What unusual purpose does tobacco serve inThe Swiss Family Robinson?  

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tobacco serves as a calming effect on certain animals in the story, such as bees, an eagle, or an ostrich. 

Smoke calms bees by impeding the secretion of alarm pheromones and triggering a feeding response. When there is smoke, bees interpret this smoke as a signal to abandon their hive. To prepare for evacuation, bees begin to gorge themselves with honey. With their stomachs distended, the bees are in no position to use their stingers effectively. 

In the story, the bees begin to buzz and hum loudly when they first sense smoke inside the tree trunk. Eventually, the bees calm down after they have gorged themselves with honey. Their full abdomens make them lethargic and less inclined to sting anyone. Before long, Mr. Robinson and Fritz are able to pick off clusters of bees that are hanging calmly to the sides of the tree.

They place the bees in a makeshift hive fashioned from a calabash gourd. With the bees safely ensconced in their new home, Mr. Robinson and Fritz are able to transfer honeycombs to a cask. The two prevent the bees from returning to their nest by nailing smoking tobacco to a horizontal plank inside the tree trunk.

Earlier in the story, Ernest and Fritz also use tobacco to keep Master Knips (an eagle) calm. Under Ernest's instructions, Fritz blows out rings of tobacco smoke towards the eagle's head. Eventually, the feisty eagle calms down and becomes momentarily docile.

The family also tries to tame an ostrich the same way but reaps slightly different results from the effort. The ostrich does become docile under the influence of the tobacco smoke, but he also refuses to eat for three days. Mrs. Robinson is able to come to the rescue, however. She prepares balls of maize flour and butter and feeds them to the ostrich. The bird eventually recovers his health, and the family are able to begin training him.

So, tobacco is used to subdue certain wild animals or insects in the story. 

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The unusual purpose that tobacco serves in this book is that of a tranquilizer.  The family uses tobacco smoke to calm and tranquilize at least three animals or groups of animals in the book.

First, Fritz wants to make a pet of the eagle that they have caught.  However, the bird is too wild and Fritz is ready to kill it.  However, Ernest tells him to blow tobacco smoke up around the bird's head.  Fritz does so and that makes the eagle calm down.  Later in the book, they will do the same thing to an ostrich.

In between those two episodes, the father uses the same technique on a swarm of bees.  The family wants to get the bees out of a tree trunk and into a hive.  In order to calm the bees down and make it possible to move them, the father blows smoke into the tree trunk.  This calms the bees.

I do not know if this would work on eagles or ostriches, but I have worked with bees and I can say that people do use smoke to calm bees down.  Follow the link below to see a picture of a beekeeper with his smoker.