The Little Prince
The Little Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in the Sahara Desert in the 1940s; published in 1943.
A pilot recalls his encounter with a magical Little Prince whom he meets when stranded in the Sahara Desert and who teaches him the meaning of life.
A French airman during the “golden age” of aviation, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew mail routes in northern Africa throughout the 1920s and 1930s. His experiences piloting the small, open-cockpit planes and brokering peace between the Moors of Africa and the imperial French and Spanish occupiers of the land inspired him to write serious books chronicling his desert adventures during this era. Based on true experiences as well as deeply held beliefs, The Little Prince is a fantasy novel that comments on the social ills of Saint-Exupéry’s time. With growing emphasis on science and technology in addition to swelling bureaucracy, increased violence and a world war, the first decades of the 1900s were regarded as a time of progress by some and an era of decline by others. The Little Prince is Saint-Exupéry’s attempt to honor the values he perceives to be important to human existence—the basic concepts of love, integrity, and respect for life—values he felt were being obscured and forgotten by Western society in its dogged pursuit of capital gain, technological advancement, and world domination.
The golden age of aviation
The Wright brothers’ first successful airplane flight in 1903 launched the aviation industry and inspired a broad interest in flying. From Asia and Europe to the Americas, aircraft was developed and designs refined while pilots strove to master the skills of flying and mechanics. Very primitive by today’s standards, early airplanes were first used for military purposes and to transport mail and cargo. The speed of the planes was a vast improvement over sea transport and enabled greater communication throughout the world.
Countries such as France that possessed colonies abroad could now more easily exchange goods and information with these territories. The French mail route or “aéropostale” service became vital to the maintenance of the French overseas empire in North Africa. During the 1920s and 1930s, mail planes flew from Toulouse (the seat of aviation in France) to Dakar, the largest French city in Africa, stopping to refuel at points in between. Cape Juby, on the North African coast in present-day Morocco, was one such refueling stop. It doubled as a Spanish military prison—Spain having its own colony in North Africa—and bordered the western Sahara Desert. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was stationed at Cape Juby as airfield chief in 1928. At the time he was working for Compagnie Latecoere, an air transportation company. His duties included flying the mail routes and keeping peace among the Moors, the Spanish, and the French.
Flying the French mail routes was a dangerous endeavor for two reasons. First, the Moors were very hostile toward the European presence in North Africa and often shot down the mail planes and demanded ransom for the pilots. In fact, it was one of Saint-Exupéry’s duties to arrange payment of ransoms or other appeasements with the Moors when French or Spanish pilots were captured. Equally menacing were the planes themselves because they were ill-equipped and quite unreliable. Since aviation was in its infancy, the planes at this point were to a large degree untested and unfamiliar. The open-cockpit Breguet 14—which most French aeropostale pilots flew—had wood propellers, no radio, no suspension, no instruments, and no brakes. It flew a top speed of 80 miles per hour, traveled just 400 miles per tank, and broke down an average of every 15,500 miles—or every five trips from Toulouse to Dakar. Since the pilots had no radio and went down so frequently—as a result of either mechanical failure or being shot at—the mail planes were outfitted with carrier pigeons, which could carry word to the outside world if the pilot was stranded.
Despite the disadvantages, there was a positive aspect to the simplicity of the planes’ design—they could usually be fixed by the pilot with a basic set of tools, which he carried on board. Saint-Exupéry, like his pilot in The Little Prince, had many near-death experiences flying in the North African desert. He was downed several times and forced to fix his plane or perish. During one particularly bad episode, the author-aviator crashed in the Libyan desert and nearly died of dehydration. Ultimately these experiences inspired Saint-Exupéry’s classic tale of a stranded pilot who encounters a magical Little Prince.
French imperialism in North Africa
In 1667 France began acquiring territory in North Africa and throughout the world during the reign of King Louis XIV. In competition with other European powers—primarily Great Britain—to dominate Europe, Louis XIV expanded the French empire overseas and engaged in six major wars during his quest. As a result of overexpansion and years of warfare, France was forced to give up most overseas holdings to Great Britain in 1763. Economically devastated, France sunk into decline for the next century.
In 1871, after Napoleon III had lost the Franco-Prussian War, France re-established a republican form of government and emerged once again as a political and economic force. Colonial expansion once again ensued, especially in Asia and North Africa. Jules Ferry, French premier from 1881 to 1885, led the expansionist movement of this era. Its goal was twofold: to develop potential markets for French business and to “civilize” so-called “backward peoples” (Wright, p. 299). Through expansion, France was also seeking to rebuild her prestige and increase influence in world affairs. Ferry sent out military expeditions to acquire properties throughout Africa and Asia. Backed by business interests, the expeditions established colonies in North Africa and Malaysia.
Though France did not greatly develop her colonies, she did exert her influence on them. Local peoples were Christianized, and had French culture and presence imposed on them. In this age of imperialism, it became commonplace for European powers to acquire colonies and impose their cultures upon indigenous peoples. This often prompted feelings of great hostility from the local peoples toward the Europeans. In North Africa—primarily Algeria—the local Moors were especially adverse to the French and Spanish who had settled there. The Moors often attacked European military forts and hijacked personnel traveling to and from them. Much of the territory outside the forts became extremely hazardous for French and Spanish soldiers or citizens, and few dared to venture far into the desert.
One of the few able to bridge the gap between cultures was Saint-Exupéry. Not holding particular political or religious fervor, the author-aviator lived a life that suited well to his serving as a peacemaker in the region. He occupied a small shack outside the Spanish military prison at Cape Juby. He neither locked his doors nor carried a gun. He paid regular visits to the local Moor kings, and extended an open invitation for all natives to visit him. Saint-Exupéry gained a considerable reputation as a diplomat from his work at Cape Juby, which can be attributed to the fact that his efforts enabled the aeropostale service to safely operate in the hostile region from 1928 to 1935.
Technology and society
The first decades of the 1900s ushered in an era of rapid technological progress. Advancements in all areas of science had a marked impact on society. The automobile, airplane, assembly line, were either developed or perfected during this era, and electricity became more and more common. Born of the Enlightenment movement of the 1700s and scientific revolution of the 1800s, the technological era of the 1900s was described by French intellectual Emile Zola: “The trend of the times is toward science... we are driven in spite of ourselves toward the exact study of facts and things” (Wright, p. 286). The scientific method was applied to all facets of learning, and a cult of reason and science was promoted by most leaders and largely accepted by society. Many people of the age showed a prevailing faith in progress and in technology to solve the world’s problems. At the same time, there was a growing skepticism of the metaphysical or anything not based on reason.
“Positivism,” a nineteenth-century philosophical movement that rested on faith in science and the progress occurring throughout the Western world, gained a following in France, where it was led by three French intellectuals, Auguste Comte, Hippolyte Taine, and Ernest Renan. The movement emphasized reason over faith, and its members regarded science as a virtual religion. Comte, in particular, modernized the ideas of the Enlightenment and applied them to contemporary life, insisting that scientific advancement indicated progress. Renan and Taine urged skepticism and a rational approach to life. Order, clarity, and logic, according to their view, were the only indicators of truth. For these philosophers, romantic ideas were folly and had no place in modern society. This, moreover, applied to all aspects of life, from science to art. Positivism had a profound impact on French society during this era, encouraging the appearance of renowned French scientists and scientific advancements. Among the notables were Louis Pasteur in medicine, Pierre and Marie Curie in physics, and Henri Poincaré in mathematics.
At the same time, philosopher Henri Bergson attacked the cold reasoning of the scientific method. He argued that intuition and creativity led to truth and produced what was great in human beings. In 1906 he published a treatise called Creative Evolution that outlined his views. The piece spoke of man’s “elan vital”—that is, the vital urge or creative force that makes men and nations great. Saint-Exupéry clearly agreed with this notion. His The Little Prince attacks reason and logic as well as the importance of numbers and technological advancement. The author himself preferred primitive aircraft, despite all its hazards; also his novel argues that it is emotion that gives life meaning, not objectivity.
France in 1940: the Nazi invasion
Weakened after World War I and plagued by an economic recession in the 1930s, France became a prime target for invasion in 1940. The threat posed by German dictator Adolf Hitler had been obvious for some years and was a reflection of the long-standing hostilities between the two nations. Contrary to international agreements, Hitler had retaken the Saarland in 1935, a region bordering France then under international jurisdiction. The following year, he reannexed the Rhineland, a similarly neutral but industrially important region. France failed to respond decisively to these actions. A combination of lack of leadership, un-certain foreign policy, and poor funding for French troops allowed Hitler to acquire more territory and greater resources.
As the situation became more tense in the late 1930s, France looked to several neighboring nations for support. Meanwhile, members of its parliament expressed a fear of communists, fascists, and socialists gaining political control within the country. France tried to ally with Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator, then sought the aid of the communist leader Joseph Stalin in Russia, but both plans crumbled when each of the leaders signed pacts with Hitler. The news of Stalin’s pact with Hitler stunned France into realizing it would have to resist the joint power of Russia and Germany on its own. It could not count on Great Britain for help, since it would be some time before Britain would recover enough from the First World War to rearm properly. Since Great Britain was also a long-time enemy of France—though the two countries had fought together in World War I—there was also some uncertainty about the support France could expect from its neighbor across the English Channel.
After Austria and western Czechoslovakia were taken over by the German armies, Poland became Hitler’s next target. Both France and England had mutual assistance treaties with the Polish government, so when German troops invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, France and England declared war on Germany, stepping up World War II. France realized too late that it would be the next target for Nazi invasion. In the midst of modernizing its army and without clear allies or strong leadership, France fell to German invaders in 1940-41.
French political leaders fled the country when it was invaded. Fallen premier Edouard Daladier set up a government-in-exile in North Africa, while General Charles de Gaulle started the Free French Movement in London, England. A fiercely patriotic and charismatic leader, de Gaulle pushed for the restoration of the French socialist republic with himself as its leader. De Gaulle’s forceful manner and socialist beliefs caused many to fear he would become a dictator in the mold of those whom France was trying to combat. Among his detractors were American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Saint-Exupéry. The alternative to de Gaulle was General Henri Giraud, who, with the help of the Americans, dramatically escaped from a Nazi prison camp in 1942. De Gaulle transferred his headquarters to Algiers in Africa, and Giraud established his headquarters there too. The Americans, now allied with France and England in North Africa, continued to back Giraud until they realized de Gaulle was a force to be reckoned with. Negotiations between the rival generals resulted in their both becoming co-presidents of the French Committee of National Liberation. The goal of the Committee was to attack the Germans from bases in North Africa and retake France with Allied help. By 1943 de Gaulle emerged as the clear leader of the group, leaving Giraud, who had proven weak and unpopular, in the background.
Whether supporters of Giraud or de Gaulle, French men and women volunteered by the thousands to aid the cause of liberation. Some 20,000 had fled France when the Nazis invaded; Saint-Exupéry and others retreated to New York but then later traveled to North Africa to join the fight. From their base in Algeria, the combined French, British, Russian, and American forces bombarded the Germans by air and methodically worked to crush their stronghold in France. For two years the Allies bombed the Nazis from North Africa until the day of August 25, 1944, when Charles de Gaulle led the triumphant Allied troops through the streets of Paris in the official liberation of France.
Deeds, not words
In 1942 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry published an open letter indicating his desire to join the French forces in North Africa. Though forty-two years old and in ill health, Saint-Exupéry desperately wanted to contribute to his country’s liberation. Many of his friends considered his letter a “death wish,” but he regarded his voluntary service as a debt payment to the 40 million French living under German occupation. After much wrangling he was able to convince authorities to let him fly bombing missions out of North Africa. His last flight took off July 31, 1944, over southern France; he was never seen again. As this deed demonstrates, Saint-Exupéry was a man of action and had little patience for rhetoric. “Words are noises emanating from the mouth,” he said. “You must judge people on who they are and what they do” (Saint-Exupéry in Schiff, p. 396).
The novel opens with the narrator—a French pilot—describing a drawing he made when he was six years old. It featured a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant. He showed it to the adults but they could not see it for what it was; they insisted it was a hat. So he drew it again, this time revealing the contents of the snake’s stomach. The grown-ups’ response was “to advise me to lay aside my drawings of boa constrictors... and devote myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic and grammar” (Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, p. 4).
The pilot keeps the drawings with him and uses them as a test for determining the character of people whom he encounters. He shares the drawing and if the person recognizes it to be a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, allows himself to talk to the person about substantive things. If the person sees the drawing as a hat, however, the pilot’s tactics change: “I would talk to him about bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties. And the grown-up would be greatly pleased to have met such a sensible man” (The Little Prince, p. 5).
Rarely meeting anyone who recognizes the drawing as a boa constrictor, the pilot has lived most of his life alone. But one day, while stranded in the Sahara Desert because his plane has broken down, he encounters an extraordinary little boy, a little prince. The Little Prince appears seemingly out of nowhere with an urgent request: “Draw me a sheep!” (The Little Prince, p. 6). The pilot is dumbfounded. He cannot figure out where this boy has come from and tries to determine who he is and what he is doing there. The boy never responds to his questions, however, and keeps insisting on the drawing of the sheep. The pilot obliges and draws several versions of sheep. But the Little Prince is not happy with any of them, for they all look too much like what sheep are supposed to look like. Exasperated, the pilot draws a box with three holes in it and tells the boy the sheep is in the box. The Little Prince is delighted—that is just what he meant for the man to draw.
Slowly, as they talk, the pilot discovers more about the boy. His home is a tiny planet, Asteroid B-612. It has three volcanoes, one rose, and is scarcely the size of a house. One can watch the sunset all day simply by moving one’s chair.
The Little Prince has left his planet to find out more about life. He has had an argument with his rose, his beautiful companion whom he loves and cares for in addition to his volcanoes. Hitching a ride with a flock of seagulls, he visits six asteroids on his way to Earth. He first encounters Asteroid 325 solely occupied by a king. But the king has no subjects, and the Little Prince thinks it is very odd to be king of nothing and no one.
The Prince next goes to the planet of a conceited man who wants only to hear praise and ignores any questions the boy asks. Quickly growing tired of the conceited man, the Little Prince leaves.
The third planet is occupied by a drinker who explains that he drinks to forget his shame about being a drunk. The boy leaves very confused and concludes yet again that “grown-ups are certainly very, very odd” (The Little Prince, p. 52).
The next planet is occupied by a businessman sitting at a desk, frantically adding numbers. He is counting the stars because he owns them and wants an inventory of his possessions. The man says they make him rich and that he has to claim them before anyone else does. The Little Prince asks if he is of any use to the stars, the way the Little Prince is to his rose—the only thing he owns. “The businessman opened his mouth, but he found nothing to say in answer” (The Little Prince, p. 57).
The fifth planet is inhabited by a lamplighter who is constantly lighting and extinguishing his lamp because the planet makes an entire revolution every minute. The Little Prince admires the lamplighter for his sense of duty and determines him to be the most respectable of all those encountered so far. But the planet is too small for two people so the Little Prince leaves.
The final planet he visits before Earth is occupied by a geographer. At first the Prince thinks he has finally met someone with a decent profession. But he soon realizes the man knows nothing outside of his maps. Disappointed again and starting to get homesick for his flower, the Little Prince asks if there are any other planets he should visit, whereupon the geographer tells him about Earth.
A PARALLEL ENDING
As if Saint-Exupéry knew he was going to die, the author wrote about a Little Prince who witnesses forty-four sun-sets in one day, discovers the truth about life, and then fades from this Earth. Like the Prince, Saint-Exupéry conveyed his message—publishing the novel in 1943—and then disappeared without a trace from North Africa in 1944, the year of his forty-fourth birthday. The Prince returned to his land to tend his flower; Saint Exupéry had returned to France to tend to the needs of his people. For both the commitment is to their nation—they feel responsible for its well-being.
As luck would have it, the Little Prince lands in the middle of the Sahara Desert. He is expecting to see lots of people but instead finds nothing but sand. The first creature he encounters is a deadly snake. The snake explains to the boy that he has landed in Africa and further tells him he can help him return to his own planet if he gets too homesick. The snake feels compassion for the boy and perceives that he is too pure for such a corrupted planet.
The boy next encounters a field of roses, and feels devastated. He thought his rose back home was unique in all the world. He begins crying, and a fox appears. Uplifted by the fox’s presence, the Prince asks it to play. The fox says it cannot play because it is not yet tamed. Explaining that to tame means “to establish ties,” the fox begs the boy to tame it. The fox elaborates: “I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me you will be unique in all the world. To you, 1 shall be unique in all the world” (The Little Prince, p. 80). The Prince then realizes that his rose is special because he has tamed the rose and the rose has tamed him. Upon parting the fox promises to give the boy a present and tells him that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye” (The Little Prince, p. 87).
The Little Prince journeys on, meeting a rail-road switchman, a merchant, and finally the pilot. The pilot is busy trying to fix his broken-down aircraft. Nearly out of water, he is deeply immersed in his work and starting to panic. At first he has no time for the Prince’s questions or requests for drawings. But soon the Little Prince captures his heart and the pilot begins to listen to the boy. The Prince then drops off to sleep, and the pilot carries him further into the desert, on a quest to find water. At daybreak they miraculously find a well.
It has been a week and the Prince is now ready to go home, back to his rose, so he talks to the snake. The Prince explains that he cannot bring his own heavy body on the journey for it is too far. He asks the pilot not to watch his encounter with the snake because “You will suffer. I shall look as if I were dead; and that will not be true” (The Little Prince, p. 106). He adds that he will simply be leaving behind a shell and “there is nothing sad about shells” (The Little Prince, p. 106).
After the boy leaves, the pilot wonders if the boy is with his rose and if the sheep has gotten out of the box and eaten the flower. He concludes his tale with a picture of the spot where he met the Prince and asks readers who visit that same place in the Sahara and encounter a magical, mysterious little being to send word that the Prince is still alive.
Social commentary through fiction
Saint-Exupéry’s novel illustrates the modern world as seen through the eyes of an innocent outsider. It embodies the values of Western society in various characters, moving from, for example, conquest and control (the King), to materialism (the businessman), to technological advancement (the geographer). As many critics have noted, the children’s story chronicles the social ills of the age (Robinson, p. 129).
The author, Saint-Exupéry, lived in an era of science and mass production. Advancements in agriculture, astronomy, and mathematics enabled crop yields to multiply, stars to be catalogued, and planets to be discovered. Scientific breakthroughs, such as the invention of penicillin and the polio vaccine, produced cures for diseases. But science and technology were also producing weapons of mass destruction, and rather than ushering in an end to all war, the technological era was leading to larger-scale and more violent conflicts. The age of reason was supposed to launch a peaceful era, full of prosperity and growth. Instead, it brought two world wars, the Great Depression, and increased disparity of wealth across the globe.
Written during World War II, the novel includes parallels to Saint-Exupéry’s experience with war and displacement. The author was forced to leave France by the Nazis in 1940. The Little Prince was a boy without a planet; Saint-Exupéry became a man without a country. Like the Prince, the author longed to return to his homeland—France.
An optimist at heart and very much a product of his age, Saint-Exupéry ended his tale in a way that ultimately asserts there is good waiting to be discovered amidst the ills of his age. Curiously, after the book was published and only weeks after Saint-Exupéry disappeared in a bombing mission, France was liberated from Nazi occupation and World War II ended.
Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince while recovering from serious illness. Bedridden in New York and displaced from France because of Nazi occupation, he composed the novel as a form of therapy. For years he had scribbled notes and drawings for the book—especially during his time at Cape Juby in the 1930s. Imagery from his life experiences pervades the work: baobabs on the Little Prince’s planet he modeled on this tropical plant around Dakar; exotic animals (which he also tried to tame both successfully and unsuccessfully) from the area around Cape Juby; volcanoes from Patagonia; the golden-curled Prince, patterned after himself as a child; the beloved rose, patterned after his wife, Consuela.
For every page he sent to the printer he is said to have torn up a hundred more. Historians argue that the book was his favorite and that he considered it autobiographical. Others speak of the prince as the author’s alter-ego or even the son he never had.
The author of serious novels about his experiences as an aviator, Saint-Exupéry was not expected to write such a book, and The Little Prince took the public by surprise. Later the most translated book in the French language, did not sell well when it was first published in 1943. It spent one week on the New York Times bestseller list and two months on the Herald Tribune charts, but after four months the book had actually sold just 30,000 copies in English and 7,000 in French. A Time magazine reviewer wrote that “this fairy tale for grown-ups challenges man the adult and deplores the loss of the child in man,” but many reviewers failed to grasp that the novel was indeed a fairy tale for adults as well as children (Robinson, p. 121). Katherine S. White, a reviewer for the New Yorker, insisted that the story was too elaborate and disorganized to be appreciated by either adults or children. Conversely, Anne Carol Moore, writing for The Horn Book Magazine, sharply criticized mainstream reviewers such as White. “Is it for adults or children? they [most reviewers] ask. Who shall say?... I look upon it as a book so fresh and different, so original yet so infused with wisdom as to take a new place among books in general” (Moore in Cerrito, p. 221).
Cerrito, Joann, ed. Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 56. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Robinson, Joy D. Marie. Antoine de Saint Exupéry. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. The Little Prince. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1971.
Schiff, Stacy. Saint-Exupéry: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.