The Swiss Family Robinson: A favourite no more

The Swiss Family Robinson was one of my favourite books growing up. I received an abridged version of this book for my 10th birthday and it was love at first read. For a 10- year-old girl with a rather active imagination, the story of a shipwrecked family living on a deserted island with nobody but each other for company was extremely thrilling and romantic. The family comprises Father Robinson (who is never named in the book), Mother Robinson (Elizabeth), and their four sons—Fritz, Ernest, Jack and Franz.

I read the book (which was first published in 1812) many times over the years and never failed to marvel at the resourcefulness of the hard- working Swiss Family Robinson who lived off the land, sea and air, or delight in their discoveries, inventions and adventures. In a way, it was one of my comfort books !

So when I recently found an unabridged, second-hand version of the book, I was delighted. It was a much-anticipated read and I was looking forward to reading all the details that an abridged version always leaves out. And the unabridged version of The Swiss Family Robinson did not disappoint on that score—the characters were fleshed out, the various adventures, discoveries and inventions were described in more detail, etc.

But when I finished the book, I did not have the happy, nice feeling that I usually did when I read this book. In fact, I was left feeling uneasy and confused. For example, the geographically impossible variety of fauna (agouti, pangolins, porcupines, capybaras, camels, monkeys, lions, leopards, tigers, bears, onagers, boars, tapirs,  kangaroos, elephants, giraffes, jackals, walruses, platypuses, koalas, wombats, dingos, zebras, bison, rhinos, hippos, and moose) and flora (including rubber plant,  coconut, sago, fir trees, and sugarcane, among others) was dizzying in detail.

The characters themselves revealed very different personalities than what I knew and remembered of them. For example, strong and brave Fritz turned out to be ruthless; quiet and thoughtful Ernest turned out to be vain; bold Jack turned out to be cruel; and nice, likable Franz turned out to be a real mama’s boy. As for Father Robinson, whose calm and measured guidance was comforting, he turned out to be horribly preachy and moralistic.

But what upset me the most was the detailed description and reasons given for killing animals for food or for defense. For instance:

… he [Jack] returned to the charge, suddenly threw his garment over the creature [land crab] , wrapped it well around it, and pummeled it with all the strength of his fists…

“Well, this is an ugly rascal,” cried Jack. “If he had not been so hideous, I should not have dealt so severely with him…”

Father Robinson is only amused by this and laughs at Jack and his “antics” during his killing of the crab as well as during another time when Jack kills a porcupine.

…little Jack stepped close up to it, with a pocket pistol in his hand, and shot it dead, making sure of it by a couple of heavy raps on the head.

While I could have overlooked the indeed astonishing variety of flora and fauna or even the newly discovered character traits of Robinson family members, I could not stomach the description of killing (mostly) defenceless animals, fish and birds. In fact, I feel that the book describes the acts in loving detail. By the time I finished reading the book, I actually felt quite sick. I put the book away with a vow of giving it away at first opportunity.

As I write this post, I realise that I have probably made the mistake of analysing what is essentially a children’s book through very adult eyes, something that I have often accused those who consider Tom & Jerry cartoons (which I love) as violent and inappropriate for children. But then, I reason that I wouldn’t want anyone, particularly a child, to read that it is okay to kill if the animal/victim is ugly.

While researching for some background information on The Swiss Family Robinson, I found out that there are many translations and versions of the original. According to Wikipedia, “with all the expansions and contractions over the past two centuries (this includes a long history of abridgments, condensations, Christianizing, and Disney products), Wyss’s original narrative has long since been obscured.” Therefore, I am quite willing to concede that the problem may well lie with the particular unabridged version of the book that I have. But whatever the case, The Swiss Family Robinson is no longer on my list of favourite books, and is also not on the list of books I use to gift children.

P.S.: Have you ever loved a book as a child only to dislike it as an adult? I would love to hear about it.

29 thoughts on “The Swiss Family Robinson: A favourite no more

  1. What a scary description of a reality that i would never have known, had you not taken this particular book to review ! I don’t think i want to read the ‘complete and unabridged version of The Swiss Family Robinson’ at all..
    I am in the process of re-reading some classics but have not yet come to this kind of dilemma as yet.

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      1. Dear sudhagee,

        Yes, I felt the same way when I recently reread “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” As a young person I found the book to be totally captivating. However, as an old man (who is trying to catch up on all his reading that he missed in his youth) I found it to be.. not so much.

        Strangely, I am in the process of reading “The Swiss Family Robinson” myself and frankly, it’s irritating the liver out of me! I enjoyed the Disney movie, but this book! Is there nothing that these people cannot do? And that ridiculous dad, who apparently knows everything about everything? Anyhow, because it’s considered to be a “classic” I will continue to muscle my way through and hope for the best-meaning that hopefully the book is different than the movie and the whole family gets eaten by cannibals.

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        1. Welcome here, Hugh. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I hate to break it to you, but the book is like the film and the Swiss Family Robinson do not get eaten by cannibals. Unfortunately. Good luck with finishing the book. And now I am going to try reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 😀

          PS: I love your highly original email id. 😀

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  2. The only book I ever loved is Scarlett Pimpernel. I have never used the stock theme, but your twelve theme layout is simply professional, why not you buy ur own domain?

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  3. very interesting!! i too loved the book as a kid… again, the abridged version.. havent read the complete one yet! and yes, it does sound nothing like what I remember of the abridged version!!!

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  4. I read the book too, the abridged version, as a child and loved it. I am sure I won’t like the full version either.

    I used to love the Little Women series as a young girl. Now, the preachy parts annoy me sick, but I still love the story.

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  5. That was a wonderful interpretation of a classic. It speaks of the skill of the editors who retain the best parts and give kids only those. i want to believe that the particular version could have been written by an insensitive person and that the original story was not like that!

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    1. You are so right, Zephyr. I’m going to believe that considering that there are so many versions of the Swiss Family Robinson, the one that I read was probably translated by someone who was insensitive !

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  6. Sudha, I remember being enamoured with the book as a child. I used to ardently read all classics and along with a Treasure Island or a Gulliver’s Travels say, this was much loved. But the way you have interpreted the book seems very real now and very stark. I wonder if I will go through similar emotions if I revisit the book now. But then, what Zephyr says could also be true. Perhaps that particular version was done by this insensitive translator. You never know.
    Most of my loves as a child have remained with me even now. I still read Alice in Wonderland every now and then. 😀
    Fabulous post… makes me think.

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    1. And I read Heidi, and the Raiway Children, and Anne of Green Gables… The list is endless. Maybe it was an insensitive translation that I have read, but somehow I don’t think so.

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  7. Well, I have never experienced anything like this. Most of the books which I have loved over the years still remain on my “Favourite” list. 🙂
    There are a couple of stories who’s unabridged versions I have still not read. May be one of them will end up disappointing me. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen.

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    1. All my childhood favourites still remain on my list. It is only this book which has got struck off. I was feeling rather low about a couple of days back and my cure was to read my battered copy of Heidi 😀

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  8. Came to your site reading about the film fest on home video inspirations and found this Interesting post on a childhood memory! I too read the abridged version, part of a classics series for children (Jaico publishers, i think) which had these small, square-shaped booklets with b&w illustrations on the left page and simplified text on the right. It was pure schoolboy fun – jungle adventure and survival story, and I’m embarrassed now that I fancied myself Fritz for some time thereafter. I was put off buying the unabridged version a few years later by the back cover blurb extolling its virtues as a christian book. Reading your post, I’m glad I didn’t. There’s nothing worse than having nostalgia turn to nausea. 🙂

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    1. You have hit the nail on the head: “There’s nothing worse than having nostalgia turn to nausea.” The unabridged version was such a letdown. Even Fritz, on whom I had a crush (yes, me too :-P) was quite obnoxius in this version. As for the book extolling Christian values, it is not surprising because Wyss was a pastor. But honestly, the values are universal falues of love, friendship, hard work, trust, etc. etc.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, and I hope that you will keep visiting.

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  9. Twitter led me to your blog and i am enjoying reading your posts.

    Most of the books i have read and loved as a child disappoint my adult self. I used to love Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, for example, and i read it sometime ago once again. It was a disaster. I cant think of anything more racist and hostile to the ‘different’ than that! I find Little Women, Anne of Green gables and the like full of maudlin rot! And yet these were some books that influenced me, atleast in childhood.

    Rejecting what we enjoyed as children, hopefully, is a sign of growing up!

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    1. Welcome to my blog, Sumanya, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Most of my childhood favourites have remained favourites like the Railway Children and Heidi, though some like the Swiss amily Robinson are no longer there. I feel that we make the mistake of looking at such books through adult eyes and rejecting them now. Don’t you think that is unfair because, they were books that influenced us as in childhood?

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      1. Yes, of course! Books that influence us at any point in our lives, will always be cherished because of the memories that are associated with them. Infact, all the books I have mentioned above are still dear to my heart. And I would recommend them to any child, in a jiffy.

        But I don’t think its particularly unfair to reject books that have influenced us. It is fascinating to view your previous self as a completely different character (may be the writer in me is talking here). Also, so many worlds are closed to us as adults. I recently read this book Around the World in 80 Days. And I am sure I would have enjoyed it much more as a child. As an adult, I found it difficult to digest all that racism and chauvinism although I knew it was of a different age entirely!.

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  10. Your mistake is not viewing a children’s book through adult eyes, but viewing a 19th century book through 21st century eyes. The book was a moral tale of its time, and the treatment of animals described passim was also typical of its time.

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    1. Welcome here, Melis and thank you for stopping by and commenting. I don’t think I really liked anyone. But the only bearable character is the Mother. She seems to be the most sensible of them all.

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  11. Very well written article. I recently listened to the Librivox-audio book version of the novel and share some of your concerns about the book. In the version that I read, in the end the Swiss Family meets a ship wrecked widow and two girl children in a neighbouring island inhabited by ‘savages’. The girl children eventually marry two of the Swiss Family Boys. One of the boys goes back to Europe and comes with a wife. I have seen versions with with very different endings.

    I also recently read Robinson Crusoe in the original. One of the thoughts that came to me as I read the Swiss Family was that compared to Crusoe, the Swiss Family have it very easy. Their ship just lies there in shallow waters with all its riches at the disposal of the Family. The ingenuity displayed by Crusoe is not shown by the Swiss family. Also Robinson Crusoe contains deep reflections about judging people of a different culture. In comparison the Swiss Family in its dealings with ‘savages’ shows an arrogant Eurocentrism.

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    1. Welcome here, Ajjose, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I didn’t know that there were several different versions of this book! Thank you for telling me about them. European writers were quick to label the other as savages or heathens or both. It points to their ignorance and arrogance as you have so rightly mentioned.

      I have never read the unabridged version of Robinson Crusoe and your comment has nudged me towards picking up that classic. Thank you once again. 🙂

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    1. Absolutely, Mike. The pace never slackens even for a bit in “The Three Musketeers”. I enjoyed both the abridged and the unabdriged versions. An unabridged book that I could not finish was “The Count of Monte Cristo”, though I had enjoyed reading the unabridged version.

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