What is a summary of The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss?

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tinandan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss tells the tale of a family stranded on a tropical island near New Guinea, and how they work together to survive.  The story is narrated by the father, who is also the driving force behind his family's survival.

The family consists of the father, the mother ("Elizabeth"), and four sons: Fritz, age "fourteen or fifteen;" Ernest, age twelve; Jack, age ten; and Francis, age six.  

The original book had a short introduction that explained that the father was a Swiss clergyman who had intended to bring his family "to Port Jackson as a free colonist."  The family's intent to colonize explains why they came on a ship stocked with livestock and "seeds of every description."  

The book opens with the family on the ship, a week into being driven by a storm.  The ship wrecks on a rock and breaks in two; the crew of the ship flee in lifeboats.  It is unclear whether they meant to abandon the family or just forgot about them.  Fortunately the ship is wedged on the rocks in such a way that it does not break up or wash away.  The family spend the night on the ship. The next day they use some "tubs" (barrels) and spare lumber to fashion a boat, and on the following day they take this boat to the nearby island. 

The next several chapters tell of their first few days on the island.  They establish a camp on the beach.  They cook meals with food they have brought from the ship.  Fritz and his father go on an exploratory expedition, on which they find many useful plants including sugarcane and coconuts.  They also hunt and fish.  

In Chapters 9 and 10, Fritz and his father sail back to the wreck of the ship and spend two days in retrieving many more tools and also the livestock that the family had been unable to rescue when they first fled the ship.  When they return, the book shifts into a phase of the family seeking a more permanent setup for themselves.

Elizabeth and the younger boys have discovered some very high trees and Elizabeth thinks it would be safest if the family lived in the top of them.  The family spend a day making a bridge across the river so they can easily move themselves and their livestock to the site of the trees.  They spend a day moving, and another day making a platform in the trees for themselves to live in.  The next day they take a Sabbath rest, during which the father preaches his sons a sermon.  

Over the next few chapters, the family move more things from their beach camp to their tree house, and Fritz and his father make a second trip to the shipwreck, where they find many more incredibly useful things.  "The vessel had been, in fact, laden with everything likely to be useful in a new colony" (Chapter 21). Later, they make a third trip to the ship, where they assemble and eventually manage to launch a "pinnace," a small sailboat, which had been stored disassembled on the ship.  

The family then spend a lot of time doing such things as planting a garden, exploring, hunting, and gathering.  They find such useful things as rubber and candleberry myrtle.  They also enjoy discovering the many exotic creatures the island has to offer.  During all these activities, the father never misses an opportunity to educate his sons about botany, zoology, and other aspects of natural science.  He also frequently exhorts them to trust God, leads them in prayers, rebukes them for their faults and encourages them in virtues such as hard work, humility, and a desire to learn. 

Beginning in Chapter 34, the father makes a staircase inside the family's tree, to replace the rope ladder they have been using.  Before doing this, he must first remove a large hive of bees from inside the tree.  Making the spiral staircase inside the tree trunk takes the family a month, during which time all their animals begin to have babies.  Several chapters are then taken up with training their various animals.  

In Chapter 38, the rainy season comes.  The family are forced to move out of their tree house and to shelter under the soaring roots of the trees (which space they were previously using as barns for their livestock).  They have to tweak this arrangement quite a bit to make it comfortable, but eventually they settle into a winterlike routine that involves plenty of indoor chores, arts and crafts, and teaching Francis to read and write.  "We read lessons from the Bible in turns, and concluded the evening with devotion." 

When summer comes again, the family clean and move back into their tree house.  Having passed one miserable rainy season living under the roots of the trees, the family are determined to find a better winter home before next year.  They also want a cave in which to store their gunpowder.  The father, Jack, and Fritz spend a week chiseling at a rock face not far from their beach camp, and eventually break through into a large cave, which turns out to be a "grotto of rock salt."  

The family prepare the cave to become their winter home, putting a door on it, dividing it into rooms, and so on.  They visit and tend their fields and gardens, which are now flourishing; they build a "farmhouse" (actually more of a barn) for their livestock.   By the time the next rainy season arrives, they have made the cave into a comfortable dwelling, complete with warm dry floors and a workshop.  

The father concludes the story:

Everybody worked; the workshop was never empty.  ... We had thus made great strides towards civilization; and, though condemned, perhaps, to pass our lives alone on this unknown shore, we might yet be happy.  We were placed in a the midst of abundance.  We were active, industrious, and content; blessed with health and united by affection ... [O]ur hearts overflowed with love and veneration for that Almighty hand which so miraculously saved, and continued to protect us. ... To Him we committed our fate.  We were happy and tranquil, looking with resignation to the future.

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The Swiss Family Robinson

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