What is the style and tone of "The Ambitious Guest"?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edgar Allan Poe published a famous "Review of Twice-Told Tales" in Graham's Magazine in May 1842. He praised Hawthorne and called him "a man of the truest genius." At the same time, Poe pointed out that not all of the pieces in Hawthorne's book were really stories or tales but that "Many of them are pure essays," which is the truth. Poe did not single out "The Ambitious Guest," but he might have classified it as an essay. Modern editors would call it a "mood piece" and probably wouldn't publish it, regardless of the fact that it is beautifully written in the impeccable English for which Hawthorne is noted.

A short story is a dramatic narrative. "The Ambitious Guest" is not dramatic. The title would seem to suggest that the young man called "the guest" is going to provide dramatic conflict because of his ambition. A dramatic narrative requires a conflict, and a conflict requires motivation. It turns out that the guest is undoubtedly extremely ambitious but has no idea what he hopes to achieve or in what field of endeavor.

"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!"

The moral of Hawthorne's essay, or mood piece, very obviously has to do with the fact that Death will come when it comes regardless of anyone's hopes, dreams, ambitious, or responsibilities. The young stranger perishes along with the entire family when the mountain under which they have been so foolhardy as to live and establish an business finally releases the great landslide the whole family has been dreading and expecting.

Hawthorne's "The Ambitious Guest" bears a strong resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe's well-known "The Masque of the Red Death," which was published a short time later than Twice-Told Tales and might have been inspired by Hawthorne. In "The Masque of the Red Death" there is beautiful description and fine English prose, but little if any drama. The characters try to enjoy life and to avoid thinking about the inevitability of Death. They are living under the same ominous shadow as the family in "The Ambitious Guest" and are eventually swallowed up.

Poe says of the style and tone of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales:

There is, perhaps, a somewhat too general or prevalent tone--a tone of melancholy and mysticism. The subjects are insufficiently varied. . . .The style is purity itself. Force abounds. High imagination gleams from every page.

Hawthorne frequently seems to depend on the beauty and grace of his writing, on pure eloquence, and he seems to enjoy making much of little, showing his imagination and sensitivity. "The Ambitious Guest," like Poe "The Masque of the Red Death," is a tour de force but not one of Hawthorne's best stories. The characters are not well drawn but seem like a typical young man, a typical young girl, a typical grandmother, and other familiar types. It is an example of beautiful writing but not a good example of a well crafted short story. We are hardly surprised when the mountain comes crashing down and wipes them all out.