What is the theme of the "Ambitious Guest"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In all his works, Nathaniel Hawthorne made his chief concern not the outer appearances of things but their essential or inner truth;moreover, he cared chiefly for the truth of the human heart. In his short story, "The Ambitious Guest," physical objects and character traits are significant only in their representation of this inner truth.

  • The inner truth, or theme, of this narrative is the unexpectedness of mortality.

The arrival of the "ambitious guest" with his "high and abstracted ambition," who is afforded shelter by the gracious family, leads this family from their complacency to dreams. Initially, with dramatic irony he tells the family,

"But I cannot die till I have achieved my destiny. Then, let Death come! I shall have built my monument!"

This statement and the false alert of the few boulders that fall at the beginning of the story place the thematic idea of mortality in the minds of the readers.

However, with the warmth of the fire and the sparkling ambition of their guest, members of the family disclose the truths of their hearts. The daughter is unable to repress a sigh, for she realizes the loneliness she has felt now in the presence of "the proud, contemplative, yet kindly soul" of the young man, who sows "a germ of love" in her heart. After the wandering of all the family's imaginations as they listen to their guest, the old woman reveals what has been in her heart, as well, and it is a wish for something to be done after her death. At this moment, there is a terrible rumbling, "as if this awful sound were the peal of the last trump" and the avalanche begins. Having prepared for this catastrophe, the family rushes to its refuge. However, "they had quitted their security and fled right into the pathway of destruction" because, unexpectedly, the alavanche changes it path right before it reaches the house, killing everyone in this irony of fate.