We often talk about fate and destiny, about "the wheel of fortune." We live our lives not knowing what awaits us around the corner. Ironically, if the Willey family and their guest had heeded the child's desire and gone to the Flume, they would have survived.
Q: What other examples of irony (i.e., events or sayings that contradict reality or the reality that is about to happen shortly) can you find in "The Ambitious Guest"? Clue: Examine the guest's words.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Ambitious Guest" reveals how a small change in one's life can alter it forever. In this story, it is the unexpectation of Death that makes such an alteration as a happy family is distracted by the appearance of an "ambitious" guest. The presence of irony of situation and verbal irony both help to underscore this unawareness of Death by the characters.
SITUATIONAL IRONY - In this type of irony an event occurs which contradicts the expectations of the characters or the readers.
- When "the ambitious guest" arrives, the family, who has found the "heart's ease in the bleakest spot of all New England" has no idea that he will effect their discontent and demise both. Nor does he.
- Having heard his footsteps between the outer and the inner doors, the family all rises as though to "welcome someone who belonged to them, and whose fate was linked with theirs." (While they simply feel this way, their sense of fate connected with the guest does, indeed, come true.)
- After the guest arrives, he and the family all hear "something like a heavy footstep" that passes by the cottage. Too familiar with this sound to fear it, the landlord personifies the old mountain as being the "old neighbor" who lets them know he is still there. And, "[B]esides, we have a sure place of refuge hard by if he should be coming in good earnest."
- The young traveler has the ambition to become distinguished in life and does not want to be "forgotten in the grave." Ironically, he will be forgotten in his grave.
- When the other travelers pass later on, the father does not respond quickly and, since the door is latched, they move on. Had they been admitted, they could have carried the family and the guest to the Flume as the boy has desired.
- In an odd reverie, the grandmother worries that if she dies, her clothes will not be arranged as they should be. An old superstition holds that if anything is amiss with her corpse, beneath the earth the corpse would try to arrange them properly. (Unfortunately, her clothes will be completely disheveled in the avalanche.)
- When they hear the avalanche, they all seek refuge "in what they deemed a safer spot." Instead, they are headed into the "pathway of destruction."
VERBAL IRONY -This type of irony exists when words are used to suggest the opposite of their meaning.
- The ambitious young man unknowingly predicts what is to happen. He tells his hosts,
"Were I to vanish from the earth tomorrow, none would know so much of me as you." (He does, ironically, vanish from the earth and know one knows him.)
- The landlord tells his wife after he has long been musing,
"...It is strange, wife, how his talk has set my head running on things that are pretty certain never to come to pass." (these things do not happen)
- With all the musings of the family, the wife remarks tearfully, "They say it's a sign of something, when folks 'minds go a-wandering so." (Things do happen)