The Ambitious Guest: Summary & Theme

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Ambitious Guest' a young stranger enjoys the hospitality of a family living on an isolated mountaintop. As the family and the stranger reveal their ambitions for the future, they have no way of knowing that a shared fate awaits them all.

Summary

Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''The Ambitious Guest'' begins with the introduction of a family living in a ''cold and dangerous spot''. In fact, the family's cottage is perched in a notch atop a mountain and is often endangered by rocks falling from the mountain top. Though the home is isolated, the family gladly welcomes travelers to warm themselves at the fire and share a meal. The frigid setting sharply contrasts with the warm and friendly people at the cottage.

One night, a young man who is traveling to Burlington stops to warm himself at the cottage. The man is described as being something of a loner, but he finds himself comfortable with the simple joys the family shares with him. He tells the group that he has a secret ambition: he wants to be sure he is remembered when he dies.

The young man admits that he has not yet done anything noteworthy, but once he has reached his destiny he will be ready for death. ''I shall have built my monument'', he says. The family's young daughter disagrees, saying that it is better to enjoy the good times with friends and family even if they never achieve fame. This statement is an example of foreshadowing, a literary technique in which the writer hints at something that will happen later in the story.

Soon everyone begins to discuss the future, and each person's dreams are revealed to the group. Even the family's elderly grandmother thinks of her dreams for the future, which includes being impeccably dressed for her funeral. As she lays out her desires, the young guest notes that ''Old and young, we dream of graves and monuments. ... I wonder how mariners feel when the ship is sinking, and they, unknown and undistinguished, are to be buried together in the ocean--that wide and nameless sepulcher?''

At that moment, an avalanche of rocks rushes down the mountain with a thunderous roar. Everyone in the cottage runs to the emergency shelter the family has built for such an event. ''The Slide! The Slide!'' they scream, as they attempt to escape the disaster. The story ends on an ironic note; writers use irony to highlight the difference between what is expected and what actually occurs. Instead of finding safe shelter, Hawthorne reveals that the family has actually run into the arms of death. Their cozy cottage was unharmed, while the ''safer spot'' is destroyed in the rock fall. He tells readers, ''Their bodies were never found.''

The final irony occurs when the shared destiny of the group is revealed. The story of the family's demise becomes legendary, yet the ambitious young guest goes unremembered. In fact, in some versions of the local legend, there is doubt that the young man even existed. Hawthorne writes, ''His name and person utterly unknown; his history, his way of life, his plans, a mystery never to be solved, his death and his existence equally a doubt!''

Theme

One of the themes of ''The Ambitious Guest'' involves the question of whether or not humans can avoid their fate. This theme is introduced as soon as the young stranger approaches the cottage door. ''When the footsteps were heard, therefore, between the outer door and the inner one, the whole family rose up, grandmother, children and all, as if about to welcome someone who belonged to them, and whose fate was linked with theirs.''

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