The Little Prince book review
I’ve always maintained that you shouldn’t read a story looking for clues to the author’s life – the story should stand apart, having its own life, its own universe, if you will. But this particular story has so many parallels with the writer’s own narrative it simply begs to be discussed. And it has been: several biographers have argued that The Little Prince, a children’s tale written for adults, is an allegory of the writer’s own life.
Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint-Exupéry, like the pilot in this book, was an aviator who survived several crashes, including one that landed him in the desert. Born into an aristocratic but impoverished family in southern France, he was deeply affected by the death of his older brother, François, later writing that François “…remained motionless for an instant. He did not cry out. He fell as gently as a [young] tree falls”.
After failing to complete a degree in architecture, Saint-Exupéry worked at odd jobs until 1921 when he began his military service in Strasbourg. There he took private flying lessons and eventually became one of the pioneers of international postal flight, flying between Toulouse and Dakar. At the same time he began writing short stories, many of them inspired by his experiences as a pilot. In 1931, Vol de Nuit (Night Flight) won the Prix Femina and established him as a literary star. But it’s The Little Prince, published in 1943, a year before his death, for which he is most remembered. And loved.
The story goes like this: An aviator crash lands somewhere in the Sahara Desert. He awakens at daybreak to find a golden-haired child standing over him, gently asking him, “Please, will you draw me a little lamb!” The child is alone, there’s no sign of an adult or any means of transport, just this well-dressed little boy asking for a drawing of a lamb.
The pilot takes out a pen and paper and sketches something resembling a lamb. The boy isn’t satisfied: “That one looks very sickly,” he says. “Draw another one.”
The second lamb is dismissed because it has horns, and the third one is too old.
“I want a lamb that will live for a long time,” the boy says.
So the pilot, running out of patience and wanting to get back to working on his plane, draws a box with air holes.
“That’s the crate. The lamb you want is inside,” he says.
Delighted, the child accepts the drawing and falls asleep.
Bit by bit, the pilot puts together the story of how the little boy, who is the prince of a tiny planet, came to leave home. We learn that this planet, named by a Turkish astronomer in 1909, is so small the prince can watch the sun set simply by turning his chair around. “One day,” he tells the pilot, “I watched forty-four sunsets!”
There are good plants and bad plants on this planet, and the worst ones are the baobabs. If allowed to grow they will take over the planet and destroy it, so they have to be pulled up the minute they begin to sprout. “It’s something you have to do every day,” the little prince explains. “It’s a very boring job but it’s very easy.”
There are also three tiny volcanoes on his planet. Two are active, which is handy for cooking breakfast in the morning, and one is extinct. But, as the prince says, you never know. So he sweeps all three of them every day.
There is also a flower on his planet, a solitary rose who complains about the cold and demands a screen to protect her from the elements. She’s lovely, and the prince is eager to please her, but she can be very unkind and hurtful. She has thorns, after all, so he learns to be wary.
At the time he wrote this, Saint-Exupéry was living in exile in North America, enjoying (and frequently enduring) a tempestuous relationship with his wife, the diminutive Consuelo Suncin, a Salvadoran writer and artist who was both his muse and the source of much of his malaise. He would leave her many times, and have numerous affairs, but she was most certainly the rose.
“I should have judged her by her acts and not by her words,” says the prince. “She wrapped herself around me and enlightened me. I should never have fled. I should have guessed at the tenderness behind her poor ruses. Flowers are so contradictory but I was too young to know how to love her.”
Having decided to visit other parts of the world, the little prince says goodbye to his flower, latches on to a flock of migrating birds and is lifted out into space. Finding himself in the region of a group of asteroids, he decides to pay each of them a visit. The first asteroid is home to a king who lives alone with no subjects. When the prince asks him who he rules over, the king says he rules over everything – his planet, the other planets, and the stars. As impressive as this sounds, the little prince sees that even with nothing to command, believing himself to have power is the only thing he lives for. Grown-ups really are very strange, the prince thinks as he leaves.
The second planet is inhabited by a show-off, who lives to be admired. The fact that there’s no one around to admire him doesn’t seem to matter. Again, grown-ups are really strange.
The next planet is inhabited by a drunkard who drinks because he’s ashamed. Ashamed of what? Of drinking. The fourth planet belongs to a businessman, who is so busy counting the stars he has no time to look at them. The fifth planet, the smallest of them all, is inhabited by a lamplighter and a lamp. Because the planet spins so swiftly, he must light the lamp and then put it out every minute. The king, the show-off, the businessman, and the drunkard would look down on this man, the prince thinks, but he’s the only one who doesn’t seem ridiculous. He, at least, is looking after something other than himself.
The sixth planet is the biggest, ten times bigger than the others. An elderly gentleman sits at a desk surrounded by books. As he explains to the prince, he’s a geographer; he writes down the facts about mountains, rivers, deserts, oceans, and towns. He has no idea if there are any of these on his own planet, though, because he’s not an explorer. He advises the prince to visit the planet Earth: “We have good reports of it,” he says.
And so the seventh planet is Earth. Which appears, at first, have no people in it. He meets a snake, who says he’ll help him to leave if he ever feels homesick for his planet, and has a brief encounter with a flower. Eventually he finds himself in a garden full of roses in bloom. This makes him think of his flower, back home, which he now realizes was not so special after all. His planet contained three tiny volcanoes and a very ordinary flower; he was not much of a prince. The boy lies down in the grass and begins to cry.
At this point a fox appears, and talks to him of friendship. “To you, I’m a fox who’s exactly like a hundred thousand other foxes. But, if you tame me, we will need each other. To me, you’ll be absolutely unique, and to you, I’ll be absolutely unique”. He tames the fox, and they become friends. The fox tells him that the little flower on his home planet is unique after all, because the little prince has tamed her. Before they part, the fox tells him a secret:
“It’s very simple,” he says. “You only see clearly with your heart. The most important things are invisible to the eyes.”
This is just one of the lessons the fox has to impart. There are several others, but this is, perhaps, the most important. You can’t, or shouldn’t, judge the true worth of a thing, or a person, based on what you see. What is really important can only be felt.
Eventually, the prince prepares to leave Earth. It’s the anniversary of the day he came to this planet – it’s time for him to go. With the help of the snake, he will abandon the body that’s become too heavy to carry. The pilot will look at the stars and know his friend is living on one of them. “It’s good to have had a friend,” he says, “even if you’re going to die”.
And then, like Saint-Exupéry’s brother, François, “He didn’t cry out. He fell softly, the way a tree falls. He didn’t even make a thud, because of the sand”.
After his American hiatus, Saint-Exupéry joined the Free French Air Force in North Africa, flying reconnaissance missions to collect intelligence on German troop movements. On the 31st of July 1944 he set off from Corsica on his ninth such mission, and never returned. He disappeared over the Mediterranean, and is believed to have died at that time.
Scholars and reviewers alike have devoted much time and many written words to the inspiration for the innocent who fell out of the sky. In 1942, while living with a philosopher friend in Quebec City, Saint-Exupéry met his eight-year-old son, who had blond curly hair. Earlier, during an overnight stay in Long Island, he was introduced to the young, golden-haired son of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Another child on a train is referred to, in an essay, as an “adorable . . . little prince”.
Personally, I think he was writing to the child he had been, the little boy who earned the family nickname le Roi-Soleil (“the Sun King”) because of his curly golden hair.
Because, in the end, all our stories are written for ourselves.