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Horror Versus Tragedy: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Olaf Stapledon's Sirius

Curtis C. Smith

Extrapolation, 26:1 (1985), 66-73

{66} The similarities between Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Olaf Stapledon's Sirius are striking. Each work involves a scientific creator who fails to visualize the problems his creation will bring. Insofar as he looks to the future at all, Victor Frankenstein imagines his creation as a beautiful being who will love him, indeed as the first of a race of beings who will worship him. Victor does lay plans for his creature's appearance: "his limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful."1 But when he sees the "dull yellow eye of the creature open" (p. 56), Victor recoils in horror and flees. When, much later, Victor sees his creature in a lightning flash, it is apparent that until this point he has forgotten him. Even after the creature begins to kill people Victor fails to take responsibility, keeping his connection to the creature a secret. Eventually Victor does confess, but to the Genevan magistrate who lacks the imagination to believe the story. Victor does take what might seem responsible preventive measures, such as destroying his creature's nearly completed mate, but these measures backfire when the creature reacts by becoming more violent and resentful. Thus, a central theme of Frankenstein is the creator's failure to take responsibility for what he has created.

The failure of Thomas Trelone, the scientific creator in Sirius, is similar. A major theme is that Thomas cannot understand, much less control, what he has created. Although not so insensitive as Victor, Thomas is unimaginative. He concentrates on the technical problem of creating Sirius, the super intelligent dog who gives the book its title. It never occurs to him, although it does to his wife, Elizabeth, "that such a disunited being as Sirius might be doomed to a life of mental torture."2 Thomas cannot fully visualize the problems Sirius will have. To be sure, the scientist does some effective planning when he insists on bringing up Sirius as a sibling of his human daughter Plaxy and when he apprentices Sirius as a sheep dog to the kindly farmer Pugh. But to {67} some extent these plans backfire, as do Victor's. By placing Sirius with Pugh, Thomas separates him from the person who understands him best, Plaxy, and makes him so lonely and unhappy as to leave him permanently maladjusted. Sirius cannot confide his intelligence to Pugh until much later, nor can he find much satisfaction in his canine peers. He becomes lonely and alienated, realizing he belongs neither to the world of dogs nor of humans. Sirius' love for Plaxy merely deepens the sense of loss when she leaves home for her education. The scientists in both books, then, become so wrapped up in the technical aspects of their work that they fail to imagine the dangers stemming from the isolation of the beings they create. If Victor Frankenstein is a prototype of the mad scientist, Thomas Trelone is recognizably in the same tradition.3

Another similarity between the two books is that both Mary Shelley and Olaf Stapledon insinuate a connection between violence and successful creativity. The Walton narrative frame in Frankenstein illustrates what happens to someone unwilling to push to extremes: failure. Walton's creative passion is to be the first explorer to reach the north pole. While he is listening to Victor Frankenstein's tale, his ship is stuck in ice. Near the end of the book, though, the ice breaks toward the south and the sailors rejoice that the return home is now possible. Frankenstein, however, urges them to go forward: "Be men," he says, "or be more than men" (p. 204). Promethean creativity would mean persistence toward the pole even in the face of death, but Walton chooses to listen to his men and to go home rather than risk their lives; he abandons his goal. Victor, by contrast, never abandons the venture of creating new life. He pursues his studies with uninterrupted concentration, losing all taste for life's simple pleasures and disregarding all moral considerations. "Natural philosophy," he says, "became nearly my sole occupation" (p. 49). Searching for the secret of life, he visits charnel houses, and his "attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings" (pp. 50-51). In contrast to Walton, who discusses with his men whether to continue and who continually writes to his sister about what he is doing, Victor makes his decision to push forward in isolation. Victor's is a "secret toil" (p. 53), and when Henry Clerval visits Ingolstadt soon after the creature's birth, he asks Victor to break his long silence and write home. Victor has allowed the pursuit of knowledge to interfere with "simple pleasures" and "the tranquility of his domestic affections" (p. 54).

Victor succeeds, however, where Walton fails. Walton never reaches the pole, but Victor brings his creature to life. Eventually this successful creation kills Victor's brother William, his wife, Elizabeth, and his friend Henry Clerval. Shelley's point, though, is that even before the creature becomes violent, Victor's creative isolation had begun to dismember both his loving relationship with his family and the social fabric his father constructed when he magnanimously married Caroline Beaufort and adopted Elizabeth. Indeed, the creature's violence can be seen as a metaphor of what must accompany suc- {68} cessful creativity. In the contrast between Walton and Victor, then, Shelleyoffers us a difficult choice: either create a being in which horror is linked to wonder, as victor does, or listen to one's men and turn back in failure, as Walton does. To persist in creating new life is to persist also in creating violence.

In Sirius, too, violence is inseparable from creation. The violence of Thomas' creation, Sirius, eventually matches Frankenstein's creature's. Sirius' violence takes time to develop, as does the creature's, but when it manifests itself, Sirius recognizes it as an essential part of himself. In his first serious violent act, Sirius revenges himself by nearly killing the bullying dog Diawl Du, only relenting when people pry open his deadly jaws. Sirius later reflects that "the saltiness and odour of Diawl Du's blood . . . turned him [Sirius] mad. Some pent up energy and fury in him was released for the first time. At the height of the struggle the thought flashed upon him, 'This is real life, this is what I am for, not all that human twaddle'" (p. 192). Indeed, in an important respect, violence is what Sirius is "for" and is thus a necessary consequence of what Thomas has created. Sirius develops "wolf moods," which become increasingly bloody. Sirius kills a ram, a pony, and eventually a man, the tyrant Thwaites, under whose cruel apprenticeship Sirius learns that Pugh is only one side of human nature. By killing Thwaites, Sirius does more than kill a single tyrant; he establishes his psychological independence from the entire human species. As Stapledon's narrator concludes: "Though it [the murder of Thwaites] was indeed a crime, it was a positive act of self-assertion which had emancipated him [Sirius] for ever from the spell of the master race. Henceforth he would fear no man simply as a man" (p. 265).

While neither Victor nor Thomas consciously intends it, violence necessarily follows their creative successes. Victor urges Walton's crew to "be more than men." Both the creature and Sirius are in some ways more than men, for they have Promethean possibilities. Both Frankenstein and Sirius depict the violence that must accompany humanity's movement to a higher stage of evolution, a stage created by science. The creature, larger than any human, begins life as a noble savage, born free while humans everywhere are in social chains. Aware of his own superiority, the creature points out that "my food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment" (p. 139). Moreover, his emotions are more intense than human emotions, as is his desire for community. Looking at the De Lacey family: "I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature; they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions" (p. 103). The creature learns language and comes to understand the history of the De Lacey family. When spring comes, he exclaims, "Happy, happy earth! Fit habitation for gods" (p. 110). Indeed it is, and the creature's existence shows that men could create a godlike nature.

{69} Sirius, too, is a new kind of conscious being. Named after the dog star, the brightest star in the sky, he has universal significance. Although Sirius lacks hands and keen eyesight, his senses of hearing and smell are so developed "that he found human speech quite inadequate to express the richness of these two universes" (p. 186). If some senses can be expanded, all can be. Sirius shows the possibility of a new leap in the human potential, leading, for example, to a new kind of art. Sirius sings in Rev. Geoffrey Adams' church a new kind of song that only a few humans can understand. Even more importantly, Sirius can grasp simultaneously, as few humans can, both the futility and the wonder of experience. He represents a potentially new stage of human awareness, a spirit of "learning to exult in the battle, and snatching much delight before the end" (p. 217).

In both books, though, human corruption and mis-education prevent the Promethean possibilities from being realized, for in each story what the creation becomes may be largely traced to what his human creator is. Both books, then, are ambivalent as to whether the violence is inherent or learned, as to whether it springs from what the creature is or from what humans teach him. Frankenstein's creature learns about the love the cottagers feel for one another; and from the sacrifices Felix makes to save Agatha, the creature learns that powerful love can even lead to self-sacrifice. From Goethe, Plutarch, and Milton the creature learns the complexity of human emotions and the human situation. But the main lesson the creature soon learns from humans is that they are unpredictable and violent. When he tries to embrace his teachers, Felix and Agatha, with the love he has learned from them, they recoil in horror. Up to this point in the story the creature has wanted only to join the human family. Now, "for the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom" (p. 132). Despite these feelings, he tries to save a little girl who has fallen into a stream, but a rustic shoots him, and he concludes, "This was then the reward of my benevolence!" (p. 135). The creature decides that only violence counts with humans; learning from them, he too becomes violent.

Although violence may be what Sirius is inherently "for," he too learns a lesson in it from his human companions. At first Sirius wants only to love Plaxy and Thomas, but he soon learns that loving humans is difficult. Even the kindly Mrs. Pugh is insincere, scolding her daughter for licking a spoon instead of washing it, although she has done the same thing (p. 226). For every hardworking and sincere Rev. Geoffrey Adams toiling with the poor in the East End there is a Rev. Ow en Lloyd-Thomas scandalized at the love between Sirius and Plaxy. Listening to a hymn sung by the Salvation Army, "washed in the blood of the Lamb" (p. 250), Sirius learns, in fact, that even the human religion of love sublimates animal sacrifice. And Thwaites, above all, teaches Sirius violence, indulging his spite against the dog, striking a dog working with Sirius, and threatening to kill Sirius himself. To Sirius, "Thwaites' great cruel hands symbolized . . . the process by which the ruthless species had {70} mastered all the living creatures of the planet" (pp. 263-64). When Sirius kills Thwaites in response, he follows Victor's creature in doing to humans what they have taught him to do.

Frankenstein and Sirius are, then, versions of the same story. Both are about the interconnections between violence and creativity, and both present Promethean possibilities thwarted by human irresponsibility, narrowness, and violence. But the differences between these works teach us more than do the similarities. Shelley asks radically skeptical questions about whether it is justifiable for science to create new human life, although she is arguably ambivalent as to whether Victor was justified in doing so. When M. Waldman tells Victor that "the lab ours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind" (p. 48), he refers to the ancient philosophers Victor has studied. But we are surely to apply this conclusion also to what Victor himself has done, since he has brought Promethean possibilities into the world. On the other hand, Walton listens to his men (while Victor listens to no one) and turns back from his polar expedition, and we are surely to admire his decision, too. In the light of Walton's decision, in fact, it is impossible to accept Waldman's conclusion as the only possible one, for Walton is healthy and social while Victor is unhealthy and perverse. When he is fifteen, Victor sees an old oak tree struck by lightning. "I never," he says, "beheld anything so utterly destroyed" (p. 40). The power which attracts Victor is as destructive as it is creative. Shelley is radically ambivalent. Are there realms into which genius and creativity should not penetrate? What the frustration and agony of Frankenstein express is that there can be no simple answer to this question. We recognize in Shelley's powerful work the same dilemma atomic researchers faced in the 1930s.

Stapledon reflects none of this. True, Sirius does contain Stapledon's criticism of dogmatism -- of science's certainty, for example, that effects must always follow causes. (For instance, the creation of Sirius is apparently by chance, since Thomas cannot duplicate his experiment.) Thomas lacks the imagination to see that Sirius is more than a laboratory animal, that he is (as Sirius insists) a "spirit." But it is precisely because Sirius is a small but valuable addition to the universal human spirit that Thomas is unambiguously justified in having brought him into the world. Even the two creations' differing physical makeup expresses their differing worth. Stitched together from dead bodies, Frankenstein's creature is grotesque. But Sirius is a dog, humanity's traditional friend. He possesses such positive canine traits as "doggedness" in his agonizing efforts, for example, to learn to read and write. Although some of Frankenstein is told from the creature's point of view, a great deal of Sirius comes to us through either the dog's eyes or the eyes of those sympathetic to him, again serving to convince us that Thomas' creation is valuable. Before {71} his narrative begins and after it ends, Victor's creature is distant from the reader; Sirius is always close to us.

Not only are we close to Sirius and confident of his worth, but we are more confident in everything Thomas does than in anything Victor does. Thomas is a plain good man, doing as well as he can within the limits of a scientist's ideology, making careful plans for his creature without understanding him. We cannot imagine Thomas running away from what he has done, much less taking Victor's laudanum. Whereas Victor vainly tries to keep the creature distant from his family, Thomas invites Sirius into his. Whereas Victor neglects the creature, leaving him to find his own education, Thomas has not only a plan for Sirius' education but one that involves the experience of London and Cambridge as well as book learning. Although swayed momentarily by his creature's story, Victor wants only revenge by the end of the book; he has become a monster. It is up to the creature to tell Victor, his creator, that "I ought to be thy Adam" (p. 95); but it is Thomas the creator who says of Sirius, "I feel as God ought to have felt towards Adam when Adam went wrong -- morally responsible" (p. 233). Thomas blames himself (as Victor also does, though not consistently or specifically), calling himself a fool "not to foresee [Sirius'] psychological trouble!" He adds, "I don't think I ever really realized that if things went wrong with this experiment I couldn't just wash my hands of it all, and start again" (p. 233). Although Thomas' statement also describes Victor, it is not a statement Victor ever could or would have made. If Shelley's theme is that the genius is irresponsible for his or her creation, Stapledon's is that even with balanced, responsible planning, and even when the creator acknowledges error and tries to take responsible action when things go wrong, the new spirit is still dangerously self-divided. The creator's good intentions are inadequate. In short, Victor Frankenstein and Thomas Trelone, the creators, are thematically distinct.

And so are the creations, the creature and Sirius. To be sure, there are some thematic similarities between them. Both beings symbolize everything that humans create, the sum total of human creation, from technology to children. Their respective rebellions symbolize humanity's inability to control human life and civilization. So Victor's creature is, symbolically, his child as well as his laboratory animal. Thomas' Sirius is not only his dog -- a member of a species created by humanity -- but in a broader sense everything humans have created including their culture and civilization (and thus themselves). Both Sirius and the creature also represent a negative aspect of human self-creation: alienation. As alienated beings, the creature and Sirius show us that community might end alienation. When the creature longs to join the De Lacey family, we feel all the more strongly Victor's perversion in neglecting his family. For a time Sirius is saved from alienation by being part of a community which Stapledon designates "Sirius-Plaxy." Eventually this community even includes Plaxy's human lover Robert, suggesting the possibility of a broader, more tolerant {72} way of living than humans can now sustain. Frankenstein's creature, by contrast, can only long for a mate in vain.

The theme of alienation is again far more radical in Shelley's story than it is in Stapledon's. The creature is more thoroughly and hopelessly cut off from community than is Sirius, who has not only a human lover but such friends as Pugh and Geoffrey Adams, and who never becomes an outright antagonist of Thomas as the creature does of Victor. Although both the creature and Sirius are objects of what we would today call discrimination because of appearance, there are always a few who can see beyond Sirius' appearance, while the creature remains abhorrent to all but the older De Lacey, who cannot see him. When Felix and Agatha spurn him, the creature is cast into solitude forever; Plaxy loves Sirius to the end, remaining faithful even during the worst of his wolf-moods.

Moreover, the creature and Sirius differ thematically in being different types of characters. The creature is a doppelganger, Victor's own alienated self, whom he calls "my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave and forced to destroy all that was dear to me" (p. 74). The creature belongs to the vampire tradition; he is a suppressed aspect of Victor let loose by the dreams of his gloomy isolation. Victor's futile attempt to revenge himself on the creature in the second half of the book is symbolically an internal struggle. Shelley first conceived her story as in a "waking dream" (Introduction), and all of Frankenstein has the unreality and exaggeration of dream. The mode of Sirius, by contrast, is realism. Sirius is no vampire. We are never allowed to forget for long that he is a dog, indeed a particular breed of dog. He never symbolizes a part of Thomas' psyche.

Both the creature and Sirius do, in addition, symbolize a social class or an aspect of society -- but the aspects are entirely different. The creature has been seen as the proletariat, set against the bourgeoisie which created it.4 Marx said that the capitalist class makes its own grave diggers, and the battle between Victor Frankenstein and what he has made can be seen as the class struggle, with the creature speaking the final words after Frankenstein's death. Sirius, though, symbolizes not the proletariat but its enlightened leaders. A sheep dog able to control the sheep with his eye, Sirius symbolizes the natural aristocrats. In a conversation with Plaxy, Sirius rejects her communism and explains what it means to be a sheep dog: "It's always the wide-awake people who do everything worth while, really. The rest are just sheep" (p. 274). Representing the wide-awake people who control ordinary people for their own good, Sirius is perhaps something of a Fabian socialist, as Stapledon was.

But the differences between the two books go beyond differences in what the protagonists represent. Frankenstein is a radical nightmare, a horror story; Sirius is a tragedy. After the creature's tale, Victor is moved, feeling there is "some justice in his argument" (p. 139). Victor has a moment of tragic recognition of the creature's suffering and of his own part in having created {73} it, but this honesty is not sustained. Soon Victor speaks of the "sophisms of the being I had created" (p. 159), meaning the creature's narrative, which few readers will dismiss entirely as sophistry. Both Victor and his creature sink below the level of tragedy toward farce in the second half of the book as they move across the arctic ice with the creature leaving messages and food for his would-be destroyer. While the creature does regain grandeur in his final speech, Shelley's point is that there is no way out of the cycle of revenge which seizes creator and creation. In Shelley's novel no purgation through violence is possible; hers is a universe of horror rather than of tragedy. The creature gains no permanent advantage from killing William, Elizabeth, or Clerval; nor is he set free by Victor's death, except to plan his own. Sirius, by contrast, never degenerates; his greatest moment of dignity and tragedy comes after his death, when Plaxy sings a song he has taught her as the sun rises. Violence purges Sirius of his dependency on the master race, humanity. From the contrast between Frankenstein and Sirius we learn that tragedy is more optimistic than horror. Stapledon's last line is "the sun's bright finger set fire to Sirius" (p. 309). Frankenstein ends with the creature "borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance" (p. 211). Sirius' tragic vision comes from the exhilaration he is able to find in times of "fate's very indifference" (p. 216) and from what he sometimes feels "a surprisingly detached and humorous acceptance of his nature and his environment, issuing in a zestful will to triumph in spite of everything" (p. 190). Stapledon's work affirms a transcendent order; Shelley's gives us what Susan Sontag calls the imagination of disaster.


1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Signet-New American Library, 1965), p. 56. Subsequent references are to this edition (1831 text) and will appear in the text.

2. W. Olaf Stapledon, Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord (1944; rpt. Odd John and Sirius, New York: Dover, 1972), p. 176. Subsequent quotations are from this edition and will appear in the text.

3. The neurotic or mad scientist has other important sources too, of course. One thinks of Voyage III of Gulliver's Travels and perhaps even of the stories of Prometheus and Daedalus.

4. As an example of such criticism, see Franco Moretti, "Dialectic of Fear," in Signs Taken for Wonders (London: Verso, 1983), pp. 83-108.