The Tragedy of Death in Hawthorne’s “The Ambitious Guest”
When writing “The Ambitious Guest” Nathaniel Hawthorne follows a complex course through characterization, an awful catastrophe, and an ironic ending to express sentiments about death and how it is seen by society. Hawthorne wants the reader to see that death occurs all the time, even when we do not know it. However this does not make it any less tragic, and in fact, may make it more so. In this short story, Hawthorne portrays a lonely mountain family who discovers the spirit of an ambitious traveler, and is then caught in a catastrophic landslide that destroys them all. He uses the family as a practical comparison for his message about death, and he uses the traveler to portray this message. The family’s story is a conceivable one, and one that actually did occur. However, this does not change the message of the story. The traveler is what brings out this message, which is obvious through the inquiry in the last paragraph, and it is this inquiry that brings final meaning to the characterization, and the appalling incident.
Hawthorne opens his story by giving personality to both the family and the traveler so that the reader can relate to them and, eventually, begin to care for them. He writes that “[t]he faces of the father and mother had a sober gladness; the children laughed; the eldest daughter was the image of Happiness at seventeen; and the aged grandmother, […], was the image of Happiness grown old” (Hawthorne 237). Here he portrays an ideal family; a caring father and mother, a number of children, and an elderly grandmother. With this personality also comes the emphasis of another characteristic … mortality. Hawthorne is said to be stressing the “familiar […] lesson, [that] man is mortal” through the false alert of a slide early on in the story (Sears). The brief false alert puts the suggestion of danger into the readers head. His characterization continues as he writes about their actions, “The daughter […] uttered some simple jest that filled them all with mirth” (Hawthorne 237). This illustrates that the family is loving and only needs its members to survive. With this the reader can begin to see the closeness that the family shared and even develop a gentle love for them. After giving the reader a thorough portrait of the family, Hawthorne introduces the traveler, who he writes “wore the melancholy expression […] of one who travels a wild and bleak road” (Hawthorne 238). However, Hawthorne indicates that this sentiment does not last long. The traveler was “soon brightened up when he saw the kindly warmth of his reception” (Hawthorne 238). Hawthorne writes that the guest “felt his heart spring forward”, implying that he felt at home and comfortable with the family; a feeling similar to what the reader feels (Hawthorne 238). Hawthorne also tells the reader that the traveler has great ambition which helps “[prepare] for the final inversion” because now the reader knows of the travelers desires (Durr 4). The feelings of care are exactly those that Hawthorne wished to evoke in the. By bringing out these feelings in the reader, Hawthorne has effectively made them vulnerable to his plot. The reader now cares for the characters, and Hawthorne can use this emotion to shock the reader and bring out his theme.
The vast rock slide that occurs at the end of the story is the
climactic event that Hawthorne uses to bring about his message. Because the
reader now cares for both the family and the traveler, their death is a great
tragedy, especially in the way that it occurs. The family “rushed from
their 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”
(Hawthorne 243). Of course, living in such a dangerous area, the family had
foreseen such an event. So they had created a barrier that they believed would
hold against such a slide; unfortunately, it did not. All perished and “[t]heir
bodies were never found” (Hawthorne 243). At this point the reader is
now overwhelmed. The characters that had just so recently been introduced
are now dead. This feeling of suddenness that such an event evokes plays a
large part in Hawthorne’s theme. The reader now realizes how unexpected
death usually is, and how much greater the effect when those who perish were
loved. Although the death would be tragic either way, the emotions are exaggerated
when the reader cares for the characters. The death was sudden, and the tragedy
could not be subject to intense analysis, it “had to be accepted […]
as a mystery beyond the capacity of man to penetrate” (Sears). The reader
now begins to realize the tragedy of death. This is the first part to Hawthorne’s
theme, and helps seamlessly lead into his final inquiry.
In the second to last paragraph, Hawthorne begins to consider the feelings of the other townspeople in the story, and how they pictured the event. He writes that “[t]he story has been told far and wide, and will forever be a legend of these mountains” (Hawthorne 244). The reader will easily accept this, because the feelings of sorrow are similar to the reader’s feelings after reading it. However, in the last paragraph, Hawthorne makes his distinction between the “content to be unknown” family and the traveler (Durr 4). When seen from an objective point of view, as the townspeople see it, the traveler is not important. His existence would not change their feelings. One could easily understand how this could happen. However, since the reader does know of the traveler, this makes his death just as tragic as that of the family. However, in the story, the family was remembered and mourned for, and the traveler did not receive this final token of existence. Hawthorne writes that “[h]is name and person [were] utterly unknown; his history, his way of life, his plans, a mystery never to be solved, his death and his existence equally a doubt!” (Hawthorne 244). The reader now sees a tragedy that is possibly greater than the slide. The travelers deepest desires were known to the reader, which creates an emotional closeness like no other. The reader remembers the traveler, but he/she feels as if being the sole person who does.
Hawthorne ends his story with an ironic question; “Whose was the agony of that death moment?” (Hawthorne 244). The family, who was unknown, is now remembered, and has achieved in some way what the traveler wanted, and the traveler who would have “sublimated all other of life’s values” for fame, dies in “absolute obscurity” (Durr 4). Here he leaves the reader to his/her own opinion. He has already made his argument that death is a tragedy, no matter how the life is remembered. Although formed in a question, Hawthorne’s inquiry is not meant to force the reader to come to a definite conclusion, but to merely do as he has done, and consider the fact that there may have been an even worse occurrence. The slide, the family, and the tragedy as a whole will go down in history; it will be remembered, but the life of one lone soul who opened his heart to a kind family may never be thought of again. If death is the true tragedy then which party is still more tragic? The family may have no physical life, but some would argue that they live on in the memories of others. In this sense the traveler is truly dead, never to be mourned over, Hawthorne’s final tragedy of “The Ambitious Guest”.
Durr, Robert Allen. “Hawthorne’s Ironic Mode.” The New England Quarterly. 1957 Dec.; 30(4): 486-495 <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0028-4866%28195712%2930%3A4%3C486%3AHIM%3E2.0.CO%3B2-S>
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Ambitious Guest.” Twice-Told Tales. Ed. Ernest Rhys. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1911. 237-244.
Sears, John F. “Hawthorne's "The Ambitious Guest"
and the Significance of the Willey Disaster.” American-Literature: A
Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography (AL). Durham, NC.
1982 Oct.; 54(3): 354-367