Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Less than Angels, like Pym’s other novels, is far more than its “theme.” The brilliantly observed detail, the telling irony or quiet absurdity detected in the particulars of ordinary life, the well-noted nuance of character: These are the gems to be gained from Pym’s novels, and these are the reasons readers cherish her works.

The rewards and responsibilities of such observation are as much as anything else Pym’s theme in Less than Angels, a book that without being autobiographical borrows extensively and fruitfully from the specific events, people, remarks, and ideas that made up her life. In her journal for June, 1953, the period when she was writing Less than Angels, Pym quotes the following passage from Notes and Queries in Anthropology (1874), an extract that appears in revised form in the novel: “It is important that not even the slightest expression of amusement or disapproval should ever be displayed at the description of ridiculous, impossible or disgusting features in custom, cult or legend.” The tolerance pompously prescribed in this passage is a real virtue, and it is the special genius of both Pym and her protagonist Catherine Oliphant. Neither judging nor mocking, the clear-sighted and good-humored observer of human absurdity can find occupation, and even a measure of happiness, in the least promising personal situations.