Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The theme of Nickel Mountain is salvation in a secular world. The moral and dramatic center to Gardner’s treatment of this theme is Henry’s discovery that, in a world in which God is either dead or indifferent, the existential solitude of the self is not sufficient to give meaning and fulfillment to life. When the novel opens, Henry seems an unlikely candidate for spiritual salvation. The years of solitude in an isolated country diner have made him hesitant to enter fully, through love, marriage, and family, into the life of the community. Yet his moral education is only beginning, and this education represents a rejection of nihilistic existentialism in favor of a life-affirming program of action. Henry, reluctantly at first but later with much alacrity, accepts his responsibility to act.

His marriage to Callie is the first step toward establishing the bonds of love and commitment that will ultimately provide the foundation of his joy in the world. The birth of his wife’s child draws him further into the bonds of community. That the child is not biologically his child emphasizes the active agency of his will to participate in the world: Henry has a son not by accident but by choice. It is significant that Willard, by accident the biological father of Callie’s child, owns no sense of community, only a solipsistic despair. At the end of the novel, feeling “like a man who’d been born again,” Henry has become absorbed into the processual vitality of life to the extent that he does not fear death so much as he recognizes its place in the world. Life and death are both part of “the holiness of things (his father’s phrase), the idea of magical change.” His earlier fear of death had really been no more than a fear of further alienation. Having become a celebrant of the dynamic of birth and death, and having learned to see it through the eyes of one who is bound to it through love, Henry finds in his own mortality not a cause for despair but an inspiration for spiritual serenity.