What is the conflict in "The Ambitious Guest"?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is often said that there are three main conflicts in drama. They are man against man, man against nature, and man against himself. In most stories, plays, and motion pictures it is usually easy to identify the type of conflict being dramatized. In "The Ambitious Guest" it is obvious that the conflict must involve man against nature. The two opponents are introduced in the opening paragraph.

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.

(Those last words "at midnight" are only there for effect, because the stones tumble down the mountainside at any time and probably startle them just as much whenever they come.)

In stories involving "man against nature," the protagonist can be either nature or man. A story like Jack London's "To Build a Fire" is an example of man against nature. The same is true of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." A story in which a man tried to conquer Mount Everest would be an example of man against nature.

However, a story like Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" would seem to be one in which nature is the protagonist and therefore an example of nature against man. Another good example of nature against man is Carl Stephenson's gripping "Leiningen Versus the Ants," in which a man is pitted against an army of soldier ants. There have been many stories and novels in which humans are threatened by floods, hurricanes, volacnoes, earthquakes, and hordes of non-human creatures. Stories about extraterrestrials invading the earth, such as H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, would be classified as nature against man.

The conflict in Hawthorne's "The Ambitious Guest" would seem be one of nature against man. The mountain is the protagonist. It keeps threatening to destroy the humans living in its shadow. There is nothing they can do to stop it. Their best hope is in a certain place they can run to where they think they can be sheltered from the biggest possible landslide.
"The old mountain has thrown a stone at us, for fear we should forget him," said the landlord, recovering himself. "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."

Hawthorne must have invented this "sure place of refuge"--which sounds like a metaphor for God--to explain why this family would choose to live in such a location in the first place. It turns out that the mountain, personified as a sort of friendly giant, knows all about their "sure place of refuge" and exactly where to find them when he is ready to wipe them out.

Edgar Allan Poe published a laudatory review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales in Graham's Magazine in 1842. He writes that "Hawthorne is a man of the truest genius," but he qualifies his praise with a few words of criticism:

In the way of objection we have scarcely a word to say of these tales. There is, perhaps, a somewhat too general or prevalent tone--a tone of melancholy and mysticism.

"The Ambitious Guest" is certainily melancholy. What Poe says about his great contemporary is true. Hawthorne is so consistently somber and melancholy that he seems morbid. His greatest strength, and his main appeal to contemporary readers, is in his gift for description, as can be seen throughout this story, one of his Twice-Told Tales.