The Wedding-guest plays an important role in the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and makes the poem much more dramatic. Structurally, he reinforces the dramatic element. Thematically, he helps the interpretation of two different kinds of reality- the reality of everyday common existence and the reality of the uncanny world.
The poem opens with an Ancient Mariner, with a long grey beard and glittering eyes, stops one of the three guests on their way to a wedding feast and wants him to hear his story. The Wedding-Guest stands hypnotized and “cannot choose but hear.” The Mariner goes on with his tale. This wedding guest is very reluctant to listen to the mariner’s awesome tale. He refuses to treat the story very seriously- at first. However, throughout this story, the guest pays more and more attention to the story. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the wedding guest goes from an oblivious partier to a wise, solemn listener, believing the mariner’s tale, and at the end of the story learns a valuable lesson.
The wedding guest proves he is listening to the story when he is worried the mariner is a ghost or spirit. As the mariner’s story gets to a more supernatural point, involving the incarnations of death and life-in-death, the guest becomes worried that the mariner is inhuman.
“I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand, so brown.”
The mariner responds, “Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest!/This body dropt not down.”. The wedding guest, however angry he was earlier, now proves he was paying attention by worrying that the mariner was actually a dead body reanimated, or a spirit, or some other supernatural being. This passage shows two things. First, it shows how the guest was listening and not just ignoring the tale. Second, it shows how the guest believes the mariner. After reassuring the wedding guest, the mariner moves on with his tale.
The ancient mariner and the Wedding-guest are complementary to each other. Towards the end of the poem, the Mariner says:
“I pass like night, from land to land :
I have strange power of speech :
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me :
To him my tale I teach.”
Hence, the Wedding-guest is the mariner’s listener. It has been suggested by some critics that there is in the composition of the Wedding-guest something of the Mariner.
Towards the end of Part I, there is a slight change in the attitude of the Wedding-guest. He perceives the acute pain on the face of the mariner after he has killed the Albatross. He exclaims :
“God save thee, ancient Mariner :
From the fiends, that plague thee thus :
Why look’st thou so ?”
At this moment, the Mariner no longer remains an insolent, eccentric sea-farer, undesirably imposing himself on a stranger. Except for the above interruption, the Wedding-Guest does not interrupt the narrative of the Mariner. He suffers from the Mariner and learns what the Mariner has learned at such a terrible cost. The Ancient Mariner, before parting, tells the Wedding-Guest that “he prayeth well, who loveth well all things both great and small.”
After line 596, there is a reversal of roles between the Mariner and the Wedding-Guest. Earlier, the Mariner has been undergoing an experience of alienation while the Wedding-Guest was going to attend a social gathering. But now the Mariner is able to enjoy the company. He died with the death of the Albatross, but the gush of love he showed for the water snakes leads to his resurrection into a much larger brotherhood. The Mariner attains a complete reconciliation with God. But the Wedding-Guest who was earlier fond of gay company, now withdraws into the loneliness of his innerself to ponder over the mystery of human existence and its real significance. He responds neither to the wedding bells nor to the little vesper bell.
Some critics are of the opinion that the Wedding-Guest is an ideal reader, responsive, apprehensive, and completely involved in what he hears. He has a refined and sharpened sensibility. He keenly feels and expresses what an ordinary reader might overlook. The reader can very well identify with the Wedding-Guest. The Wedding-Guest’s suspension of disbelief and the trust with which he accepts the tale helps the reader to suspend his disbelief as well. Besides, he helps to relieve the monotony of what otherwise would have been a monologue.