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QUESTIONS ON EXTRACT FROM GULLIVER'S TRAVELS

1. The key to understanding the passage is understanding the nature of Gulliver. The clue is in his name. What word does it resemble most closely? What does this tell us about his understanding of the things he describes?

2. 'a certain powder': what is Gulliver referring to?

3. Do you agree with Gulliver that the king shows 'narrowness of thinking'? Give reasons for your answer.

4. On the evidence of this passage, what, in Gulliver's view, distinguishes the 'politer' (i.e. 'more civilised') countries of Europe from Brobdingnag? What would you yourself define as 'civilised' behaviour?

5. 'That we often put this Powder into large hollow Balls of Iron, and discharged them by an Engine': what is Gulliver describing here?

6. 'The King was struck with Horror at the Description'. What particularly horrifies the king about the way Gulliver describes these 'Engines'?

7. 'he would rather lose half his Kingdom than be privy to such a Secret, which he commanded me, as I valued my Life, never to mention any more':

What do you think of the king's refusal to 'be privy to such a Secret'? The king is a fictional character. Do you think it plausible that an actual ruler would react in this way to Gulliver's proposal? Give reasons for your answer.

8. 'a nice unnecessary Scruple , whereof in Europe we can have no Conception '. Do you agree with Gulliver? Give reasons for your answer.

SUGGESTED ANSWERS TO THE QUESTIONS ON GULLIVER

1. The key to understanding the passage is understanding the nature of Gulliver. The clue is in his name. What word does it resemble most closely? What does this tell us about his understanding of the things he describes?

Students could be directed to use a dictionary, if necessary. They should come up with the word 'gullible' and this could lead to a discussion both about the gullibility of travellers, who (still) often misunderstand the nature of the cultures they encounter and (more importantly in this passage), Gulliver's gullibility in subscribing so wholeheartedly to the 'values' of European 'civilisation'. The whole passage is (as so often in Swift) a sustained example of irony, and the use of this as a device in satire could be discussed in detail, with reference to its use in modern satirical magazines, TV programmes etc.

2. 'a certain powder': what is Gulliver referring to?

It is obviously necessary to be clear on this in order to understand the whole passage. Students should have no difficulty in identifying it as gunpowder.

3. Do you agree with Gulliver that the king shows 'narrowness of thinking'? Give reasons for your answer.

Students could take either view, depending on how far they agree with Gulliver's premise, but given the response to question one above, they are likely to disagree. They might point out, however, that the king is 'narrow' in thinking, insofar as he has a limited knowledge of human destructiveness. They should be encouraged to take the debate beyond the context of this passage.

While they will most probably join with the king in condemning Gulliver's bloodthirstiness, they could consider whether they would think a world in which gunpowder and its modern derivatives were never used to maim or kill, or in which there were never any wars for any reason, either possible or desirable.

4. On the evidence of this passage, what, in Gulliver's view, distinguishes the 'politer' (i.e. 'more civilised') countries of Europe from Brobdingnag? What would you yourself define as 'civilised' behaviour?

Clearly the distinguishing feature of civilised nations for Gulliver, here, is their use of what one might call the most up to date technology to deal with their enemies. Definitions of 'civilised' behaviour could throw up an interesting class discussion and include the place of violence in a civilised society.

5. 'That we often put this Powder into large hollow Balls of Iron, and discharged them by an Engine': what is Gulliver describing here?

Students should have no difficulty in identifying this as a cannon.

6. 'The King was struck with Horror at the Description'. What particularly horrifies the king about the way Gulliver describes these 'Engines'?

A full answer would include, not only the king's horror at the destructiveness of guns and artillery but also his horror at the cool way in which Gulliver describes their effects. Swift is clearly making a point about the essential inhumanity of such weapons and how accustomed we have become to them.

Students might also point out the relative sizes of Gulliver (frequently referred to by the king as 'an insect') and the king and the particular horror that such a tiny creature (in the king's eyes) could produce such destruction. In a later part of Gulliver's Travels, the voyage to the land of the Houhynhnms (intelligent horses), the Houhynhnms conclude that at least human beings, though aggressive, can't do each other much damage because they have no fangs or claws. Gulliver soon sets them right on this.

Both the ease with which we get used to things which ought to shock us, and the many alarming ways we have found as a species to make up for our lack of natural weapons (fangs, talons, tusks, spines etc) could also inform any debate on the development and use of nuclear weapons.

7. 'he would rather lose half his Kingdom than be privy to such a Secret, which he commanded me, as I valued my Life, never to mention any more':

What do you think of the king's refusal to 'be privy to such a Secret'? The king is a fictional character. Do you think it plausible that an actual ruler would react in this way to Gulliver's proposal? Give reasons for your answer.

Students are likely, as Swift intends, to admire the king's refusal to learn about gunpowder. Discussion of the plausibility of his reaction could be guided by reference to the effects on cultures which did not have guns of those which did (the Spanish conquest of the Inca, for instance). Most cultures to which guns were introduced have adopted them with enthusiasm, as can be seen throughout Africa, for instance.

This could lead on to a discussion whether the same is true of nuclear weapons. Some nations (South Africa for instance) have given up the possibility of developing nuclear weapons. Many others, however, have been keen to learn the 'secret' - indeed, the first atom bomb was the result of a race between the allies and Germany as to which could discover the 'secret' first.

8. 'a nice unnecessary Scruple , whereof in Europe we can have no Conception '. Do you agree with Gulliver? Give reasons for your answer.

Again, students are unlikely to agree with Gulliver that the king's scruples about gunpowder are 'nice' or 'unnecessary', though they might agree that there have been no such scruples in Europe or elsewhere about the use of gunpowder. This passage could be used as a starting point for a fuller discussion of the uses of irony and of what is gained by presenting this kind of argument in the way Swift does, rather than as a straightforward argument on the pros and cons of gunpowder and guns.

Follow-ups

The passage lends itself to a number of different follow-ups. It might lead to reading further in Gulliver's Travels, particularly those passages which satirize political action. It could lead into a debate about the use of guns in society, including the question of arming the police force. It could lead into a debate on the concept of a 'just war'. An interesting question to consider is whether, if it were newly discovered today, gunpowder would be included with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as a 'Weapon of Mass Destruction' (it is plainly such a weapon in Gulliver's account).

As regards discussion of nuclear weapons it might be fruitful to set students as a homework exercise the creation of their own mythical country, and their own gullible Gulliver (who could be their age, male or female - there is scope for imagination here), to explore what might happen if the king or queen of this mythical country were offered the chance to create his or her own nuclear weapons. Or they could imagine a space traveller descending to earth and a Gulliver figure trying to explain the need for nuclear weapons to him or her.

  • 'nice' = 'foolishly fastidious'
  • 'nice' = 'foolishly fastidious'
 
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