Please explain the title "The Ambitious Guest." Is the guest really ambitious?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Hawthorne's "The Ambitious Guest" is a parable. The intention is to show that no one can know what life holds in store for him. The story resembles Tolstoy's "What Men Live By" to some extent. In that great story a rich man orders a shoemaker to make him a pair of boots, but the shoemaker's assistant, who is a fallen angel, makes a pair of slippers instead. It turns out that the client died that day and did not need boots but slippers for his corpse.

"It was not given to the mother to know what her children needed for their life. Nor was it given to the rich man to know what he himself needed. Nor is it given to any man to know whether, when evening comes, he will need boots for his body or slippers for his corpse."

The young man who is called "the ambitious guest" does seem tremendously ambitious--although he doesn't seem to have the slightest idea of what it is he feels so certain he will achieve. Since his strong feelings ignite those of all the members of the family, it would appear that every human being has an ambition of one kind or another. Everyone, in a sense, is "Waiting for Godot."

The secret of the young man's character was a high and abstracted ambition.

He has been walking all the way from Maine to Vermont and intends to continue traveling past Burlington. He has been sleeping by the side of the road. He is obviously too poor to own a horse or to hire a place on the stagecoach. The fact that he is traveling so far into a land where he is a complete stranger shows that he is ambitious. He is looking for work--and he is more likely to find it in the more industrialized areas to the south. He expresses his nebulous ambitions in the followig paragraph:

"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. Not a soul would ask, 'Who was he? Whither did the wanderer go?' But I cannot die till I have achieved my destiny. Then, let Death come! I shall have built my monument!"

He doesn't realize that his "Destiny" is already predetermined. It is to die that very night, buried under a landslide which kills the landlord and his entire family. Evidently, it takes more than ambition to achieve success. It takes ambition plus luck.

Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play and in real life was extremely ambitious. He wanted to be the greatest man in Rome. He wanted no less than to become an emperor. But he was ignorant of the fact that other ambitious men were plotting against him. The very men who came to escort him to the senate-house to be crowned on the Ides of March were the ones who were concealing swords and daggers under their tunics with the intention of assassinating him.

Hawthorne was the first American to attempt to make a career as a professional freelance writer. He had to compete with the established English writers who were more polished and had more interesting subject matter to write about. Hawthorne often made up his stories out of virtually nothing. The setting of "The Ambitious Guest" is a  shanty at the foot of a mountain. The characters are simple souls who are not even named. Hawthorne was successful in fulfilling own ambition because of his imagination and his fine literary craftsmanship.

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