The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was chosen by Amy for Carrie‘s Reading to Know Classics Book Club for June, and, at 85 pages, also happened to fit the novella or short classic category for my Back to the Classics Challenge. I read the 70th anniversary edition, which, thankfully, my library had, and which also includes a CD of the story read by Viggo Mortenson (Aragorn in the LOTR films). I listened a bit to one CD just to see what it was like, but this is a book you definitely want to read rather than listen to because of the illustrations.
On the surface, the story opens with the narrator reminiscing that as a child, when he drew a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, grown-ups could only see it as a hat and advised him to stop drawing and concentrate on school subjects. “That is why I abandoned, at the age of six, a magnificent career as an artist. I had been discouraged by the failure of my drawing…Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again” (p. 2). As an adult he still showed people his drawing, but if they said they only saw a hat, he “would put myself on his level and talk about bridge and golf and politics and neckties” (p. 3).
So he felt pretty lonely and misunderstood until he crash-landed his plane in the Sahara Desert and met, in the middle of the isolation, a little prince. He had a hard time at first learning anything about the prince because he didn’t answer direct questions. The narrator had to pick up clues from things he said in passing, and in that way he learned that the prince was from an extremely small planet (the size of a house). But best of all, the prince understood his drawings.
Over the next eight days – the length of time the narrator’s water supply lasted while he tried to fix his plane – he learned more about the prince’s planet, travels to different planets and the odd people he met there, and his first excursions on Earth.
One gets the definite sense while reading that this story means more than the adventures of a little prince on his travels, yet the meaning isn’t entirely plain. I didn’t feel too bad about not being to make it out when I saw on SparkNotes and Wikipedia that there are differences of opinion among those who have read and studied the book since it was published 70 years ago. Some see in it elements of WWII, since it was written during that time, the dangerous baobob trees of the prince’s planet, which can “overgrow the whole planet. It’s roots pierce right through. And if the planet is too small, and if there are too many baobobs, they make it burst into pieces” (p. 15) representing Naziism. But some dispute that. There is more agreement that the vain rose that the prince cared for on his planet represents Saint-Exupéry’s wife. Some see it as “an allegory of Saint-Exupéry’s own life—his search for childhood certainties and interior peace, his mysticism, his belief in human courage and brotherhood…. but also an allusion to the tortured nature of their relationship” (Wikipedia). Some see it as “metaphor of the process of introspection itself, wherein two halves of the same person meet and learn from each other,” the narrator and the prince both representing aspects of Saint-Exupéry (SparkNotes). It adds to the mystique of the story that Saint-Exupéry was a pilot and did indeed crash-land in the desert once, and went missing while on a mission in his plane.
Whatever it means or represents, there are a few themes that come to the forefront. One is that “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes,” as a fox tells the prince. Another major theme is the problem of limited viewpoints. First there are the adults not understanding the narrator’s drawings, then one planet the prince visits is inhabited only by a king who only sees others as subjects to be ruled and acts toward them accordingly, and on another planet there is only a vain man who only sees others as admirers of himself, and so on. When the prince comes to Earth and lands in the desert and sees no other people, he asks a flower where they are. In her life she had only seen a few pass by, so she thought that’s all there were and that “The wind blows them away. They have no roots, which hampers them a good deal” (p. 52).
But to me the crux of the book is in the concept of “taming.” When the fox tells the prince he isn’t tamed, and the prince asks what “tamed” means, the fox replies:
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”
“To establish ties?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you 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, I shall be unique in all the world….”(p. 59).
He goes on to say that, “If you tame me, my life will be filled with sunshine. I’ll know the sound of footsteps that will be different from all the rest…If you come at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three” (pp. 60-61), and that from now on a wheat field, which means nothing to a fox since he doesn’t eat wheat, will remind him of the prince since his hair is the same color, “And I’ll love the sound of the wind in the wheat…” (p. 60). The fox also says, “It’s the time that you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important. . . . People have forgotten this truth, but you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose” (p. 64). The prince had thought his only rose was special until he comes across thousands of them on Earth. But the time and care he spent on it was what made it unique and special. So I think probably the biggest takeaway is that relationships (“creating ties”) are worth both the investment of time and care and then the pain when those with ties are apart, as the narrator himself discovers at the end. When the prince has to leave the fox, and the fox is sad, the prince tells him it’s his own fault for wanting to be tamed. When the fox admits he will weep when the prince goes, the prince asserts the fox got nothing out of being tamed. The fox replies, “I get something because of the color of the wheat” (p. 61). That statement in context is so poignant it almost makes me teary.
What I first thought of as an odd little tale that I couldn’t quite make sense of, now, after a couple of days of pondering, seems a very sweet and touching story about love and relationships. I love books that do that – make you think and unfold themselves long after the last page is turned.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)