The Little Prince : Essay Q&A
1. Where did the figure of the Little Prince come from?
The little prince developed from a drawing that Saint-Exupéry frequently sketched in the margins of books and papers. His fairy tale appeared suddenly in the middle of World War II like an oracle of faith, but there are signs of the gradual growth of the character over time. On a copy of Pilote de guerre or Flight to Arras (1942), Saint-Exupéry drew a child standing on a cloud, looking at the burning of Arras, the town in Northern France occupied by the Germans. Someone suggested that he should have the child reveal his thoughts at this horrific sight, but Saint-Exupéry replied the thoughts were too melancholy to be repeated.
He was often seen sketching a child leaning on a cloud, and on a letter to his friend, Leon Werth, to whom he dedicated The Little Prince, there is a boy on a cloud, watching as a German Messerschmitt plane approaches. Reynal, the editor at Reynal and Hitchcock, the original New York publishers, notes that the book came from a drawing of a little winged boy, on the margin of Lamotte’s sketch for the illustrations in Flight to Arras. Reynal liked the drawing and urged Saint-Exupéry to write a children’s book around this figure for the Christmas season of 1942. It may have begun as a children’s book but incorporated and elaborated the author’s philosophy from previous books. The ideas in The Little Prince summed up for the author everything he wished to pass on in the crisis the world faced. It was his favorite book, and it was noted that he treated it as an autobiography, handing out copies to friends. The fable, arising spontaneously from a drawing, is reminiscent of the origin of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Tolkien had been marking student papers and on one of them sketched the figure of a hobbit and wrote the famous opening words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Creative doodles can become masterpieces. Saint-Exupéry’s drawings suggest his own childhood and are an intricate part of the poetry of the book, recapturing the lost innocence of a whole generation that the author was trying to console.
2. What was France’s position during World War II?
Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince during his exile from France during World War II. For him it was an inspiration in dark times and contained his deepest beliefs about life, published right before his death. One can read his feeling of love and responsibility for his country in the little prince’s feeling of responsibility towards his rose and his planet that he strives to get back to, even if it means his own death.
Before he came to the U.S., Saint-Exupéry had been flying reconnaissance missions in the French Air Force until Nazi Germany defeated France and occupied Northern France from July 1940 to August 1944. His book, Flight to Arras, tells of the terrible devastation in Arras as the Germans took the city and executed French Resistance fighters. The city then endured the British counter-attack there. Saint-Exupéry had made a flight over the besieged city and was one of the few pilots to come out alive.
Germany set up a puppet government in Southern France at Vichy under the direction of Marshal Petain, a Nazi collaborator. The French police and the Vichy government sent French Jews to concentration camps. The French Resistance, on the other hand, consisted of groups of armed citizens who published underground newspapers, established escape routes, and helped the Allied armies invade and retake France. General Charles de Gaulle challenged the authority of Petain with his Free French Forces. De Gaulle claimed to be the proper representative of the ongoing French government.
The French Free Air Force, built up by de Gaulle, was reunited with the Vichy Air Force after 1943 and was equipped by the Allies to help in the retaking of France. Though Saint-Exupéry had some misunderstanding with de Gaulle, he participated in this final effort to free his country with his old reconnaissance unit from the French Air Force in the new Allied planes. The Allies invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944. He did not live to see his desire fulfilled, dying in action one month before the Allied invasion of Southern France in August 1944. When the Allies liberated France in 1944, De Gaulle set up the Provisional Government of the French Republic in Paris that was recognized by the Allies as the legitimate government. The Vichy government moved to Germany and fell with the Germans.
3. How is Saint-Exupéry ’s death foreshadowed by the death of the little prince?
Some of the pilots in the French Air Force went to England after France’s surrender to fight with the Royal Air Force. Saint-Exupéry, however, went to the United States for two years where he continued his writing career. He was so grieved about his country’s occupation that as soon as The Little Prince was published in 1943, he pleaded with Allied authorities to be allowed to rejoin his reconnaissance unit as it regrouped for the Allied invasion of France. He left the same month the book was published, with the help of the U.S. Navy, joining his comrades in Morocco. He was forty-three and in poor health from previous plane crashes. He was also far too old to be a pilot, but Saint-Exupéry was exuberant about being actively involved in military action again. Even General Eisenhower was reportedly prevailed upon to get him an assignment.
Initially he was allowed to fly five missions to gather strategic intelligence that would pave the way for the liberation of Provence and the whole South of France. He had family in occupied France, and flying over his beloved homeland in bondage was poignant for him. He had to train specially to fly the new Lockheed Lightnings. On one mission his plane was damaged, and he was grounded in Algiers for months. On other missions he was attacked by two fighter planes, and the oxygen supply leaked. On yet another mission, on his forty-fourth birthday, his left engine broke down, and he had to fly home on one engine. Yet this was the happiest period of his life when he could daily risk his life for his beliefs and for the country he loved.
On 31 July 1944, he set out on his tenth and last mission from Corsica to fly over the Rhone valley, just above the Lyonnais region where he was born. He never returned from that mission, mysteriously disappearing, his plane lost at sea. No remains of either plane or body were found, and his countrymen felt The Little Prince was prophetic of his own death, recalling the moment when the little prince dies and disappears without a trace. Saint-Exupéry ’s comrade, Captain Courtin, later wrote, “Saint-Exupéry may have appeared to be one of us and that, indeed, he asked for nothing more, but that he was also a rare being, an exceptional and precious being, a Prince, a debonair, absent-minded Prince, stranded amongst us. And who has suddenly disappeared.” For sixty years he became a legend and national hero, and many felt the story should have ended there, as if he ascended directly to heaven.
Finally in 1998 a fisherman from Marseilles found his silver bracelet. In 2004, two pieces of his plane were retrieved from the Mediterranean Sea, although the exact details of his death are still unknown.
4. What philosophy is contained in the story?
Saint-Exupéry, like many authors of the time, was aware of the modern experience of existential anxiety, or the loneliness that can come from not feeling any certainty about the meaning of life. The violence and disruption of two world wars eroded the security people had once felt in their religions, cultures, and institutions. He felt pessimistic about the materialism of his era, pointing out that any sort of poetic expression sounded ridiculous. These sentiments are conveyed by the loneliness of the little prince and the narrator. They are on journeys to find the meaning of life and to find themselves.
The little prince says “Only the children know what they’re looking for” (XXIII, p. 65). Like the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who saw more goodness in children and people close to nature than in civilized humans, Saint-Exupéry extols the innocence of children or the child-like adult, such as the pilot, who can see the wonders around them. The imaginative world is more real and meaningful than the world of grown-ups who have reduced everything to numbers. Humans are rushing around without knowing who they are. Saint-Exupéry said in his Letter to General X: “there is only one problem in the world. To give back to men a spiritual significance, spiritual concerns. To make something resembling a Gregorian chant shower upon them. . . . One can no longer live without poetry, color or love . . .” (published by Le Figaro in April 1948, now part of the collection Un Sens a la vie).
The water people seek is for the heart. Saint-Exupéry affirms the spiritual nature of life in the poetic teachings of the fox: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes” (XXI, p. 63). The little prince passes on this wisdom to the pilot, who comments, “What moves me so deeply about this sleeping little prince is his loyalty to a flower—the image of a rose shining within him, like the flame within a lamp” (XXIV, p. 69). The rose has been interpreted as any person that one may love, but the way the pilot words this, the rose within the prince could also be his own essential self. As one must tend a relationship with others, one must protect one’s inner innocence, the child within. The little prince is an image of the pilot’s lost self at six years of age.
When the little prince dies, he assures the pilot, “I’ll look as if I’m dead, and that won’t be true” (XXVI, p. 78). In the epilogue, the author intimates that the spirit of the child is still alive in his star though we can see his body is gone. We must look for that spirit of the child; perhaps the child will come to us too. The book reminds us that the human spirit endures beyond its trials and the material body.
5. Is The Little Prince an allegory, fable, fairytale, or children’s book?
It is all of these. The book has been taken as an autobiographical allegory of Saint-Exupéry’s life and philosophy, and as such, it teaches his consolation for fellow humans in a modern era. An allegory is a symbolic story that can be transparently interpreted, such as the rose as a particular woman in his life, or the baobabs as the Nazis. Allegory is a one for one substitution of symbol and meaning. Saint-Exupéry’s feeling of responsibility for his country in World War II is explained by the prince’s responsibility for his planet. This way of reading the book reduces it to a fairly consistent and unmistakable meaning. He was writing a message to the people of his age, but it is more than that.
Many critics object to such a reading, saying that it is a “grown-up” way to read. The poetry of the story and pictures suggest something different to each reader, or the book would not have been translated into more than 180 languages and sold more than 80 million copies. A fable, on the other hand, is an ancient and oral form of storytelling that may include animals, mythical creatures, plants, objects, or forces of nature, which are humanized and teach a moral. The Little Prince is such a teaching story with the baobabs, the rose, the fox, and the sheep, stars, and well in the desert all conveying lessons to the reader. Saint-Exupéry drew from a rich tradition of French fables with the medieval trickster, Reynard the fox, and Jean de La Fontaine’s (1621-1695) fables satirizing society. The author uses humor and pithy sayings or maxims as in the philosophical writings of Voltaire (1694-1778) Pascal (1623-1662) and Montesquieu (1689-1755). In such a story, one can learn the general principles of “tending to one’s planet” without necessarily translating what a good plant or a bad plant means exactly.
Some see The Little Prince in the category of literary fairytales, like those of Hans Christian Andersen, and like Andersen’s, his tale is subtle, suggestive, and full of poetic expression. Saint-Exupéry does not mind putting in a sad ending, as Andersen does with “The Little Mermaid.” He thought children would have no trouble with the spiritual reality of the death of the prince. Like Andersen’s tales, Saint-Exupéry’s story is for both adults and children. It cultivates a child’s point of view and speaks to all readers. Many admirers extol the impressionistic poetry of the story, and the ending challenges the reader to be imaginative: “IT’S ALL A GREAT MYSTERY . . . Ask yourself, ‘Has the sheep eaten the flower or not?’ And you’ll see how everything changes . . .” (XXVI, p. 83). The reader gets it or not, and if not, the reader must be a hopeless “grown-up.”