The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

36275155Fiction – audiobook. Translated from the German. Read by Frederick Davidson. Blackstone Audio, 2009. Originally published 1812. 10 hours, 18 minutes. Library copy.

Wyss’ novel follows a Swiss family figuring out how to survive on an uninhabited island after a violent storm wrecks their ship among the rocky outcropping of an uninhabited island. The rest of the crew headed to Port Jackson, Australia via the East Indies abandoned the family, taking all the lifeboats but leaving the livestock and provisions behind.

The first task for the patriarch, William, is to figure out how to transport his four sons – Fritz, Ernest, Jack, and Franz – and his wife off the shipwreck to the island. Once on dry land, William sets about teaching his sons how to build a safe shelter, how to forage for edible flora, how to hunt and build traps, and how to maintain their faith and traditions in uncivilized conditions.

Although Wyss wrote this novel to teach his own sons about the importance of self-reliance, good husbandry, and faith-based values, the ultimate message of Wyss’ novel is that father knows best. Despite the island’s uninhabited status (and the improbability of its particular mixture of flora and fauna), William is readily able to identify every animal or plant encountered, and much of the suspense that would be expected from a castaway situation is muted by his appearance and correction of his sons’ imaginative assumptions.

At times, William’s characterization made for a frustrating read, particularly as in the treatment of his wife. Unnamed in the text, William’s wife is referred to as “Mother” by his children and her husband, and she is often spoken about as though she is less intelligent or child-like.

Her concerns for the safety of her family are dismissed by William as frivolous and a hindrance to the opportunity for the male members of the family to explore. William is genuinely surprised that Mother would be capable of filling her bag with necessary items without his guidance, and the praise he heaps on her for remembering these items is especially patronizing.

As frustrating as Wyss’ presentation of women was, I did my best to remind myself of the 207 years that have passed since the novel was published and to focus on the quest of the family to survive on the island. Thankfully, the four boys are so charming in their curiosity and excitement over the adventure life has handed them that the story did pull me for lengthy periods of time. I enjoyed following their antics; often marveling over their bravery and chuckling at their joy of discovering sugarcane and crabs and new sites around the island.

I do wonder if I would have enjoyed this book more as a kid. As an adult, much of my attention was focused on William and how the narrative was pieced together. As a child, though, I think I would have been more readily drawn into the excitement over seeing a monkey or a penguin for the first time or over building a tree house.

Wyss’ novel has an interesting publication history, and it seems that enjoyment of his novel may also be predicated on which edition or translation is read. The introduction to the print edition I started reading before switching to audio stated that the novel has been translated, adapted, and revised over 200 times. If you pursue the reviews on GoodReads, people mention Mother by a Christian name or discuss the time she broke her leg – information and events entirely left out of the edition I read.

According to the novel’s Wikipedia entry, the closest English translation to the original is William Godwin’s 1816 translation. However, the edition most people are familiar with is Isabelle de Montolieu’s 1824 French translation. Her adaptation inserts one more female character to the end of the story and was originally printed with Wyss’ permission, although he later changed his mind. Unfortunately for Wyss (and maybe for me), this audiobook includes de Montolieu’s additions to the narrative.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five-year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. This deadline has since come and passed, but I am still trying to work through my list by August 15, 2020. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post or project post.

4 comments

  1. Jeane

    I tried this many years ago. I can’t actually recall if I finished it- but I remember the building of the treehouse. I was already too old for the book, the conglomeration of wild animals that could never possibly co-exist (being from completely different habitats) really threw me off.

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