The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Peter Mickelsson, equipped with all the machinery of modern intellectual consciousness and a native brilliance, is plunged into a world containing facts, indisputable facts, which that consciousness cannot believe yet cannot deny. Mickelsson, however, is much more than a locus of conflict between the rational and the supernatural. His exposure to the ghosts is an introduction to the world of human suffering, which includes his present life among the present ghosts whose long-dead pain and anger persist in redundant cameo oblivious to everything else their lives might have contained. Mickelsson daily savors his own broken connections. His former wife lives in twenty-year-old photographs. His absent son in the grainy newspaper photo is rigid with resignation, a protester against the nuclear silo and the American “Reich.” Mickelsson’s most intimate colloquies are with dead philosophers—Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Through the ghost of his grandfather, he contemplates and is haunted by the ghostly, life-despising Martin Luther. With his obsessions in tow, Mickelsson becomes a seer. Like his father before him, his prescience is mostly of painful things. The voice speaking from the past and the future testifies to pain. Mickelsson is most himself when beside himself.

The ghost haunting Mickelsson most persistently is himself. The “bad” Mickelsson never stops appalling the rational ethical persona. Which is real? he wonders. He suspects that his goodness may have been only the superficial manner of more respectable days in the Ivy League. In...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Peter J. Mickelsson

Peter J. Mickelsson, the novel’s center of consciousness, an internationally known professor of philosophy specializing in ethics. He has recently left Providence, Rhode Island, and his wife to take a position at the State University of New York at Binghamton in the hopes of putting his life back in order. Having suffered one nervous breakdown, Mickelsson appears on the verge of another as he struggles with his wife’s long-distance demands, the Internal Revenue Service, alcohol, and his own stalled career. Essentially an idealist, he wears his newly donned armor of irony and cynicism rather self-consciously as he tries to overcome feelings of guilt and responsibility for his mounting personal and professional failures. The division within his personality becomes steadily more pronounced as he divides his time, mind, and energies between the university and rural Susquehanna, Pennsylvania; between the classes he teaches (badly, he believes) and the farmhouse he has recently bought and is in the process of renovating; between a beautiful colleague, Jessica Stark, and a local prostitute, Donnie Matthews; between Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Luther; between reality and hallucination; and ultimately between faith and hope on one hand and despair on the other. As he grows increasingly detached from others, both geographically and emotionally, he becomes progressively but uneasily amoral in his actions. He is finally saved by his own self-questioning, by the faith that others continue to have in him, by his willingness to cry out and to pray— even though prayer runs counter to the evidence of the rational, existential mind—and finally by what may be telepathy or simply luck.


Ellen, Mickelsson’s wife, whose faith in Mickelsson turns to bitterness, buttressed by her acceptance of the fashionable view that she is Mickelsson’s victim. Instead of struggling against the world, she gives in to it, drawing support from her work in modern theater.


Leslie, Mickelsson’s daughter. She lives with her mother but bears no grudge against her father.


Mark, Mickelsson’s son, an idealist actively involved in protecting the environment. Ironically, Mickelsson’s land and the area around it turn out to be chemically contaminated as a result of the illegal dumping of toxic waste.

Mickelsson’s father

Mickelsson’s father, a farmer and expert amateur carpenter who represents for Mickelsson the wholeness, selflessness, and nobility of character he has lost in his own life. The father appears only in Mickelsson’s memories.

Dr. Rifkin

Dr. Rifkin, the Providence psychiatrist whose remarks Mickelsson often recalls from their sessions together—sessions he now continues in his mind. He does not find Rifkin’s psychiatric explanations convincing.


Finney, the Providence lawyer who is handling...

(The entire section is 1236 words.)