The main character in the story "The Ambitious Guest" is a young traveler who stops to visit with a close family who lives in an isolated but cozy cabin "in the Notch of the White Hills", located in "the bleakest spot in all New England". The traveler is described as a "frank-hearted stranger...of a proud, yet gentle spirit". He has traveled "far and alone; his whole life...had been a solitary path". The young man is "refined and educated", and harbors "a high and abstracted ambition" to do something great in his life so that he will "not...be forgotten in the grave".
The other characters are the denizens of the cabin, a father, a mother, and aged grandmother, an eldest daughter, and some younger children. The traveler, with his talk about his ambitions, gets the family to thinking of their own secret desires in life. Although the mother is cautious, and gives warning about the direction in which the conversation is going, the father expresses his own ambition, a long-held wish for "a good farm", and to be able "to stand well with (his) neighbors and be called Squire". He hopes that he dies peacefully in his bed, and wants a simple monument at his death, something to let people know that (he) lived an honest man and died a Christian". The old grandmother reveals a deep preoccupation with superstition, instilled in her youth; she wants to be able to be sure that when she dies her appearance is in order, and asks that a mirror be held over her face after she has passed away so that she might be able to make sure she looks all right. The eldest daughter, like her mother, makes a cautionary remark about the virtue of being content with what one has been given, but she also remarks that she feels "lonesome", unconsciously hinting at her own innocent but hidden desires for something more. The younger children are exhuberant, adventurous, and imaginative, as illustrated by the one child's banter about visiting "the basin of the Flume, a brook which tumbles, over (a) precipice, deep within the Notch".