The Swiss Family Robinson Summary
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss is the story of a shipwrecked family who build a new life for themselves on a remote island.
- The Robinson family is shipwrecked on a remote island. They build a shelter, then set about exploring their new home.
- The family works together to build a more permanent dwelling. Ten years later, they find a cave that becomes their home and a storehouse for their supplies. They also find an English girl who has been shipwrecked on the island.
- Eventually, they are rescued by an English ship. The captain and his family decide to stay on the island, and Fritz and Francis Robinson return to England with the English girl.
Last Updated December 16, 2022.
A Swiss family is left to fend for themselves after their ship is wrecked against a coral reef and the crew escapes in the lifeboats without them. Fortunately, a portion of the ship’s cabin is wedged above the waterline, allowing the family adequate time to prepare for their journey to a nearby landmass. Using a set of tubs fastened together into a makeshift raft, they take as many of the ship’s tools and provisions as possible with them to the island, including food, tools, firearms, and other portable valuables.
Once they arrive on shore, the family creates a tent out of sailcloth and begins searching for food to augment what they brought with them from the ship. They quickly discover that the island is flush with natural resources. Over the course of the next few days, the father and the eldest son, Fritz, begin exploring the island further, finding more sources of food as well as an abundance of wildlife. They also make several more trips out to the wrecked ship to gather more supplies. After figuring out how to craft makeshift life vests out of barrels, they are even able to safely transport some of the ship’s livestock to the island. The father worries that they will be stranded there for a long time, so he begins mentally planning for his family’s future.
The mother of the family, Elizabeth, suggests building a more permanent residence in the trees so that the family will be better protected from wildlife. Using the supplies from the ship, they are able to construct a sturdy treehouse that provides enhanced storage space and safety. They also begin constructing pens for the wildlife they brought from the ship and planting seeds for a garden. Ernest, the second oldest son, has an interest in botany and natural history, enabling him to identify many of the island’s native plants and animals. The younger two brothers, Jack and Franz, help their mother around the treehouse and tend to the crops and animals.
Throughout their efforts to build a safe and stable dwelling, the family encounters a variety of wild animals, including jackals, flamingos, monkeys, and strange birds. The father teaches his sons how to hunt using guns and ammunition brought over from the ship. He later builds them a bow and arrow set, knowing that the gunpowder will not last forever. The family also constructs several items to help make transporting supplies easier, including a cart that can be pulled by their donkey and a small pinnace, or row boat, that they use to transport more items from the shipwreck.
Led by the father, the family continues to expand their dwelling, adding many of the island’s bountiful resources—including sugar cane, spices, and coconuts—to their own stores. However, they soon realize that their treehouse does not provide adequate shelter or space during the rainy season, and they spend a miserable few months stuck inside with all of their livestock. The father resolves to find a different solution for the next year.
The rainy season ends, and the family begins rebuilding the structures that were damaged by the weather over the winter months. They also discover a sizable rock cavern that they decide to turn into a winter home. The family then constructs a cabin next to a lake, gradually mapping out the island and building more structures to accommodate their needs. The rock cavern in particular provides a safe storage place for more fragile materials, such as books and seeds.
The father and mother continuously do their best to educate the children, despite their rugged circumstances. They read from...
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a bible the mother salvaged from the ship and frequently have in-depth philosophical discussions. The family also reads together, and they endeavor to have each member study different languages to give them the best chance at being able to communicate with any other people they may encounter.
Over the next ten years, the boys mature and become increasingly independent, and the family continuously refines their small colony. Fritz has built a canoe, and he frequently takes long trips to explore the island and its surroundings. During one of these outings, he encounters an albatross with a note from a fellow shipwreck survivor attached to its leg. He confides in his father about the note, and the two men resolve to investigate the matter without telling the rest of the family in case it should prove fruitless.
Fritz successfully finds the other survivor: a young English woman named Jenny Montrose. He brings her back to his family’s colony, where she is warmly received. She explains that she was shipwrecked on her way back to England from India, and that her father, an army officer, is likely extremely worried about her. The Swiss family happily accepts Jenny as one of their own, and she settles into life as a member of their colony.
A few months after Jenny’s arrival, the residents of the island are surprised to hear cannon fire in the distance. Worried it might be pirates, they cautiously investigate the ship, only to realize it is an English vessel that has come in search of Jenny at the behest of her father. The Swiss family invites the passengers and crew of the ship to visit their island colony, and several of the passengers are so impressed that they ask if they can stay. From there, arrangements are made to have the island recognized as a new colony, which is to be called New Switzerland.
Jenny, Fritz, and Franz choose to sail back to England with the promise that they will spread the word about New Switzerland and help establish commerce to and from the island. The father, mother, Ernest, and Jack all choose to stay behind with the hope that contact with the outside world will allow their colony to grow and prosper further. Before the ship leaves for England, the father entrusts his journals from the family’s time on the island to his departing sons in the hopes that they—and the rest of Europe—might learn from reading about the Swiss family’s adventures.