Why is "The Ambitious Guest" an appropriate title for the story?
The young guest is described as a "wayfarer." This is an interesting word, although it has virtually gone out of use. A wayfarer is a person who travels on foot, and this is usually because he can't afford to own a horse or ride in the stagecoach. This young man has been walking all the way from Maine.
"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.
The fact that he has a knapsack suggests that he has been sleeping by the roadside. His long journey in itself characterizes him as an ambitious man. He must have very little money. He doesn't know exactly where he is going, but he must looking for a job. He has probably left his home permanently and ventured out into the world with nothing but his great expectations.
The title of the story is appropriate because of the young man's adventurous journey and also because of his enthusiastic description of his ambitions to the others. It is also appropriate because it is ironic. He doesn't realize that this is his last day on earth--as today could be yours or mine. Furthermore, his account of his ambitions is what inspires the members of the family to talk about their own ambitions, thus adding to the irony when the mountain collapses.
Hawthorne delights in description. His stories are often slow-moving, and the modern reader can only enjoy some of them if he or she takes the time to savor the painstaking and eloquent descriptions of interiors and exteriors. Hawthorne was saving his best writing for the paragraph which he has been foreshadowing from the beginning.
The simplest words must intimate, but not portray, the unutterable horror of the catastrophe. The victims rushed from the cottage, and sought refuge in what they deemed a safer spot--where, in contemplation of such an emergency, a sort of barrier had been reared. Alas! they had quitted their security, and fled right into the pathway of destruction. Down came the whole side of the mountain, in a cataract of ruin. Just before it reached the house, the stream broke into two branches--shivered not a window there, but overwhelmed the whole vicinity, blocked up the road, and annililated everything in its dreadful course. Long ere the thunder of the great Slide had ceased to roar among the mountains, the mortal agony had been endured, and the victims were at peace. Their bodies were never found.
There have been many stories, novels, plays, and poems written about the vanity of ambition. It makes a good theme because it is so true to human experience. Charles Dickens' Great Expectations is one example of how ambitions are disappointed. Herman Melville's Moby Dick is another. Mary Shelley Frankenstein dramatizes another way in which a character's ambition can lead to tragedy. Macbeth was ambitious. Julius Caesar was assassinated for being too ambitious. The peasant named Pahom in Tolstoy's story "How Much Land Does A Man Need?" was destroyed by his ambition. Tolstoy wrote a beautiful story titled "What Men Live By" which included the same theme.
It is not necessarily a bad thing to be ambitious, but, as Robert Burns says in his poem
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy
John Steinbeck used "of mice and men" as the title of his novella about George Milton and Lennie Small, who had a humble dream about owning their own farm.
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