The Swiss Family Robinson

by Johann David Wyss, Johann Rudolf Wyss

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The Swiss Family Robinson Themes

The main themes in The Swiss Family Robinson are survival and self-reliance, faith and providence, and family and unity.

  • Survival and self-reliance: The novel centers around the eponymous family’s efforts to survive and build a new life on a remote island.
  • Faith and providence: The narrator sustains his Christian faith, feeling that God has provided his family with all that is necessary.
  • Family and unity: The characters in the novel rely on one another, working together to survive and even flourish.

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Survival and Self-Reliance

After being shipwrecked, the stranded Swiss family is forced to rely on their own knowledge and skills in order to survive on a deserted island. Each individual possesses different strengths. For instance, Fritz is old enough to assist his father with more laborious tasks, Ernest’s interest in natural history enables him to identify plants and animals, and Elizabeth brings a uniquely feminine perspective that allows her to propose ideas the men may not consider. By working together, the family is able to gradually transform the island from a wild landscape that is full of perils into a civilized dwelling that can provide for all of their needs.

At the heart of the survival effort is the patriarch of the family. His expansive knowledge of botany, carpentry, engineering, and other topics allows him to guide his family and propose creative solutions to their problems. However, he is not a dictator; the narrator also has a deep respect for the ideas proposed by the rest of his family, and he takes the time to cultivate curiosity and independence in his sons. Indeed, he is keenly aware of the risks associated with living on a deserted island, and he seeks to instill in his sons “an enterprising spirit of self reliance” that will enable them to thrive even without their parents.

In many of the father’s sermons to his family, the notion of self-reliance is combined with the belief that the Christian god will provide for those “that help themselves.” The family maintains an attitude of piety and thankfulness, believing that God has given them everything they need in order to provide for their own needs on the island. Rather than treating their circumstances as a betrayal of their faith, they instead embrace their circumstances and strive to live a “peaceful, industrious,” and pious life.

Faith and Providence

Faith is a central theme throughout The Swiss Family Robinson, with Christianity providing a source of mental, spiritual, and intellectual fortitude for the family as they survive on a deserted island. Father often leads the family in prayer, and they maintain the Sabbath as a day of rest and reflection. Using biblical parables, sermons, and scripture, the father imparts important life lessons upon his sons while also helping them retain the faith they need to thrive in their oftentimes trying circumstances. Furthermore, upholding biblical customs and teachings allows the family to retain a sense of civilized structure in their otherwise wild surroundings.

The notion of providence, or divine guidance, also plays an important role in shaping the family’s relationship with the island. Rather than viewing their circumstances as a trial or test of faith, they instead view the island as a gift from God. Although there is a certain level of fear and anxiety in their efforts to tame the island, the family generally approaches each new challenge with the belief that God will provide them with what they need. From there, they simply need to apply their own effort and ingenuity in order to thrive.

Family and Unity

Throughout the novel, the members of the Swiss family must work together in order to support their communal survival effort. They work together as a cohesive unit, supporting each other’s efforts and goals while providing valuable input when necessary. Indeed, many of the tasks the family undertakes likely could not have been completed by an individual: the carving out of their cavernous winter home, the capturing and taming of numerous wild animals, and the hauling of heavy and unwieldy supplies from the wreckage of their original ship all require large amounts of coordination and teamwork.

The presence of family also helps bolster the spirits of each character. The mother and father must mask their anxieties in order to model gratitude and optimism for their sons, and the boys retain the familial structures with which they were raised. The parents also continue their children’s education, going so far as to build a library of sorts in their cavern dwelling. Each member of the family is tasked with studying different languages and disciplines to help support their communal knowledge bank. The father’s religious and moral teachings also help the sons learn things like personal responsibility, compassion for animals, and temperance.

At the end of the story, the family is primed to separate, with Fitz and Franz embarking for England. However, rather than representing a dissolution of family structure, this instead represents the successful maturation of the sons into functional adults. As he prepares to say farewell to his sons, the father expresses pride that they have become honorable and independent men who can succeed in life without their parents.

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