The Ambitious Guest by Nathaniel Hawthorne Analysis

Instructor: Pureterrah Witcher

Pureterrah teaches high school and college English. She holds two master's degrees, one in Teaching and another in Newspaper, Magazine and Online Journalism.

In the short story 'The Ambitious Guest,' author Nathaniel Hawthorne masterfully develops the themes of ambition and how one defines contentment in life. In this lesson, we will analyze the story and reveal its greater meaning.

Summary of The Ambitious Guest

On one fateful, stormy night, a young traveler stops at the home of a content and kind family living near a deep, narrow mountain pass called a notch. The stranger needs a place to rest and asks the family for accommodations. They commonly assist travelers in this way; plus, this one makes great conversation, so he is welcomed for the night.

Throughout the evening they talk, but as you'll read, the conversation is soon interrupted, first by sounds of a wagon, and later by something much worse. The family's home is located in a rather dangerous spot below the mountain; however, falling rocks happen regularly and have never caused any harm. Besides, they assure their guest that, in the event of a real catastrophe, they have a designated 'sure place' in which to seek shelter.

As they continue to chat late into the evening, the ambitious young man admits that he has yet to accomplish anything of significance but says he hopes he will have 'achieved his destiny' before his death. He has big ambitions for himself, too. He goes on to say, 'I shall have built my monument!'

To this, the father expresses his wish to leave a greater legacy - one with a larger home in a nicer place. The other family members agree, and begin to chime in with their deepest desires, hopes, and wishes.

All of a sudden, the sound of a large avalanche begins to shake the house. In utter fear, and in unison they all shout, 'The Slide! The Slide!' Without a second thought, they rush out of the house for their 'safe place'. Ironically, they are all swept up in the rock slide and killed, though, the house goes untouched. They are never again seen.

Analysis of The Ambitious Guest

In the beginning of the story, the common fate of the hosts and visitor is quickly revealed. The narrator says, ''...he (the visitor) had kept himself apart from those who might otherwise have been his companion. The family, too, though so kind and hospitable, had the consciousness of unity among themselves, and separation from the world at large...'' The fact that the stranger and family are loners in their own ways, separate from others, is a similarity that should not be overlooked. Their long meeting of minds talk, foreshadows that the guest and his hosts will also share a common fate in the end - their death.

Another example of this similarity is in the family's reaction to the visitor's ambitious comments. They convey 'There was a continual flow of natural emotion gushing forth amid abstracted reverie, which enabled the family to understand this young man's sentiment.' With this said, it is clear that the family has a degree of appreciation, interest and even compassion for the ideas of the visitor. They begin to identify with his ambition. For instance, as the visitor tells of the achievements he hopes for, the father shares with the family that he wished he had a 'good farm in another town. The grandmother tells the family that she desires most to wear a perfect outfit while dead in her coffin - not even a ruffle should be 'unsmooth', or a hair on her head out of place. These newly unearthed desires show how quickly and easily ambition can kill the contentment with our lives.

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