Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

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In the Robinson Crusoe tradition, Johann David Wyss created a story of a Swiss family that was shipwrecked on a desert island. Much as Robinson Crusoe, the family must learn to use the land to meet their needs. As with Crusoe, there is a religious element of learning to thank God for their blessings, but unlike Robinson Crusoe, the version of Swiss Family Robinson that I read had a lecturing tone that didn’t take long to irritate me.

Swiss Family Robinson may fascinate children. The family learns and explores natural science, mechanics, engineering, astronomy, biology, mathematics, and so much more through their experiences in a new place. I loved learning about the house in the trees and I was fascinated to hear how they built everything themselves. Maybe young children could relate to the four boys’ adventures in learning.

The main theme of the Swiss family’s story of survival is paradise: unlike Robinson Crusoe, this family loved their new home from the beginning. They ultimately don’t want to be rescued: they preferred to remain isolated in their paradisiacal home. Wyss added an impressive (and impossible) array of animals to the little island, and everything the family needed for survival conveniently appeared, from “candleberry trees” to flax and cotton. It truly was a paradise.

There are downsides to reading an island adventure for the 1800s that was specifically written for children. In this book, the downside was the “message,” although with a little tweaking, the message may have been fascinating.

Some aspects of the message were interesting. The self-discovery of learning to make things from what you have was fascinating to me. I imagine older children would love learning how to make a water wheel, how to carve stairs in a tree, and how to make cloth from flax for example (or maybe I’m just projecting my nerdy self on to some unknown nerdy kids). The father made everything into a teaching moment. For example, when the children were trying to figure out how long of a rope they needed to read the tree branch, the father showed them how determine it via mathematics:

My boys had been trying to measure the tree with the long canes I had brought, and came laughing to report to me, that I ought to have got them ten times as long to reach even the lowest branches. “There is a simpler mode than that,” said I, “which geometry teaches us, and by which the highest mountains can be measured.”

I then showed the method of measuring heights by triangles and imaginary lines, using canes of different lengths and cords instead of mathematical instruments. My result was thirty feet to the lowest branches. This experiment filled the boys with wonder and desire to become acquainted with this useful, exact science, which, happily, I was able to teach them fully. (page 66-67)

The downfall of Swiss Family Robinson, however, that it is told from the father’s perspective. Maybe you can tell from the above quote: he’s a bit of a know-it-all. In fact, time and again, I found myself hating this father of theirs. He was constantly scolding the children (and his poor wife!) for being too irreverent, too lazy, and too insensitive. Yet, because it was from his own perspective, I felt we were not getting the whole story. He seemed a bit “off” to me.

Another downfall was the completely unrealistic portrays of the children. Although more than four years pass on the island, the boys never seem to age. The youngest boy (Frances) was about eight at the beginning, but even when he is 12, he doesn’t seem any less needy. The two oldest boys, on the other hand, are at least 19 and 17 toward the end of the novel, and neither shows any interest in the prospects of his future. What I mean is I think most men that age would be hoping for a lady friend or something for themselves to be looking forward to. Instead, when there is a prospect of a ship, the oldest (at least age 18) says,

“If there should be any ladies amongst them, how pleasant it would be for mamma to have a friend!” (page 199)

Oh my, what a dedicated son to his mamma! The boys never felt realistic to me, and this is just one example.

I had a lot of other issues with Swiss Family Robinson. Because I remembered enjoying the Disney movie as a kid, I was looking forward to the book. In the end, though, I think this is a time to stay with Disney. There is a plot! There are pirates!

The novel Swiss Family Robinson was written in a time when pirates are not a worry, but savages. I should say that in the end, there is a little of a plot to drive it as the story resolves, but for the majority of the novel, the plot revolves around becoming more and more self-reliant as the family creates a modern paradise in their own Eden.

According to Wikipedia, Swiss Family Robinson has been retold through its translations, so it is impossible to know which one is the “original” story by Wyss. I listened to the audio and read via a and a Project Gutenberg translation that is missing two pages. It was the longest version of the story offered as an etext. There is no note as to who translated this version.

I visited Swiss Family Robinson as part of my Reader’s History of Children’s Literature project. It fits right in with the other island tales, and especially with Robinson Crusoe itself, the grandpa of the genre. It has interesting aspects, but I was ultimately disappointed in this version of the story. It was not something I’d like to read to my young son, simply because the father’s lecturing and the unrealistic portrayal of children is not inspiring for a child today. If anything, we’ll watch the Disney movie, which is fun.

Have you read Swiss Family Robinson?

Do you avoid “lecturing tales” for your children? Does this sound like it would bother you?

Would your child like to learn how to build things themselves?

Reviewed on January 21, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I read this. I almost cried I was so bored. I completely agree with your assessment of the father – he came of as a jerk sometimes. I got very tired of all the lectures and all the really boring details about island fauna, etc. It seemed pretty convenient that they happened to know everything about anything (plants, animals, etc). Definitely just watch the Disney movie.

  • Interesting! I loved some version of this book when I was a kid, but it sounds like that could have been a totally different novel than the one you just read. I don’t remember any religious themes or preachiness, but I tended not to pick up on religiosity in the books I read back then – in some cases I’ve been shocked when I went back & re-read. Hmm. Disappointing that this one doesn’t stand the test of time, but thanks for the back-story & the fascinating review!

  • I haven’t read this, but we watched the movie recently and thought it was great fun. Sounds like they juiced up the ending?? I think I will take your advice and stick with this!

  • Swiss Family Robinson is one book where I felt the movie was so much better developed. Usually it’s the other way around but I found this book boring and loved the movie.

  • I’ve honestly never seen the movie OR read the book. The description – building a paradise in the wild – reminds me a lot of other books, though – it’s interesting, the father reminds me of the description people give of the father in ‘The Poisonwood Bible’, only in that one, the father’s personality ends up being a major antagonistic element. I wasn’t a huge fan of this sort of story (though Morrigan is!), but I did love Alas Babylon, which does more or less the same thing, only it takes place after America is torn apart by a nuclear war. But it’s the same idea, with them learning how to live off the land, and fill their needs, and ending up perfectly happy in their little eden.

  • Stefanie, I too loved the treehouse in the movie! I haven’t been to Disneyland but that sounds like fun.

    melissa, I found it more amusing than boring. I was listening to most of it while I was painting and I just kept laughing it was so convenient. But yes, definitely not a favorite for me…

    Emily, yes, i hesitate to say “this is awful” because it seems every version is completely different. but I will say this version was pretty awful…

    Tara, oh no Disney completely retold it. There are no pirates in this book at all, so it wasn’t just the ending. I rewatched Disney and all the characters are completely different: for example, in the movie, the dad makes mistakes and isn’t always quit sure all the time. In this book he’s an obnoxious know-it-all who thinks he’s perfect.

    Tami, Yes, the movie has a plot!

    Jason, that’s the thing about this book: it is a fascinating Eden and I can see how kids would love learning how to live off the land. This version was just horrible naggy. And I don’t think we’re supposed to hate him. 🙂

    rhapsodyinbooks, oh yes, I laughed out loud.

  • I teach Swiss Family Robinson to my sixth graders, and while I see a striking comparison between Father and know-it-all Mike Brady from The Brady Bunch, I have to remember my students are at an age where they are still reliant upon a strong, father figure. We are annoyed by this character whom we may even think is a boarder-line misogynist, but nevertheless, youths are not bothered by him. I recommend the novel, even given its unrealistic setting. I think students will enjoy the book if you focus on the relationships between the sons and their father and his unconditional love for his boys.

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