The purpose of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is oftentimes described as being a cautionary tale. However, a close reading of Victor Frankenstein's messages reveal that he is inconsistent in his instructions to those looking to learn from him. During his recollection of creating the monster, he implores Walton to "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquisition of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow." (Shelley 48). If this were Frankenstein's only message, then it would be a clear warning against the reckless pursuit of knowledge. However, it is not the sole urging that he makes in his tale. The morals which Frankenstein tries to communicate oscillate between messages of peace, tranquility and moderation, and the need to pursue science with even more rigor than he did. These changes are evident in his rhetorical style, as he both cautions against and urges onward Walton's pursuit of science.
Victor Frankenstein continues to espouse virtues of tranquility and peace, although his own mental state seems tumultuous. When he first attempts the creation of the monster, he throws himself furiously into his work. However, Frankenstein explains to Walton that in looking back on this time in his life, he now believes "a human being in perfection ought always preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb this tranquility" (Shelley 51). This passage illustrates the contrast in Frankenstein's temperament before and after the creation of the monster and the events which accompany it. He uses didactic phrasing like "ought" and "never" (Shelley 51). Here Frankenstein is trying to teach a lesson to his audience, speaking as one who has more knowledge from experience.
This advice on the importance of peace and tranquility is not Frankenstein's only message. After Frankenstein finishes telling Walton his story, Walton describes the dire condition of the ship. They are stuck in the ice with unrest growing among the crew. The crew demands that Walton promise to return southward if they are lucky enough to be unfrozen, giving up their goal of reaching the North Pole. When Frankenstein hears this, he makes an impassioned speech to the crew urging them to seize the glory of their voyage and continue, no matter the risk. He reminds them that they signed up for a journey that would bring them glory because "it was full of dangers and terror; because at every new incident [their] fortitude was to be called forth and [their] courage exhibited; because danger and death surrounded it, and these [they] were to brave and overcome" (Shelley 248). He does not encourage these sailors to be calm and peaceful, he does not preach for them to stop "any pursuit whatsoever [that would] interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections" (Shelley 51). Victor encourages these sailors to consume themselves in their voyage using impassioned rhetoric, and calls upon their honor and families to drive them to action (Shelley 248).
These contradictions come from Victor's conflicting feelings concerning scientific pursuit. He struggles with the destruction that his monster caused as it opposes his deeply inquisitive and passionate, scientific nature. He cannot reconcile that the failure he suffered in the experiments of the monster should truly stop anyone else from attempting scientific pursuits. A serious love of the natural sciences is clearly at the core of Frankenstein's character, as he claims "more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest powers of creation" (Shelley 42). He preaches caution in the sciences, understanding intellectually that those who follow in his path will face the same risks, so he tries to pass on wisdom and warnings. However, at an emotional level, he still holds scientific progress paramount to all things, and ignores his better judgement when calling Walton's sailors to action. When Frankenstein warns Walton to maintain tranquil, he teaches, but the speech that he gives to the sailors is a fire and brimstone call to action that makes it seem that he hasn't learned the lesson himself. This specific discrepancy speaks to Frankenstein's more practical options being overshadowed by his ambitious, core beliefs.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.