The Ambitious Guest, a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a commentary on the futility of ambition. This story portrays a man with a great yearning to be famous, who dies without making his mark on the world at all. The author shows us that while ambition might motivate man, it is fate that decides the direction of a person’s existence. This short story is inspired by a real event that took place at the Wiley House, New Hampshire in 1826.
The Ambitious Guest | Summary
The story begins with a sense of calm, a family sitting together in the warmth of their fireplace, finding themselves fulfilled by the happiness and comfort of each other. They lived near a big mountain, subject to the biting cold and tumbling rocks. They lived in a deserted place, but it was near a very popular trade route. The house was a tavern where people would lodge when they needed shelter.
On that night, they had a visitor in the shape of a nameless youth looking for a place to stay awhile. Though he seemed discouraged by his lonely travels, the family’s warm welcome soon made him feel better. He explained where he planned to go and mentioned that the warm fire made him feel as if he belonged in that room that night.
They could hear stones rolling down the mountain, but the master of the house comforted the guest by telling him that there is a place close by in case they need to suddenly vacate the house. They all sat together, satiated, and happy, talking about themselves. The guest, usually quite withdrawn, found himself speaking freely with them, and they with him.
The characteristic of this guest was that he was ambitious, and he had a strong desire to be known across the globe. He wanted to make his mark on the world and be remembered for years to come. He felt that his destiny was to be glorified in the future, even if he was not alive by the time that occurred.
His candor inspired the rest of the family to express their ambitions as well. The father spoke about his desire to have a farm in a place safe from falling rocks and to retire peacefully with his wife. Even the children, all in bed in another room, were telling each other about their dreams for when they reach adulthood. The oldest girl subtly expressed her desire for companionship, and this may have blossomed between her and the guest. The grandmother was the last to speak, detailing her fear of not being at rest after death, which was swiftly followed by the guest commenting that everyone in the world talks of death, and dreams of having a monument to their name. They all sat calmly within the embrace of the firelight, a humble family, and an ambitious guest.
They heard the sound of a fatal avalanche and rushed out of the house to get to safety. Yet, the avalanche split off and didn’t hit the house, but buried them all under rocks. The cascade of rocks covered everything but the now vacant house. The bodies of the family were never found. People mourned them, and their story became a legend of the mountains. As for the guest, he died unknown, and people doubt whether he was ever in that room at all. He, who so desired fame, could not accomplish anything that warranted the fulfillment of his ambition.
The Ambitious Guest | Analysis
This story portrays the author’s view of ambition. He sees ambition as futile, as fate plays a more important role than human choice and effort. The convictions of the guest were all for naught as he died an unknown person, so much so that none of the living even knew whether he was there at all. The humility of the family is juxtaposed with the ambition and certainty of the traveler, though they both meet the same fate.
The story begins with a feeling of ease, comfort, and tranquility. A loving family sitting together, happy in their cottage, warm and cozy even though the wind was sharp, and the winter was brisk. They lived in a dangerous spot, yet they felt safe and happy.
A ‘Notch’ is a mountain pass, and in this case, it is the Crawford Notch in New Hampshire. This route is well-traveled for trade and is referred to as an ‘artery’ by the author. In the same way that an artery carries blood in the human body, and hence supports life, the Crawford pass is a route that supports the livelihood of the people and the economy. The family’s tavern may be inhabited by a lorry driver (teamster), a lone traveler, or anyone in between.
That evening, they stood as if to welcome someone whose fate was linked with theirs. This is our first clue from the author that something important will take place involving them all. The man is the titular character, the ambitious guest. Soon, a big rock fell off the mountain, and here the scene is set of the family who is used to the falling rocks and is ready with substitute shelter.
Now, the stranger does not remain strange at all. He allows himself to speak with honesty and with conviction. He speaks of his ambition to not be forgotten, though his life may be under the radar, it should not remain so after his death. He expressed that he wanted to leave a bright path for the future to look back upon and give him the recognition deserved to him.
The family in the cottage practice humility, and they are content in the life they live. But once this impassioned guest fell into their company, they began bringing forth their own ambitions. The father’s desire for a gravestone led the guest to exclaim that wanting a monument to oneself is intrinsically human. This shows us that the guest saw the family as kindred spirits and believed them to be of the same mind as him. This was further affirmed by the natural flow of conversation and the emotions that he was willing to express to them.
The story has many little glimpses into a future that the characters desire. The father wants a farm, the guest wants fame, the young girl wants love. The glimpses into the future bring about a feeling of anticipation, a plan, a desire for something more than just living in a cottage for years on end. This anticipation is swiftly broken by the sudden deluge of rocks. The people rush out of the house to save themselves, but in actuality, they rush out to their deaths.
The mountain kept its agreement with the family, their house remained intact. The family, no longer content with their life in the Notch, rushed out to have a chance at a future but were buried in rubble instead. The Slide did not touch their house and destroyed everything around it instead. And finally, their guest, with his lofty dreams and ideXals, met the same fate as the humble family that took him in.
This family had run the tavern for a long time, and there were people far and wide who knew them and mourned them. Their lives and demise became well known across the mountains, and poems have been written of their sorry fate. As for the guest, his existence in that room is doubted, and his assumption came true. He did die that night and, save for the family, nobody else knew he was there, and nobody felt the loss of his presence. The ambitious received nothing, and the untroubled family was given the recognition he desired.
Ambition bears no fruit, the author seems to tell us. No earthly immortality can be guaranteed from our desires nor our actions. Fate holds the threads of our lives and our deaths, and our ambition is meaningless in the face of fate.
The Ambitious Guest | About the Author
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804. He is a short story writer who wrote mainly on topics like religion and morality. His stories are characterized by gloom, as he is a writer of the Dark Romantic era, and focuses on stories surrounding guilt, or sin. His writing style involves using symbolism and metaphors to get his point across to the reader.
His most well-known works are ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and ‘The House of the Seven Gables’. Hawthorne is honored in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans as an author and editor.
He died in 1864, in Plymouth, New Hampshire.