24 pages 48 minutes read

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Ambitious Guest

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1835

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Ambitious Guest”

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 short story “The Ambitious Guest” was originally published in The New-England Magazine. Hawthorne based his story on the Willey family tragedy of August 1826. The Willeys owned a tavern and inn at Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. That August, a severe rainstorm in the area led to a massive landslide. While the Willey House Inn and Tavern were left intact after the landslide, the family disappeared overnight and was buried under the landslide.

Written in the third-person omniscient point of view, Hawthorne’s story follows an unnamed family of innkeepers and a traveler who, amid a conversation about life ambitions, are all buried under a landslide. Human ambition and hubris are common themes in Hawthorne’s work, including “The Ambitious Guest,” where Hawthorne uses foreshadowing and irony to explore themes like Human Beings Versus Nature, Ambition Versus Fate, and The Desire to Conquer Death.

This guide refers to the edition shared on the Library of America’s Story of the Week website.

The narrator describes a family—two parents, a grandmother, and several children, including a 17-year-old girl—sitting around a fire on an autumn evening. All are happy, from the laughing children to the matronly grandmother knitting by the fireside. Though they live in the dangerous and lonely “Notch,” a mountain pass where winds are strong and landslides are common, the family enjoys each other’s companionship. The daughter tells a joke, and everyone laughs, but the loud “wailing and lamentation” of the wind interrupts (299), making them despondent for a little while. However, the family becomes joyful again when they realize that they have a guest.

Despite their isolated location, the family receives many travelers who stop to rest at their inn. On this September night, the family receives a young man who is traveling alone. The guest and the family feel an instant connection with each other, and he joins them around the fire. Their conversation is interrupted by the sound of rocks crashing down the mountain. The father reassures the guest that the landslides are generally harmless and that the family has a shelter they can go to in case of a disaster.

The guest is usually reserved toward others, but his immediate sense of familiarity with the family spurs him to share his great ambition of making a name for himself. He admits that he hasn’t done anything that will cause people to remember him after his death yet. The eldest daughter argues that safety and comfort are more important than glory, but the father has an ambition of his own. He wishes that they had “a good farm, in Bartlett, or Bethlehem, or Littleton” where he could work as a lawyer and be in good standing in society alongside their neighbors (301). The mother considers this conversation ominous and fearfully calls out to the little children in the adjoining room. The children express their own wishes, including a little boy who tells the mother that he wants to go with everyone and drink water at the Flume, which is a brook in the Notch.

As the little boy is talking, two or three men come to the door of the inn. They call the father’s name, but he doesn’t respond because he doesn’t want to appear too eager to make a profit, so the strangers continue their journey.

The eldest daughter looks into the fire and sighs, and the guest half-jokingly implies that her loneliness stems from wanting a family of her own. The two young people begin to have romantic feelings toward each other.

The grandmother speaks of an old superstition that the dead cannot rest easily if their garments are not arranged neatly, and she asks her family members to hold a mirror to her face after her death so that she can check her reflection. Engrossed in the grandmother’s story, the family doesn’t hear a landslide coming down the mountain until it is too late. They rush out of the house, and the landslide falls on the path to the shelter. The whole family and the guest are buried under it, and their bodies are never found.

In the morning, the house looks like it was abandoned and like its occupants will return at any moment. Neighbors debate whether a guest was there with the family, but no one has any conclusive proof that the young man existed.