Recently, I finished reading The Little Prince, an 83-page fantasy book by a Frenchman named Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who piloted planes during the Second World War and who disappeared in 1944, a year after The Little Prince was published.
The Little Prince is one of the most famous books ever. It has sold more than 200 million copies (still selling 2 million annually) and has been translated into more than 250 languages. As stated on the inside flap of the book’s dust jacket: “Few books have been as universally cherished by children and adults alike as The Little Prince.”
So, being a teacher of reading and writing, it is nearly mandatory that I know and have read the book. (Sort of like how you shouldn’t be an electrician if you don’t know that protons and electrons make up an electrical charge.) In fact, this was a re-reading for me; I read the book about five years ago, and it frustrated me: I couldn’t tell if this beautifully illustrated children’s story was a meaningless mess or a profound piece of literature. Upon this second reading, I have settled on the latter: it is profound, and probably more so than I realize. But, I didn’t set out to re-read it recently to settle that question.
Moving into this classroom this summer I discovered in it a class set of the novel. If I were to offer it as a whole-class novel or even as a book-club option, I should re-read it, I thought. And so I did.
In the novel The Little Prince, the narrator, a pilot, has crashed his plane in the African desert and sets out to fix his plane so he can survive the ordeal, since he is low on food and water, but mysteriously a little person (the Little Prince) appears and begins talking to the narrator, asking him for favors and questions, and explaining his life on his planet and his travels to other planets. The narrator finds this absurd, but cannot dismiss the mysterious appearance of this little man so he listens to his stories of his single flower growing on his small planet and his visits to other planets occupied by individuals such as a king, a vain man, a drunkard, a businessman and a lamplighter.
After the eighth day, though, the narrator needs more water but since they are in a desert they need to walk and after walking a bit (and pondering the great mysteries of the universe) they miraculously find a well. Then, the Little Prince seeks to return to his planet but the narrator, who has grown quite attached to his new friend, does not want him to and the ending, probably symbolic, hints of the Good News of the Gospel. I may be over-analyzing it and it may just be a silly children’s story. But I doubt it.
I was surprised, obviously, when the Little Prince mysteriously appears and immediately asks the narrator, who is fixing his plane in the desert, to “draw me a sheep.” Why, of all things, a sheep? It is so random that I think the author is establishing a baseline for absurdity; in other words, I think he is saying to the reader, “This is going to be a bizarre story. Get ready.” And, with people solely inhabiting planets, it is bizarre. But, if the story is also a religious parable, the author probably focused on sheep intentionally. We are sheep. And we need a shepherd.
I liked the way the author included many “Words of the Wiser” moments. Near the end, for example, the Little Prince tells the narrator that people have all they need but never find what they’re looking for because “eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart (p. 71).” Good advice.
In some ways, this book reminded me of a Dr. Seuss book or Shel Silverstein poem, mainly because of its ridiculous plot and fantastic story elements (wisdom-spouting flowers and volcano-raking men). Also, those books imply that life’s mysteries are plain enough for a child to see. As Dr. Seuss wrote at the end of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go“: “Just remember that when you step, step with care and great tact. And remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.”
Finally, I was interested in this passage, when the narrator and Little Prince have walked for a while in the desert. Saint-Exupery writes:
“He was tired. He sat down. I sat down next to him. And after a silence, he spoke again. ‘The stars are beautiful because of a flower you don’t see . . .’
I answered, ‘Yes, of course,’ and without speaking another word I stared at the ridges of sand in the moonlight.
‘The desert is beautiful,’ the little prince added.
And it was true. I’ve always loved the desert. You sit down on a sand dune. You see nothing. You hear nothing. And yet, something shines, something sings in the silence . . . .
‘What makes the desert beautiful,’ the little prince said, ‘is that it hides a well somewhere . . . (p. 67-68).’”
What I love about this passage is it highlights the author’s craft: short sentences, artful ands, alliteration, and a dialogue that makes the reader wonder about life. What does the “well” represent? Does the “well” hold the thing that “shines” and “sings in silence”? If so, what is it? The Little Prince seems to know, but doesn’t tell us. Much of the book is like this and that is what makes it wonderful, and must be why it holds a special spot on the society’s shelf of classic literature. I’m glad I re-read it. The Little Prince is a 10 out of 10. And I look forward to reading it again, someday.
p.s. It’s also been turned into a movie this year. Here’s the trailer: