The Ambitious Guest

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"The Ambitious Guest" is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. First published in The New-England Magazine in June of 1835, it was republished in the second volume of Twice-Told Tales in 1841.


A young traveler stops for the night with a family that lives in a "notch" next to a mountain. They make friendly conversation, interrupted once by the sound of a wagon carrying other travelers (who pause but do not go inside, continuing on with their journey) and then by the sound of rocks falling from the slope. The father reassures the visitor that rockfalls happen regularly without causing harm, but that the family has a "safe place" to go in the event of a serious collapse.

The group carries on with their friendly conversation. The visitor acknowledges that he is young and has no accomplishments of note, but hopes he will have "achieved my destiny" before he dies and then "I shall have built my monument!" The father expresses the wish for a more humble legacy, and the aged grandmother makes a request for her dying day. The outdoor weather corresponds to his mixed emotions.

Suddenly, they are alarmed by the sound of a much larger avalanche. They scream in fear of "The Slide!" and bolt outside for their safe place. But they are all caught up in the rock slide and killed, while the house is completely undamaged. Their bodies are swept away and never found. The narrator notes that some who see the house later think there is evidence of a visitor that night, but others disagree - the young man has in fact died without leaving any trace of his life.

Composition and publication history[edit]

The basis of the story is the Willey tragedy of Crawford Notch, New Hampshire.[1] He was also inspired by a trip beginning in September 1832 that took him through New Hampshire and Vermont. "The Ambitious Guest" was published as the first of a series of travel pieces he titled "Sketches from Memory, By a Pedestrian", in the November 1835 issue of the New-England Magazine. The second in the series, "The Great Carbuncle", was published a month later before the series was discontinued.[2]

Hawthorne biographer Brenda Wineapple suggests that "The Ambitious Guest" expresses Hawthorne's own desire for fame and uncertainty of the future at the early stage in his career when it was written.[3]


  1. ^ Sears, John F. (October 1982), "Hawthorne's "The Ambitious Guest" and the Significance of the Willey Disaster" (PDF), American Literature, Duke University Press, 54 (3): 354–367, doi:10.2307/2925848 
  2. ^ Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980: 51. ISBN 0-395-27602-0.
  3. ^ Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. Random House: New York, 2003: 66. ISBN 0-8129-7291-0.

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