Johann David Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson, which was completed and edited by Wyss’s son Johann Rudolf Wyss, has remained extraordinarily popular. In its various translations, editions, adaptations, and shortened versions, it has continued to delight a child audience, despite its never being highly regarded as a work of literature. This delight is carried principally by the work’s adventure, beginning with the exciting shipwreck and removal to the island and continuing through the exploration of the island, the establishment of the two children-pleasing homes in a tree house and in a cave, and the battles with boa constrictors and lions, among other beasts.
The delight is perpetuated as various characters go out to explore and generally come upon some astonishing and unexpected adventure. In addition, the ingenuity of the family, both in the face of these adventures and in the desperate situation in which they find themselves, forms much of the satisfaction of the novel. Do wild animals threaten? Build a tree house. Is the vine ladder too unsteady? Build a staircase within the trunk of the hollowed tree. Is the tree house unsuitable for the rainy season? Discover a vast cave with the added bonus of an unlimited source of rock salt. The pattern of a problem followed by an ingenious solution forms much of the novel.
Something else is suggested by the many versions of The Swiss Family Robinson: There is a discomfort with the text. This seems to have been felt by its authors, for an early French translator was allowed to change the ending and to add some of her own episodes. Since its first publication, the story has been so augmented and altered that it is difficult to speak of a definitive text.
The problem is that much of what occurs on the island is simply ludicrous. The island seems to be blessed with animals from all over the globe, ripped out of their natural habitats and placed on the island for the benefit of the Robinson family. Tigers, found only in Asia, romp with kangaroos, found only in Australia. Elephants sport with walruses, while on the shores flamingoes trot beside penguins. Though the father claims he is no naturalist, he can identify and name the properties—as well as give the Latin name—of every plant and animal they come across, and there are plenty. On the novel’s island animals have young although they...
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