The Little Prince: Theme Analysis
Loss of Innocence
The book opens with the adult narrator’s explanation of his loss of innocence at the age of six. He was inspired by a book about the jungle to draw a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, because he had read that boas swallow their prey whole. All the grown-ups, who, he discovers, have lost their imagination and ability to see anything correctly, interpret his drawing as a hat. Thus, his desire to be an artist is forever squelched. He is obliged to explain with a prosaic second drawing, clearly showing the inside of the boa with an elephant in it. The narrator, though a grown-up himself, comments: “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again” (I, p. 2). As an adult airplane pilot, a profession chosen perhaps because it is close to the desire for jungle adventures, the narrator finds himself living “all alone” (II, p. 3) because all the other grown-ups, whom he tests with his drawing of the boa constrictor, have lost their imagination.
This lesson, that to grow up is to lose something precious, is confirmed when he meets the little prince, who moves the narrator because he has what all the adults have lost. The little prince is full of imagination and speaks directly to the pilot’s heart. He narrates his adventures to the pilot, and the little prince has been similarly disappointed to find most of the grown-ups on other planets have grown jaded and indifferent to life. They have lost their sense of wonder and regard the world as created for their own ego and base gratification. Both the narrator and little prince find counting and numbers to be a symptom of the loss of innocence. The narrator remarks that people only wish to know of other people only how old they are, how much money they make, and how much they weigh, rather than their character and being. The little prince’s planet is so small, it is signified as the number B-612 by astronomers. The businessman counts the stars over and over again, believing that by this act, he owns them. The drunkard is so embarrassed by his loss of innocence he keeps drinking. Whereas to the adult world this loss of innocence is just called growing up and being mature, Saint-Exupery implies it is a serious spiritual problem.
When the little prince begins to lose his innocence by mistrusting his flower, feeling hurt by her behavior, instead of thankful for the joy she gives, he knows he must travel to find wisdom. He visits many planets hoping to find answers to the puzzling nature of life, but everywhere, he finds the grown-ups who should have answers from experience, are far worse off than he is. There are two responses to the apparently universal loss of innocence that he finds everywhere. One is that most people do not notice or care. They go on acting in a sort of robotic or selfish way. Then, there are the seekers, like the pilot and the little prince, who do not accept this loss of innocence as the final human condition. They go on to look for answers and for love. They seek to renew freshness and innocence through wisdom.
Saint-Exupéry himself had a great sense of responsibility, especially towards his country during World War II; so much so that he gave his life to liberate France from the Nazis. His philosophy of what is required of the individual is timely in any age, and the little prince’s care for his planet is an example of how this message fits for an environmentally aware audience. “‘It’s a question of discipline,’” the little prince told me later on. “‘When you’ve finished washing and dressing each morning, you must tend your planet’” (V, p. 15). The little prince pulls up the bad weeds and waters the flowers. He rakes out the volcanoes so they won’t build up pressure and explode. He cares so much about his little space that he has been given to watch over, that he tries to find out how to be a better caretaker. His journey to earth pays off in the knowledge and friendship he seeks, but death is the only way he can get back home afterwards. Even on earth, his home planet is never out of mind. He is busy trying to get a sheep to eat the baobabs. He is trying to understand how to love his flower.
The king that he meets has an interesting “science of government” in which he “commands from each what each can perform” (X, p. 31). He believes that “Authority is based first of all upon reason” (X, p. 31) and so makes reasonable commands to his subjects, such as commanding the sun to set when it is going to set. Nevertheless, the king fools himself that everyone is his subject and that he reigns over everything, and that even the stars must obey him. He sees that beings have responsibility to him but not vice versa. The little prince is bored with the king, but finds the vain man, the drunkard, and the “serious” (XIII, p. 36) businessman no more responsible. Their relationship to others is not one of mutual care. The lamplighter is “the only one who doesn’t strike [the little prince] as ridiculous. Perhaps it’s because he’s thinking of something besides himself” (XIV, p. 43).
On earth, the pilot feels a sense of responsibility for the little prince, and stops his work on his broken plane, representing his own survival, to help him. The child asking for the adult to draw a picture of a sheep for him under these extreme circumstances would be a bother for most grown-ups. The pilot, however, sees the little prince as fragile and precious, like a treasure, or like a lamp, and “Lamps must be protected” (XXIV, p. 69). When the pilot tends to the needs of the prince, then he finds the well of water to drink from that saves his life. Responsibility thus arises from a sense of mutuality and appreciation, making life livable, and in return the giver receives a sense of purpose. The fox tells the little prince, “You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed” (XXI, p. 64). The little prince tells the common roses in the garden: “my rose . . . is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered” (XXI, p. 63).
Friendship and Love
The narrator says that he wishes he could write the story like a fairytale: “Once there was a little prince . . . who needed a friend” (IV, p. 12). This is the main point for the pilot, who himself has been living alone and misunderstood in the world. The love between the little prince and the flower, the fox and the little prince, and the pilot and the little prince provide the answers in the story. The solitary nature of the pilot makes him sensitive to the great gift of the little prince’s friendship: “Not everyone has had a friend” (IV, p. 12). The main problem in life seems to be the lack of love.
None of the grown-ups on the planets the little prince visits have time for love or relationships. This is also primarily true of planet earth as well. The train switchman and the salesclerk are enough to give examples of the busyness of modern life; no one is satisfied but everyone is rushing around. The little prince tells the snake “It’s a little lonely in the desert,” to which the snake replies: “It’s also lonely with people” (XVII, p. 51).
Just as the little prince is becoming disillusioned by seeing a whole garden of roses and thus thinking his rose is “an ordinary rose” like all the others (XX, p. 56), the fox appears and teaches him about friendship. The prince wants to play with the fox, but it says it can’t because it isn’t tamed. Taming means to create a relationship: “if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you” (XXI, p. 59). The prince then understands his rose is unique because it has tamed him. The fox says that love will create meaning for them, but the little prince objects that he has to keep going so he can learn things and find friends. The fox tells him, “there are no stores where you can buy friends, people no longer have friends. If you want a friend, tame me!” (XXI, p. 60).
The fox explains the mysteries of love to the little prince, how to have little rituals and to be patient. When the prince has to leave and tells the fox he is worried the fox will have gotten nothing from the friendship, since it can’t last, the fox says no, he now has “the color of the wheat” (XXI, p. 61). He means that he will continue to love and be reminded of the prince when he sees the wheat, the color of his hair. The prince then understands the valuable gift of love his rose has given to him, for he remembers her everywhere he goes, and she is the only rose for him. In return, he passes on love to the pilot. In this way, life is beautiful and meaningful, full of relationship and poetry. Love is closely allied to the imagination, to responsibility, and to meaning.