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 Librivox.org 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?