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It is ironic that the young guest is sharing his ambitions with the family when fate has brought him to this precise location at a time when the mountain is going to give way.
They dwelt in a cold spot and a dangerous one; for a mountain towered above their heads, so steep, that the stones would often tumble down its sides and startle them at midnight.
Although the guest is extremely ambitious he does not yet have any idea of how he is going to achieve the great success and fame he desires. Since he is young, he naturally believes he has a long time to find himself, to acquire the needed expertise, and to win the renown he so confidently expects.
"As yet," cried the stranger--his cheek glowing and his eye flashing with enthusiasm--"as yet, I have done nothing. Were I to vanish from the earth tomorrow, none would know so much of me as you; that a nameless youth came up at nightfall from the valley of the Saco, and opened his heart to you in the evening, and passed through the Notch by sunrise, and was seen no more. . . . But I cannot die till I have achieved my destiny. Then, let Death come! I shall have built my monument!"
The irony is increased by the fact that the young guest's expression of his intense ambition causes members of the family to confess that they too have ambitions. Even the grandmother tells the family that she is ambitious to have a good funeral and to look well in her coffin. Hawthorne is saying essentially what the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament:
"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "All is vanity."
In Hawthorne's story the family and the setting are obviously intended to be a microcosm of the human race. They all have their dreams of glory, and in the meantime they are living in the shadow of a mountain which keeps sending them clear signals that they are going to die.
"The old mountain has thrown a stone at us, for fear we should forget him," said the landlord. "He sometimes nods his head and threatens to come down; but we are old neighbors, and agree together pretty well upon the whole. Besides we have a sure place of refuge hard by if he should be coming in good earnest."
They all run to this place of refuge when a large part of the mountain is coming down on their home, but the building is spared and all are buried in the place of refuge, including their young guest. It is ironic that the place they counted on for safety turned out to be a deathtrap.
Down came the whole side of the mountain, in a cataract of ruin. Just before it reached the house, the stream broke into two branches--shivered not a window there, but overwhelmed the whole vicinity, blocked up the road, and annihilated everything in its dreadful course.
Irony is like a joke that would be funny if it were not so painful. To Hawthorne it was ironic that people made such plans for the future when everything they accomplished would be taken away by death.
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" may have been inspired by "The Ambitious Guest." In Poe's story a group of people are also expecting to avoid death while living lives of enjoyment and frivolity. But Death gets inside the fortified palace and disposes of all of them.
Hawthorne's story is also reminiscent of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Excelsior," which begins:
The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth who bore, 'mid snow and ice,
A banner with a strange device--
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