This post is part of a month-long series of pre-dated posts running while I am on holiday. Feel free to comment, I’ll get back to you when I return!
Please note that any “reviews” I write here are simply my own opinion and that I am not doing any objective, informative reviews for this challenge. If there are any spoilers in a post, I will indicate it at the top.
I draw the book covers straight from Goodreads and you can click on the images to go to the book’s page on there.
I will try to shape my thoughts about this, though I don’t have any well-ordered arguments or strong points. However, I will try to explain what I think. Everyone else is probably right and I’m being a fool. Well, here goes…
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss
I see a lot of hate going for this book these days. (Just click on the image and read some reviews on Goodreads. You’ll see several opinions going that way.) People tell you how they threw it away after reading only part of it. People tell you how this book is the epitome of everything that they hate. People tell you that it is racist, Eurocentric and offensive.
And you know what? I know it is, but I still like it.
Let me explain… or try to, at least. I’m the last person to condone racism or Eurocentricism. In this case they are basically the same thing, so I will simply refer to racism. I hate it, it irritates me and I hate it. Though I was raised in an environment where racism was definitely not absent, I hate tried my utmost best to kill this method of thought in myself. I hope that I have succeeded. Anyway, how come I liked The Swiss Family Robinson?
It is the perfect example of colonial literature. It is absolutely a product of its times and a perfect example of the thought patterns of the colonial period. You can’t pin an accusation of racism on a book written during a period when racism was normal and common practice. Also, I don’t know how you can accuse the author of being a racist if you have not extensively done research about his work and life. You definitely can’t claim this after having read only a few of his pages. In the case of this book, I would find it difficult to venture any opinion about the author even after reading the entire book, because throughout it is written in first person – in diary form. Therefore it would be hard to tell if anything said in the book is simply the bias written into typical, colonial-stereotype characters, or if it is the author’s own opinion.
The Swiss Family Robinson is a book about a family surviving on a deserted island after having been shipwrecked. I’ve written before that I loved this kind of stories when I was younger. Perhaps this has clouded my perception of this book. I don’t know. However, I was taught to always read a book inside the context that it was written, and this book was written in a context where Europeans belittling other races was perfectly normal and happened every day. This was the colonial period. That was what happened. The book is innocent because it didn’t know of any better, right?
No? I told you that I’m trying to shape what I think, but I don’t think I’m doing very well so far. I’m not explaining well, am I? If you read classic books, you will find these kind of offensive overtones mentioned previously in many, many books. You will find them in the works of Dickens and the work of Conan Doyle. You will find them in the works of Jules Verne and Agatha Christie. These are all works that represent the thought of their time, and I cannot take offense at that, because I know that this is the way that people thought in the past. I know that this is not the way that people think now. Well, most people, anyway. Many at least.
Am I arguing about nothing here? Do you think this book is offensive? Is it simply oversensitive to say that The Swiss Family Robinson is racist? After all, there are many that say Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is racist (an argument which I think is ridiculous) and some that say J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are racist, which I can honestly not see. I think it’s a bit unrealistic to pin racism on works that take place in a completely different world with completely different peoples. Anyway, I’m digressing.
To conclude, even though I can see a way of thought that will be considered offensive these days in The Swiss Family Robinson, I cannot take offense at it or dislike the book for it. It is colonialist literature of a bygone period, from which you cannot expect a different, modern kind of thought, and that is what it represents to me. It doesn’t mean I have to condone it.
Tomorrow brings the last post featuring my favourite book of all time!