Saturday, September 01, 2012

Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson


Opening Passage:

Already the tempest had continued six days; on the seventh its fury seemed still increasing and the morning dawned upon us without a prospect of hope, for we had wandered so far from the right track, and were so forcibly driven toward the south-east, that none on board knew where we were. The ship's company were exhausted by labour and watching, and the courage which had sustained them was no wsinking. The shivered masts had been cast into the sea; several leaks appeared, and the ship began to fill. The sailors forbore from swearing; many were at prayer on their knees; while others offered miracles of futue piety and goodness as the condition fo their release from danger. 'My beloved children,' said I to my four boys, who clung to me in their fright, 'God can csave us, for nothing is impossible to him. Wee must however hold ourselves resigned, and, instead of murmuring at his decree, rely that what he sees fit to do is best, and that should he call us from this earthly scene, we shall be near him in heaven, and united through eternity. Death may be well supported when it does not separate those who love.'

Summary: There are at least two curious lacunae in The Swiss Family Robinson. The first is that we never learn the name of the family -- almost all we know about their background is that they are Swiss, that the father is a Protestant pastor and must have had some unusual educational ideas even in an era famous for its unusual education ideas, and that they are traveling across the world for an unspecified reason, possibly to settle in, or maybe just to visit, Australia. The second is that we never learn the name of the father; he is the narrator, never gives his name, and is never addressed by name in the entire book. We learn that the mother's name is Elizabeth, and that the boys are Fritz, Ernest, Jack, and Francis, but the father's name we never learn.

Nonetheless, he and all the family have clearly defined and nicely rounded personalities. The father is a bit too pedantic and schoolmasterish; the mother is a bit too sarcastic; the outgoing boys, Fritz and Jack, have to rein in their passions; of the introverted boys, Ernest is a little too inclined to be lazy, and Francis, the youngest, has to slowly learn to express himself through the book. The boys bicker like boys do, albeit in better diction than most, and over exactly the sorts of ridiculous petty competitive things boys actually bicker about. Everyone is constantly ribbing everyone else, and everyone is a bit harder on Ernest than is entirely fair, although this does improve through the book as Ernest becomes less likely to try to shirk -- and as Jack starts to share the role of family target. Nonetheless, everyone in the family loves everyone else, and they all contribute important things by the end of the work. It's very much a family book. And while the family is a sort of super-family, in which everyone is a bit more ingenious and a bit luckier than one might expect, they make their share of mistakes and mis-steps -- and survive them as a family.

One of the things that struck me is that there are a lot of features of the book that would likely be a tough sell if you were to write something similar today -- the massacre of monkeys, for instance, is rather bloody, and the donkey being killed and devoured by a boa constrictor is told with such extraordinary detail as to be startling. The family is very animal-friendly -- the children are always sharply rebuked for any thoughtless or unnecessary killing of animals -- but they also have no qualms whatsoever with killing anything that will contribute to survival and comfort, and they turn out to be quite good at it. They aren't out camping; they are out to settle the island and turn it to their needs and wants. It never ceases to be a fun adventure, but the novel remarkably does not flinch from recognizing what would actually be required.

Favorite Passage: From Chapter 33:

I remarked that Ernest followed us to our embarkation with regret. I asked him the cause, and he declared that, if I wished to make him happy, I would leave him alone on this island, where he would live like Robinson Crusoe. The idea mad eme smile, and I instantly replied, 'You foolish boy, do you know that the life of Robinson is but a finely-wrought fiction, and that your romantic project has a thousand obstacles attending it? You would not be there long before you would grow tired of your solitude; sickness would come, and some fine morning we should fin d the poor hermit dead upon the beach. Thank God, He did not separate us at our shipwreck; we are six ain all, and we are scarcely able to provide for our well-being. What could you do, alone, upon these rocks?'

Recommendation: Quick-moving, full of variety, and despite the didactic tone, a rather rollicking adventure. Well worth reading at least once.

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