"The Ambitious Guest" was one of four stories Hawthorne set in the rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire. The others were "The Great Carbuncle," "Sketches from Memory," and "The Great Stone Face." The moral of "The Ambitious Guest" is suggested in a comparison between the awesome age, grandeur and power of nature versus the relative puniness of man with his brief lifespan and futile ambitions. The setting of "The Ambitious Guest," like that of the other three stories inspired by the White Mountains, is intended to convey the moral that nature is indifferent to human wishes. A similar message is implicit in such literary works as John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Jack London's "To Build a Fire," and Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat."
Nathaniel Hawthorne was the first successful American freelance writer. After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, he wrote his mother:
"I do not want to be a doctor and live by men's diseases, nor a minister to live by their sins, nor a lawyer to live by their quarrels. So, I don't see that there is anything left for me but to be an author."
To make a living as an author in America in Hawthorne's day was nearly an impossibility, because the reading public was only interested in the characters and scenes that Europe had to offer. As Henry James wrote in a book about Hawthorne, America had nothing to offer a writer:
No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, no little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools--no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class--no Epson nor Ascot!
Hawthorne was challenged to make up stories out of virtually nothing, and it was only due to his imagination and craftsmanship that he was able to attract a wide enough audience to earn a living. "The Ambitious Guest" is a good example of how Hawthorne took a barren setting and peopled it with characters of his own invention. He chose not to give the characters names, because he wanted to emphasize their insignificance in comparison to the wild and dangerous desolation surrounding them.
Hawthorne does not seem to be implying that man should not be ambitious, but only that man is ambitious by nature and that his life is necessarily precarious. If he happens to achieve a limited success, he is doomed by his mortality to lose everything he builds or acquires. Probably the best expression of the moral of “The Ambitious Guest” is to be found in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, in which the Preacher keeps repeating that “All is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Hawthorne’s illustration of man’s impermanence in his somber short story suggests the following lines from Ecclesiastes:
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
George R. Stewart used the words "Earth Abides" as the title for his best novel, and Ernest Hemingway used the words "The Sun Also Rises" for one of his early novels.