, Dr. Heidegger?”

“Are we grown old again, so soon!”

The answer is yes. The widow sees herself old once more and clasping “her skinny hands before her face, wished that the coffin lid were over it, since it could be no longer beautiful.”

The experiment concludes the lesson for Dr. H. He is not sorry the Fountain of Youth water is spilled for he wouldn’t touch it. He has learned that returning to youth even if it were possible would not change one’s life. It is best to treasure the present in which good memories may be held in withered flowers.

Unfortunately the four friends have learned nothing. They immediately begin to plan a trip to Florida to find and drink from the Fountain of Youth.

Some people never learn. They just live.
Diane McCormick