The story-within-a-story plot structure and the impersonal, reliable narrator who is a historian rather than a scientist are reminiscent of the classic tales of Henry James and Mary Shelley. The gruesome nature of the experiments on the corpses is not emphasized; instead, the narrator is concerned with the theological and philosophical problems raised by the experiments. This emphasis is shared by other science-fiction works, some of them among the early works in the genre, that examine abstract ramifications of ungoverned scientific experimentation.
André Maurois is best known in the United States as a writer of biographies, with books on Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Napoleon Bonaparte, and George Washington, as well as a historian and author of books on England, France, and the United States. Most of his eleven novels and his numerous works of shorter fiction, including The Weigher of Souls, were written before World War II. Little of his fiction is read in the United States. Like his biographies, Maurois’ fiction is primarily portraits of individuals and is concerned with the relationships between men and women.
The Weigher of Souls contains a romantic element: It is the main character’s love for a woman that motivates his scientific research. The novella retains its limited popularity largely because of the elements of science fiction it displays. Using the theme of the scientist who has trespassed beyond the bounds set for humans, Maurois’ novella harks back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Both writers are essentially concerned with the ethical questions posed by unbridled scientific experimentation. In both cases, the scientist simply goes too far. Although Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments far exceed James’s, both their failures clearly demonstrate the danger and futility of science reaching too far.
Maurois’ use of the name “Dr. James” for his main character implies a connection between his main character and both novelist Henry James and his famous psychologist brother, William James. As in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), Maurois’ narrator is credible, so much so that after initial publication of the novella, Maurois received letters asking if the story were true. In addition, Maurois’ concern for the psychology of the isolated individual places the novella solidly within the tradition of French science fiction.