Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Ambitious Guest

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The Ambitious Guest Summary

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“The Ambitious Guest,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was originally published in 1835 in The New-England Magazine. The story, about a family struggling through a storm and its efforts to survive the night, is based on the true story of the Willey Family and its hired help who died in an avalanche in 1826. Hawthorne, however, focuses his narrative on what happens before the avalanche, and the theme of lost ambitions. Hawthorne was a nineteenth-century American Romantic writer who included moral metaphors in his work. He is praised for achieving depth and complexity in short story writing.

The main protagonist is a young man traveling through the White Mountains on his way to Burlington. He’s full of ambition and hopes to make a real name for himself. Hawthorne intentionally withholds his name, which suggests there will be a deeper meaning attached to this character and his fate. He doesn’t tell us the names of the family, either, but it’s taken to mean that it’s the Willey family.

On his way over the mountain range, the man, or “Ambitious Guest,” stops at a cabin. This cabin turns out to be an inn. Here, he seeks shelter from the cold and the wind. He’s supposed to be staying elsewhere, but he knows he can’t make it in time because he tarried too long on the road. He can tell there’s a storm brewing, and he wonders if the family will let him camp there for the night. He sits down at the fireplace and asks for board.

The family is more than happy to let him stay. The family members are warm and friendly, and they’re excited to hear his stories of the lands beyond the White Mountains. Although they’re poor and live a hard life, they’re happy with their lot; having each other is enough for them. Although the young man can’t understand this because of his lofty ambitions, they fascinate him. Their desire for safety and security appeals to him—he’s not a bad man, just an ambitious and idealistic one.

He tells the family that his biggest fear is dying anonymously without having done anything memorable. He doesn’t want anyone to forget him. They ask him what he has in mind. He explains that he doesn’t care if he’s famous in life, so long as he’s famous in death. They end up talking about headstones and memorials, and whether these have any value.

Meanwhile, they hear other travelers going by in wagons. These wagons don’t stop; the travelers keep going up the mountain. The landlord doesn’t have much hope for these people, because he can tell a bad storm will soon rain down on them. No one goes looking for these travelers, because they’re content to stay together in safety, but they pray for them.

The family members are not otherwise worried about the storm. They feel very secure in their home, ignoring the stones clattering down the mountainside. They tell the young man he’s safe in their cabin. He feels reassured as they settle down to a supper of bear’s meat. The young man normally lives a solitary life—he isn’t used to having a family around him. For once, he feels like part of something. Even if they won’t make him famous, he hopes they’ll remember him.

However, the young man’s aspirations affect the whole family, and they talk about their own unfulfilled ambitions. The landlord wishes he had a farm on a nice plot of land, but he’s content knowing it’s only a dream. The eldest daughter feels lonely and wishes to find love, and the youngest son has an adventurous spirit. After a time, they all admit they spend as much time wondering about their fate as the young man does.

Unfortunately, the peaceful evening doesn’t last. The cabin’s foundations start to shake, and the landlord fears it’s not a storm at all, but an avalanche. The young man doesn’t know the danger signs for an avalanche, but the family does. They panic, and start shouting, trying to get out. They seek refuge outside the cabin. Long before, they planned how to stay safe in an avalanche, and so they have faith in the spot they choose.

However, this happens to be the worst place to stand to take shelter. They’re in the direct path of the landslide, which brings down the whole mountain face. The family and the young man are buried in its path, and their bodies are never found again. Worse, the cabin itself is untouched. Everything looks abandoned but safe. If they’d all only stayed inside the house, they would have missed the impact—metaphorically, leaving their place of contentment brings about their end.

Ultimately, the young man loses all hope of immortality. No one knows his name or what he looks like—some even wonder if he was there at all. He becomes nothing more than a myth, and Hawthorne leaves us with the message that we should be careful what we wish for.