Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title of the story focuses on the disturbing element: ambition. The guest’s ambition is equated with his solitariness, his wandering, and his separation from the community of feeling enjoyed by the family. Ambition, in itself, is abstract. It seems to have nothing to do with the way this family lives; indeed, as the mother remarks, she feels a sense of strangeness when the family begins to talk in the guest’s terms about what it wants as opposed to what it already has.

The eldest daughter is aware of the guest’s disturbing ideas when she replies, “It is better to sit here by this fire . . . and be comfortable and contented, though nobody thinks about us.” The guest, on the other hand, thinks of “Earthy Immortality,” as the narrator puts it. The guest rejects her acceptance of the status quo in favor of a sense of destiny. He ignores, however, the signs of fate that Nathaniel Hawthorne infuses into the sounds of nature: “There was a wail along the road, as if a funeral were passing.” What the family has forsaken, under the temporary influence of the guest, is its own attunement to the world.

By not naming his characters, Hawthorne gives his story a universal dimension. It is about the family, about ambition, and about how human beings both place themselves in and abstract themselves from the world at large. As the narrator remarks of the family in this story, “Though they dwelt in such a solitude, these people held daily converse with the world.”

“The Ambitious Guest” is a fable, but it is also a folktale with its origins, the narrator implies, in fact—not in fancy or in abstractions. Of the family, for example, the narrator comments: “All had left separate tokens, by which those who had known the family were made to shed a tear for each. Who has not heard their name?” They have become the subject of poets, the narrator notes, so that their fate becomes everyone’s fate, human fate—or, as the narrator puts it earlier in the story while commenting on the affinity of the family for the guest, “Is not the kindred of a common fate a closer tie than that of birth?”