Writings

Simple Complexity: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“The combination in the book of fantasy, satire, philosophy, poetry, science, imagination, and childish gaiety can capture the hearts and minds of ‘grown-ups’ as well as ‘children’ in only ninety-two short pages” (Dodd, 152). This is how Anne Dodd attempts to describe a book that will not allow itself to be categorized. This mystical adventure begins when Saint-Exupéry makes a forced landing in the Sahara Desert. A small, golden-haired visitor appears at dawn, asking the downed aviator for a drawing of a sheep. A traveler from his home on a small asteroid, the little prince describes his journey to Earth and his experiences here. The story ends with the little prince’s departure from Earth on the anniversary of his arrival. Critics agree that The Little Prince is written as a children’s book but can be analyzed on many different levels.

To begin, Henri Peyre describes the book as a tale “written with a purity of outline and a terse simplicity of dialogue” (Peyre, 144). The dedication even hints that the book is speaking directly to children (Higgins, Number 1, 149). But perhaps it is necessary to clarify this statement: one is defined as a ‘child’ or an ‘adult’ not by age, but by state of mind (Dodd, 152). Maybe it is better to explain that “‘it is a story for children, but not specifically for them alone'” (Higgins, Number 2, 156).

The story of the little prince exists on many different levels, a tale resembling such great works as Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels (Graham, 146). Saint-Exupéry explains the importance of seeing beneath the surface by beginning his book with the story about drawings of closed and open boa constrictors. Later, he relates a story about the Turkish astronomer who discovers the little prince’s home, Asteroid B-612. When he presents his findings to the International Congress of Astronomy, dressed in his comical Turkish outfit, he is not believed (Price, 151). Man has not learned to look beneath the surface, or rather, he has forgotten how (Jan, 153). Because adults never look inside, they will never know themselves or others.

This idea that man is alone in the world prompted Martin Heidegger to call The Little Prince “‘one of the great existentialist books of the century'” (Gagnon, 159). All his life, Saint-Exupéry has thought that grown-ups care only about inconsequential matters, such as golf and neckties, and are very dull when talking about important matters. He has never met anyone whom he could talk to about what is really important (Gagnon, 159).

Throughout his book, Saint-Exupéry teaches the importance of looking beneath the surface to find true beauty. Analyzed on an instructive level, his book casts a mysterious wonder over common things by showing what is beneath (Higgins, Number 1, 149). Visible things are only shells that hint at the real beauty of what is inside (Higgins, Number 2, 158). From the fox’s lesson that one can see only what is important by looking with the heart (Mooney, 611), Saint-Exupéry leaves the desert as a different person (Graham, 146). He agrees with the little prince’s thought: “‘the stars are beautiful, because of a flower that cannot be seen'” (Higgins, Number 2, 158).

Saint-Exupéry, the author, also teaches us how to love — the only way to overcome the existential boundary between men. “Love, for Saint-Exupéry, is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of consequence; indeed, it is a matter of survival. Men must learn to love one another or perish” (Higgins, Number 2, 159). Love is what gives life meaning (Dodd, 152). The little prince’s love for his rose is so important to him that the stranded aviator comments:

“What moves me so deeply about this little prince who is sleeping here, is his loyalty to a flower — the image of a rose that shines through his whole being like the flame of a lamp, even when he is asleep.” (Mooney, 611)

His love gives his life purpose and direction (Price, 151).

The fox teaches the little prince how to love — a lesson for us all. It is the time that one “wastes” on someone or something that makes it important (Higgins, Number 2, 157). It is the fox that tells us how love overcomes existentialism: “‘One only knows the things that one tames…. Men buy things already made in the stores. But as there are no stores where friends can be bought, men no longer have friends'” (Maurois, 150). Joy and pleasure must be earned — not given or received — like the joy the water from the well gives to the little prince and the pilot. Its sweetness comes from the journey under the stars and the work of the pilot’s arms making the pulley sing (Cate, 155).

The Little Prince can also be analyzed as a satire. It presents caricatures of man’s preoccupations with useless pastimes, wealth and power, and technology (Price, 151). It is these human characteristics that cause man “to miss the essentials in life: beauty, love and friendship” (Dodd, 152).

Saint-Exupéry scorns drinking as a pointless activity. The roundabout logic of the tippler shows the stupidity of this activity. The tippler explains to the little prince why he drinks:

“To forget.”

“To forget what?” inquired the Little Prince, already feeling sorry for him.

“To forget that I am ashamed,” confessed the drinker, bowing his head.

“Ashamed of what?” asked the Little Prince who wanted to help him.

“Ashamed of drinking!” concluded the drinker, shutting himself into a definitive silence. (Cate, 155)

Saint-Exupéry also scorns man’s obsession with wealth and power, this through the King and Businessman. The king puts a great deal of importance into being obeyed when he orders only what would happen anyway (Maurois, 150). The businessman takes great pride in owning all the stars, a collector too busy counting them to get any pleasure from their beauty (Cate, 154). The little prince tries to show the pointlessness of his “property” by explaining that it does the stars no good to be owned. The little prince then tells how he owns a flower and three volcanos. The fact that he owns and takes care of them does them some good. The businessman does not help the stars (Hürlimann, 147).

The Little Prince also scorns man’s fascination with science and technology. Philip Mooney tells us that “Technology on its own can never bring human happiness because it can neither create human relationship nor reveal the person of another” (611). This apathy is illustrated in the story of the train-switch operator. Dozens of dozing passengers are routed in all different directions, never truly knowing where they are going or what they are looking for (Cate, 155).

A final level that The Little Prince can be analyzed on is as a profession of faith. The Little Prince has been called a “fairy-tale transposition of certain episodes in the life of Christ” (Graham, 146). The little prince arrives on Earth in the desert beneath “his” star (Mooney, 611) during a time of spiritual conflict. He is professed to be without sin, even by the serpent, a biblical symbol of evil. “Like Christ in the temple, he astounds the author with his precocity” (Graham, 146). He recognizes the drawing of the closed boa constrictor immediately and knows that the author’s attempts to fix his engine have been successful before Saint-Exupéry can tell him. When the author runs out of water in the desert, the little prince “miraculously” leads him to a village well — even though they are in the middle of the desert without a town in sight. At the well, they share their “last supper” and the prince gives the author a lesson very similar to “the Christian ‘Love one another'” (Graham, 146). The time of the little prince’s departure from Earth is predetermined. He tells the author that he will look like he has died, but will live on (Mooney, 611). The little prince sacrifices himself because of his love for his rose — an act paralleling Christ’s sacrifice for his love of all mankind (Graham, 146). When the author does not find the little prince’s body at daybreak (Mooney, 611), he knows that the little prince has returned to his “heavenly” home, leaving with “his follower a sort of Holy Ghost — his star in the heavens and his memory” (Graham, 146). He also leaves the aviator his “Gospel” to write down and pass on to others (Graham, 146).

The author-aviator’s beautiful, poetic description of the little prince’s death illustrates his belief in life after death (Dodd, 152). The little prince, leaving his “shell” behind (Graham, 146), has gone to the most beautiful place he can imagine — his star and his love — his own little heaven (Dodd, 152).

Through reading and reserching The Little Prince, I have learned that this seemingly simple book is truly a complex literary work and can be analyzed on many levels. I spent a great deal of time with the reviews of this book, and, as Saint-Exupéry would say, “I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them” (Saint-Exupéry, 9). I love The Little Prince for its simplistic beauty and childlike wonder. I have always thought, as Maxwell A. Smith has, that “[t]o analyze in detail so lovely and fragile a tale would be like removing the petals of a rose to try and discover its charm…” (145). I believe that it is a work that means different things to different people. The feelings that I get from reading it are not to be found in any critical review; they are to be found in my heart. As André Maurois said: “The essential virtue of a work of art is that it has its own significance, without reference to abstract concepts. A cathedral does not require commentaries, the starry vault does not require footnotes” (150).

Bibliography

Cate, Curtis. Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 154-155.

Dodd, Anne W. Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 152.

Gagnon, Laurence. Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 159-160.

Graham, Victor E. Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 146.

Higgins, James E. [Number 1] Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 149-150.

Higgins, James E. [Number 2] Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 155-159.

Hürlimann, Bettina. Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 146-148.

Jan, Isabelle. Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 153-154.

Maurois, André. Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 150.

Mooney, Philip. “‘The Little Prince’ — a Story for Our Time.” America, 20 December, 1969: 610-611,614.

Peyre, Henri. Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 144.

Price, Robert H. Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 150-152.

Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. The Little Prince. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1961.

Smith, Maxwell A. Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 144-145.

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