Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Swiss Family Robinson

Wyss, Johann. The Swiss Family Robinson.

First published in 1812, this novel is about how one family survives a shipwreck and how they come to create a new home for themselves far away from civilization. I read the book because I have literally been hearing how *wonderful* it is my whole life. Yes, The Swiss Family Robinson is one of my mother's favorite books. But in childhood, the closest I could get to the novel--the closest I would get to the novel--was an abridged version. But even the abridged version, I gave up after a few chapters. So I was determined to not let 2008 go by without reading--really reading--this classic.

What did I think about it? Honestly? Well, it's still not my cup of tea. I still don't like it. The violence. The brutality. The absurdity. Granted in 1812, I'm sure it wasn't an absurd idea to kill animals for fun, for sport, or for a "learning" opportunity to learn what it was and how it worked. But for me, I saw it as a bunch of guys--a father and sons ranging in age from small to teen--who thrived on killing animals. True, some of the kills were for food or to protect their lives, but others seemed more trivial for me. Yes, the family needed to eat in order to survive. But I think some of it was pure overkill. But as I said, this wouldn't have ruffled any feathers in 1812 when it was published. I think--although I am not sure--that there was a philosophy that to study an animal meant to study the animal's corpse.

Besides the death of all those animals, and the passing dangers of island life, the book is filled with lessons and descriptions. The father has the need--and I'm not negating the need in actuality--to share every bit of knowledge in his head. And I'd be the first to admit, that if I were to be shipwrecked on an island, I'd want this guy around. First of all, he knows everything. It doesn't matter what subject. It doesn't matter how random or trivial, how broad or specific, this man knows it all. He knows how to do everything, how to make everything. This man is more knowledgeable than a walking set of encyclopedias. Now, if you were actually on the island and fighting for your survival. Receiving lessons of this sort, would be necessary and beneficial. To the ordinary reader--okay just this ordinary reader--some of the lessons are well, quite honestly, boring. You could skip these passages altogether and still follow the basic story.

One other thing that irritated me about the book. The woman never is given a name. The man isn't either, by the way, but he is the narrator. He is the "I" of the story so it isn't so obvious. The kids all have names. The animals all have names. The wife? Not named. I'd rather Grizzle the donkey be called "the donkey" or "that donkey" than to go 377 pages through a book where one of the main characters is simply called "the mother."

And it should be a crime what Wyss did to Grizzle by the way. Seriously. That's just wrong. It's beyond calloused or cruel.


Charlotte 10:39 AM  

Hi Becky,

I re-read the unabridged version avidly throughout my childhood, delighting especially in all the different houses the Father built...I guess when you're young the insanity of it all bounces off you more. Although today's kids, who seem to know so much more non-fiction than I did when I was little, will probably be very bothered indeed by the wild mix of habitates on this one island...every animal known to mankind, I seem to remember, lived there. Also in my mature older age I doubt it is really possible to ride an ostrich.

However, I did like the tree house building lots and lots....

Jackie Parker 12:20 PM  

Um...what did Wyss do to the donkey? Do I even want to know? My whole SFR exposure is in form of the Disney movie.

Becky 12:26 PM  

Poor Grizzle is eaten by a boa constrictor. And the whole episode instead of being sad is turned into a fun science lessons on snakes. Boo hiss. Show some respect!

Paige Y. 7:06 PM  


It's funny --usually we are on the same page but I must admit this was my favorite classic when I was a child. I must have read it 10 times. I did laugh at the number of animal species in the book -- this island was a veritable zoo.

To answer the question about not mentioning the mother's name -- my suspicion is that it would be disrespectful to use it. I remember when I saw The Adams Chronicles many years ago how astonished I was that Abigail Adams always referred to her husband as Mr. Adams. Things were much more formal back then.

I did feel sorry for the donkey.

Glad you're feeling better. I'm most unhappy -- it looks as though I'm losing my hard drive and all of my blogging bookmarks.


Jen Robinson 11:34 PM  

I enjoyed the adventure aspects of this book when I was a kid, and I re-read it within the past couple of years. My opinion was that the callousness towards animals would make the book a tough sell today, too. Didn't they kill a giant turtle so that they could use the shell as a basin? And tame an ostrich, mostly for fun? What also got me was the coincidence of all of those great resources (soap flakes, salt crystals, sugar cane, etc.) all being found on the one island. But still, the kid in me thinks that the story is fun.

Kim L 7:52 AM  

Your review definitely reinforces that this is not the book for me. All I remember of this book is the Disney movie, and of that whole movie, the only scene I remember is where they are trying to ride the ostrich.

Paige Y. 8:35 AM  

To me the worst part about the movie was the youngest son -- I cannot imagine a more annoying child!

Emma 4:07 PM  

I never got into this book as a child although I remember trying once or twice. It sounds like it has aspects I would have liked - houses and animals - but then the cruelty etc probably would have been offputting. I guess I just need to go read it as an adult :)

Shelley 11:43 PM  

This is one I've always wanted to read to my kids. Now I know I shouldn't waste my time. Thanks!

Anonymous,  4:43 PM  

I just listened to SFR on CDs after about 60 years since reading it as a child. Maybe I liked it then, but now it seems all about killing animals needlessly. I wonder if Wyss is putting us on---seeing penguins and flamingoes when they reach the shore? sugar cane and potatoes and kangaroos side by side? At one point the father says, "When we set sail from Switzerland..."
That has to be a joke. Do kids still like this book?
Thanks to you Becky for criticism and to everyone for comments. Cassandra.

Anonymous,  12:53 PM  

I am 10 years old and I had to read the book for school. I liked it.. it was okay but I mean it was boring, seriously. I liked Robinson Crusoe much better than this.. alot better. I don't recommend this to anybody, unless your into long, boring books. lol that is my opinion. ;-)

Jammers 3:51 PM  

I am re-reading this book now. The mother's name is Elizabeth. Chapter 9 just after he makes the bow and arrow to shoot over the branches of the tree.
"Elizabeth," I continued to my wife, "can you supply me with a ball of stout thread from your wonderful bag?"

Becky 4:17 PM  

Thanks for letting me know the mom's name!

Anonymous,  6:19 PM  

this book sucks

Anonymous,  7:27 AM  

this is an really boring book!!

Unknown 1:54 PM  

I am reading it now. the only reason I knew the moms name was because they named the boat the "Elizabeth" in her honor.

All in all I am still waiting for anything to happen that would remotely get you truly wondering what would happen next.

If father would have only given thought to Jet aircraft that could take off and land on the water (yes I know it was written in the 1800's) I am quite sure that within a matter of days it would have been built complete with a nuclear drive system thanks to young Francis happening upon trove of enriched uranium deep within the grotto that gave the livestock a peculiar glow.
This island is far more remarkable than the one on "Lost".

Anonymous,  8:21 PM  

does anyone know what creature jack mistaked for a crocodile?

mandy,  10:54 PM  

Hey Becky, sorry for being rude earlier, and your right poor Grizzle. also if you watch the movie it is so not the same thing, by a lot!!!!!

Cory 10:24 PM  

I am reading this book to my 3 young boys right now and even though much of the language is beyond them we are enjoying it greatly! A great story for boys.

Anonymous,  3:20 PM  

you said the wife didn't have a name and i have been reading it and it is elizabeth

Anonymous,  8:28 PM  

i think you are 100% correct this book is not only boring but its just weird

Anonymous,  2:28 PM  

I am reading this book right now. And I have to agree with you. It is ridiculous that most of the book can be summarized as "See an animal, kill it!" But similar to reading Huck Finn (just finished, again) and the non-stop use of the N-word, you have to consider the audience. I read kids books to my son while thinking to myself that this is too simple and could never happen, etc.. but he doesn't know any better. As for Mark Twain, that is just how people talked back then. Same goes for Swiss Family Robinson. The people it was written for (his sons) didn't know any better. We as a culture are more informed and laugh at the idea of penguins, kangaroos & buffalo all living on the same island. But back then maybe only a hand full of people could discredit this and how were they going to tell everyone? Take it (and any other classic) with a grain of salt and use it as a window to a time when we were all a little less sophisticated. And as for Elizabeth, she can cook for me anytime.

Anonymous,  7:07 PM  

I am currently reading this book right now and I am loving it. The fact that they always have a constant supply of new animals to rely on I believe is a biblical message. The author always stated that the family would pray before they slep and when they arose every morning. I dont think that the family was brutal at all...When you are in a life or death situation you are going to seize any chance you have ay food... They didnt want to have to rely on their grown food to eat themselves but instead they used that food to feed and reward the animals that they had domesticated

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