What are the themes in "The Ambitious Guest"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The themes examined in Hawthorne's short story "The Ambitious Guest" concern ambition, legacy, and fate. When the guest arrives, he interrupts the family's peaceful evening by speaking about legacy, which influences the family members to begin contemplating their own dreams and aspirations. Despite the daughter's comment that it "is better to sit here by this fire . . . and be comfortable and contented, though nobody thinks about us," the father begins thinking about becoming a respected squire, and the grandmother imagines how she will look in her casket. The guest also mentions the following:

It is our nature to desire a monument, be it slate or marble, or a pillar of granite, or a glorious memory in the universal heart of man (Hawthorne 4).

The entire time the guest talks about the importance of leaving a legacy and being remembered as a great, talented man, the dangerous natural environment outside threatens the cottage. Nature represents fate, which intervenes as an avalanche rolls down the mountain toward the cottage. Unfortunately, the family and their guest leave the safety of the cottage and are buried beneath the snow while the home stands erect. The ambitious guest failed to take into consideration fate during his discussion regarding legacy, and, ironically, he is the only person whose name is not remembered following the natural disaster.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One theme in The Ambitious Guest is ambition and how a person defines contentment in life.  

On a stormy night, a stranger comes to the door of a small cottage that sits at the base of a mountain, welcomed inside by the family, the ambitious guest makes himself at home.

Inside the cottage is a family, mother, father, son, daughter and Grandmother, relatviely content with the quiet snug life that they lead in the remote cottage in the country.  Unlike the family, the guest is a traveler who has great expectations for his life, big plans.

While the members of the family have always felt satisfied with the quiet, simple life they have led in the cozy cottage, after hearing the guest speak, the family starts to imagine all the things that they could do with a little ambition of their own.  Each family member has his or her own vision of what they feel is missing from their lives.

"One by one, however, the family members forsake their usual placid acceptance of things as they are and admit to various fancies, so that, as the mother says, “we’re in a strange way, to-night.” The guest himself is portrayed as having “a high and abstracted ambition.” A solitary wanderer, his dreams of making his mark are just that—dreams, reveries removed from the concreteness of domestic life as it is evoked at the beginning of the story."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial