Since its first publication in 1812, Johann Wyss's novel, The Swiss Family Robinson, has been edited and/or translated into various lengths, ranging from eighteen to fifty-two chapters. The longer versions are "unabridged." The version this summary covers is a popular 1879 unabridged version of forty-four chapters, edited by William H. G. Kingston.
The story is narrated by the father of four sons who, with his wife, journeys on a ship. A violent storm pulls them off their charted course and tosses the ship so wildly that after a few days none of the crew knows where they are. The storm lasts a long time, leaving all aboard distressed and hopeless of being saved.
One afternoon, a crew member sees land, and soon the ship runs aground on rocks, which crack the bow. As night falls, the father, fearful for the lives of his family, goes on deck to determine the ship's damage. What he sees is difficult to believe: The crew is boarding lifeboats, leaving the family behind.
Before they sleep that night, the father creates vests to buoy his family should the ocean water crash through the bow. When they awake the next day, they are thankful that the storm has ceased. In the distance, the father sees land; now he must figure out how to get his family there.
Over the next few days, his sons help him devise a system of floatable old wine kegs, large barrels with enough room to hold one person each. When he places the kegs in the water, however, he discovers that they easily tip over. To rectify this, he attaches the kegs to one another and builds a bow that curves around them. He then connects an outrigger like those he has seen on small boats that native island people use.
The outrigger offers even greater balance. The kegs, however, continue to float too high on the water and do not appear safe. The father realizes the kegs need more ballast, or extra weight, to stabilize, and he and his family search through the wrecked ship for materials. They choose objects that not only will add weight but also will be useful for survival on the island. They spend one more night on the ship, planning to leave in the morning.