Less by Andrew Sean Greer is a lyrically pleasing comedy that plays on several literary devices and humor as it portrays both contemporary and age-long themes of love, anxiety, sexual identity, and many more.
The novel explores various themes in different layers, some are subtle while others are more pronounced. Below are some of the themes in Less by Andrew Sean Greer.
Anxiety about Aging
A strong theme in the novel is the folly of being anxious about getting older. The novel teaches that humans alive must go through different stages in life and that each stage should be enjoyed as it comes because there is no going back.
Addressing the theme of aging in the novel, Marian advises Arthur to use his twenties to enjoy love, music, and poetry, to have lots of sex, and have his heart broken. Summarily, Marian believes that one’s twenties ought to be spent on enjoyment and whimsical things because there is plenty of time to worry about more serious things like finance and real estate in the future.
Less also shows the irony of how people always feel old at their present age but only appreciate that age when they are past it. For instance, at fifty years old, Arthur is so anxious about being old, but Robert, at seventy-five, looks back to his fifties and appreciates it as being a young age.
Although all the major characters in this novel are gay, the novel includes sexuality as one of its themes but with subtlety. It portrays gays as normal people, not as ”unusual” people.
The theme of sexuality is subtly portrayed in how it shaped Arthur’s childhood relationship with his father and in the appreciation of Arthur’s books. The character Finley Dwyer says Arthur’s books are never given recognition because Arthur is a ”bad gay” who shows both the good and bad aspects of gay life in his writing. According to Finley Dwyer, a ”good gay” makes it his duty to showcase only the good aspects of life as a gay.
The novel shows how one’s estimation of one’s self affects the quality of one’s life and relationships. Arthur Less is a brilliant man and a great writer, but he does not think so much of himself and is very modest.
Although a lower estimation of himself would have been an unhealthy case of low self-esteem, his modesty in the face of his brilliance leaves a childlike innocence about his person and makes him endearing.
But his subterranean sense of self affects Less adversely in a sense because he is unaware of how much he is loved, admired, and even envied by many and he wastes his energy on gloomy emotions in times when he should be basking in happiness and pride.
The novel reiterates the popular maxim that travel changes people’s perceptions. The world is so full of diversity that seeing life from another place and culture can change you forever. Arthur Less is no exception. It is in the course of his travels that he realizes how trivial some of his worries are, how privileged he is relative to people his age from other parts of the world, and that not everyone fawns over stray dogs and adopts them as pets.
In this novel, the question of what love is is asked, and possible responses are given. But the question is left unanswered to be determined by the reader. We learn that love can come in many forms and that it is not something we can dictate or control on a whim.
We also see the heartache that often results from romantic love. And that love sometimes returns to us when we willingly let it go.
Analysis of Key Moments
- Arthur Less is a writer who lives in San Francisco. He accepts invitations to literary events in several locations just to avoid attending the wedding of his lover Freddy. He encounters one misadventure or another in the various destinations of his itinerary.
- His first stop is in New York City, where he is to interview a successful sci-fi writer. His dependence on a spoilt clock and his escort’s confusion about his gender makes him almost miss the interview, but he makes it just in time to meet his interviewee sick from food poisoning.
- Less’s literary agent Peter Hunt informs Less that his publishers have rejected the draft of his latest novel. Peter Hunt advises Less to use his travels as an opportunity to make changes to the manuscript.
- Less goes to Mexico for a literature Conference where he panics when he is told that he would be interviewed alongside his ex-lover Robert’s ex-wife.
- Less gets a panic attack in Italy when he wakes up thinking that he has impersonated a person under the influence of sleeping pills.
- In Italy, Less wins a literary award, although he believes it is only because of a brilliant translation of his novel into Italian.
- Less goes to Germany to teach a short course in Literature. In Germany, he grows a beard and has an affair with a sporty young man called Bastian.
- Less takes a detour to France, where he shares an intimate moment with a stranger on the rooftop of a hotel in Paris.
- Freddy gets married in San Francisco while Less is in France.
- Less goes to Morocco, where he meets an old friend Lewis and makes friends with a lady called Zohra whose birthday is just a day before his.
- A sandstorm, sickness, and drunkenness interrupt the initial plan of Less’s tour, and he ends up celebrating his birthday with his tour guide.
- Less travels to India, where he loses his favorite suit and his luggage. Then he has an accident with his sewing kit.
- Less goes to Japan to write about traditional Japanese cuisine but gets identical menus from all the restaurants he visits.
- Less is informed that Robert has suffered a stroke in the United States.
- Freddy leaves his new husband when he realizes that he is in love with Less.
- Less returns to the United States to find Freddy waiting for him at home.
Style, Tone, and Figurative Language
The story’s narration alternates between the third-person omniscient point of view and the first-person point of view. At many points in the novel, the reader is left to ponder on who is narrating the story.
The tone is both poignant and humorous, combining metaphors, similes, puns, irony, and many other literary devices. For instance, the name of the protagonist is Arthur Less, but he is simply called Less in the narration of the novel. As the novel progresses, we see that Arthur Less is a man who thinks of himself as less, as less brilliant than everyone else, less of a man, less of a writer, less of a son, and so on. And even the title of each chapter plays on this pun. Arthur Less in Mexico is “Less Mexican,” in Italy is “Less Italian,” etc.
The diction of the novel flows lyrically, embellished with figures of speech. For instance, in the chapter ”Less German” there is a simile that reads:
He kisses—how do I explain it? … Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you.Less by Andrew Sean Greer
In the chapter ”Less At First” the narrator describes Less’s finances as a crazy patched quilt that is warm enough but never quite covers the toes. And there are many other poetic lines in the novel.
Analysis of Symbols
Colors are used in the novel to symbolize a stage in one’s life. Before Arthur Less clocks fifty, he feels young and vibrant and insists on having his tailor-made suit in a bright shade of blue, and everyone believes it suits him perfectly. After his fiftieth birthday, he loses the bright blue suit, it first tears, and he loses it to a random tailor when he tries to mend it.
The bright blue suit is replaced with a dull gray suit symbolizing Less’s transition from the brightness of youth into a duller middle age.
The motif of doors reoccurs in Less by Andrew Sean Greer. It symbolizes a barrier between where Less is and where he wants to be and also the entrance of a new quality into Less’s personality. The first time, we see Less waiting to be with his literary escort, she misses him at first and goes out the door, but the door here is a revolving door and eventually cycles the escort back to Less.
The next time, a door locks Less out of his apartment building in Germany, and to circumvent the door, Less unlocks the quality of bravery within himself as he takes the risk of being mistaken for a burglar or falling to his death as he climbs to his open window on the fourth floor of an apartment building.
Again, we see Less in another door situation, this time he is locked in alone. To get his freedom, Less must unlock within himself, grit and a belief in his strength as he must break the paper wall with his bare hands to be free.
The luggage symbolizes the protagonist’s feelings and priorities. He packs his favorite blue suit which he believes embodies his personality the most, his sewing kit, rubber bands for his exercise, and some other clothes. But in the course of his travel, he must give top priority to his passport, his wallet, and his phone.
He adds and drops some items in his luggage as he travels. By the end of his trip, the luggage that he set out with is entirely different from the one that he returns with. This symbolizes a change in his personality, feelings, and priorities.
The Grandfather Clock
The clock symbolizes obsolescence and Arthur Less’s perception of time. The grandfather clock in the modern hotel lobby has gone out of use but Arthur Less does not realize this and relies on it for the time.
Less nearly misses his appointment due to his reliance on the false indicator of time. It takes the chime of another clock for Less to realize that reality has left him behind in his old-fashioned ways. This realization snaps him into action and makes him respond to stimuli in his present environment.
The needle symbolizes Arthur Less’s attempt at self-sufficiency. Arthur Less wanted to rely on himself if the need to mend any of his outfits arose.
However, like many other things that lead to misfortune for Arthur Less, the needle becomes a failed attempt at self-sufficiency and causes an accident instead.
What causes Arthur Less’s accident in India?
In India, Arthur Less was injured when he accidentally stepped on a needle in the dark.
The needle was from his sewing kit, which he had misplaced.
Why was Arthur Less’s manuscript rejected in the book Less?
Arthur Less’s manuscript for a novel he titled Swift was rejected because his publishers felt that it would be difficult for readers to sympathize with the protagonist.
What does the color of Arthur Less’s suit symbolize?
The color of Arthur Less’s suit symbolizes a stage in his life. The bright blue suit symbolizes the brightness of youth, while the grey suit symbolizes Arthur Less’s gloominess about aging.