In On Moral Fiction (1978), Gardner maintains that the high purpose of fiction is to assert order, however temporary, in the midst of chaos and darkness which is reality. A good novel should help its reader, encourage him to go on living, even though he knows that consciousness and life will lose out in the end. Mickelsson’s Ghosts suggests that Gardner wants it both ways, or is not as confident about being right in regard to what is real. There is arrogance in the claim that the artist asserts order in a senseless void, and loneliness as well. Gardner surrounds Mickelsson with ghosts, supernatural presences and events, or rich suggestions of a created order incomprehensible to the mind but richly beckoning. One part of Gardner says that even the supernatural is invented by me, the novelist; another part says, “Please do not let this be so.” At a key point in the novel, he reduces Mickelsson to a helpless fear of death out of which he cries for help. The cry, much to Mickelsson’s shame and contradicting all of his conviction about “truth” (there’s nothing out there—only facts), is a cry to a person out there who has ears, and it is shameful because Mickelsson knows that it is a cry to God, “pouring out the thought as if it were his life.” When the cry works, when the prayer is answered, the relieved and rescued Mickelsson can excuse himself and drop again into a tolerant skepticism.
Gardner wants the reader to enjoy the emotion coming from meaning and miraculous grace without crediting it. It is only a ghost, dear reader, one more human longing crying out in darkness. Yet Mickelsson is saved, saved from Lawler, the mad Mormon (law), and saved from death. He can now make love to Jessie, possibly give her a child, and can love his own son, returned at the novel’s conclusion from his protest pilgrimage. The reader is left to ponder what Gardner’s attitude is toward the happy ending he gives the book. Is it merely something to make the reader feel better about life, or does it mean or foretell something for which everyone longs because it is in the nature of their hearts to so long? Dreams, says Gardner, the artificer, as he himself continues to dream.