"The Ambitious Guest" begins in a moment of great tranquillity, with a family cozily gathered around their hearth. Father and mother, eldest daughter and aged grandmother, are briefly described as assuming the guises of persons of their ages who are filled with great contentment. Although they are entirely comfortable, mention is made of the harsh winter weather and the dangerous position of the cottage, over which towers a mountain. The noise of stones tumbling down the mountain has often startled the family at midnight.
Throughout the story, a contrast is made between the cozy harmony within and the stormy conditions of nature outside. The wind rattles their door, and they are glad of the company of a young traveler, who proceeds to make himself at home in the welcome atmosphere of the friendly family.
The Ambitious Guest is "frank-hearted" and quickly engages the family in a discussion of his plans to make a reputation for himself. He finds in them a responsive mood that encourages his conversation about how a person must make his mark on life. As they are caught up in his enthusiasm, several family members express very personal feelings about their lives. The father would like a better property and a better title (Squire)—in short, a station in life that would command the respect of his community. One of the younger children, excited by all this discussion of life’s possibilities, calls out to his mother that he would like everyone, the guest included, to "go and take a drink out of the basin of the Flume!" His seemingly extravagant notion of visiting a brook that spills over into a "deep precipice" amuses the others, who cannot imagine leaving the presumed safety and comfort of the cottage.
One by one, however, the family members forsake their usual placid acceptance of things as they are and admit to various fancies, so that, as the mother says, "we’re in a strange way, to-night.
" The guest himself is portrayed as having "a high and abstracted ambition." A solitary wanderer, his dreams of making his mark are just that—dreams, reveries removed from the concreteness of domestic life as it is evoked at the beginning of the story.
The talk turns to death, as the grandmother confesses to a strange preoccupation with a superstition of her youth, that a corpse cannot rest in the grave if it suspects that something about its appearance is awry. She asks her children to make a point of holding a looking glass over her face to get a glimpse of herself after she is laid out for the grave. "Old and young, we dream of graves and monuments," murmurs the guest, who has stimulated the whole family to think about how it wants to be remembered.
Reminders of the roaring wind and of the harsh, inhospitable elements outside finally culminate in the "awful sound" of a slide. The family rushes from the cottage seeking a safer haven but, in fact, flees "right into the pathway of destruction." The whole mountain falls upon them. In the aftermath, their cottage remains intact and the circumstances of their lives are apparent to all who observe the tokens the family has left behind. Only the identity of the guest remains in doubt, his ambition having come to nought.