Study and Discussion Questions for Hawthorne’s The Ambitious Guest
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Ambitious Guest (available here in multiple formats) is a story of vanity and its price. It is a tragedy with a healthy dose of humor. Read the story once, then read these questions, then read the story again, and only then answer the questions.
1. Without looking at a dictionary, define the word ambition. Then look it up in a dictionary. How was your definition different, if at all?
2. Why did Hawthorne introduce the two or three men who passed by the house but did not enter? What is the significance of the father ignoring their call?
3. The hearth and its fire are mentioned several times in the story. What do they represent? How are they contrasted with the snow outside, and to what purpose? You may also wish to read Hawthorne’s sketch Fire Worship.
4. What is the moral of the story? There may be more than one.
5. Throughout the story, there are several clues to the impending catastrophe. Identify them.
6. What is the narrator’s view of ambition? When is ambition a negative force, in your opinion?
7. What is earthly immortality? Is it possible to achieve earthly immortality? Is it worth pursuing?
8. The story ends in total catastrophe in which all characters die. Did this ending shock you? Was it effective in conveying the moral of the story? What do you think of this ending as a literary device? Would a different ending have conveyed the moral better? If yes, outline your alternative ending.
For further study, see John F. Sears, “Hawthorne’s ‘The Ambitious Guest’ and the Significance of the Willey Disaster”, American Literature 54(3):354-367 (1982).