In "The Ambitious Guest," who was this guest? What could he want?
The family dwells in the Notch of the White Hills, which Hawthorne calls "the bleakest spot of all New England." Their home also serves as an inn.
It was one of those primitive taverns where the traveller pays only for food and lodging, but meets with a homely kindness beyond all price.
Anyone traveling through the Notch in either direction can stop and enter the house to get out of the cold wind, have something to eat or drink, and stay overnight if so inclined.
The stage-coach always drew up before the door of the cottage.
The passengers and the driver would undoubtedly want refreshments and a chance to stretch their legs and warm themselves at the fire. This could be a good source of income for the landlord.
The romantic pass of the Notch is a great artery, through which the life-blood of internal commerce is continually throbbing between Maine, on one side, and the Green Mountains and the shores of the St. Lawrence, on the other.
The Green Mountains run north and south through Vermont. The so-called ambitious guest is traveling south on foot. Evidently he could not afford to take the stage-coach. People did a lot of traveling on foot in Hawthorne's day. He wrote other stories in which pedestrians cover long distances, including "Young Goodman Brown" and "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux."
The young man enters because he wants warmth, food, and shelter for the night. He does not even knock but enters the cottage as he would any ordinary inn.
"Then you are going towards Vermont?" said the master of the house, as he helped to take a light knapsack off the young man's shoulders.
"Yes, to Burlington, and far enough beyond," replied he. I meant to have been at Ethan Crawford's to-night; but a pedestrian lingers along such a road as this. It is no matter; for, when I saw this good fire, and all your cheerful faces, I felt as if you had kindled it on purpose for me, and were waiting my arrival."
There is nothing ominous about this young man's arrival. The road is the main artery between Maine and Vermont. The guest never tells them why he is going to Burlington, but there is a strong probability that he is looking for work. A young man who lived in Maine would find little employment there and would be likely to travel south to find work in the growing manufacturing centers in Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York.
This cottage must have been a welcome sight because it is getting dark and there would be nowhere else to stay. Hawthorne mentions that the young man is wearing a knapsack. No doubt he has been sleeping by the side of the road and will continue doing so until he gets all the way to his destination.
Hawthorne indicates that it is nighttime by narrating:
"The younger children had been put to bed in another room, but with an open door between, so that they could be heard talking busily among themselves.
Henry James moved to England because he complained that America offered nothing to write about. Hawthorne was the first successful American freelance writer, and he did his best to extract material for stories, novels and essays from the primitive scenes and humble folk of his native land.
It was a difficult task for a writer in Hawthorne’s time and place, because there was virtually nothing to emulate in contemporary American fiction. The popular fiction writers of his day were all Europeans. Americans were far more interested in the charms of an older culture than in the prosaic facts of their own existence.