By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; @1943; 101 pages.
I read The Little Prince when I was a child—and hated it. The boa constrictor swallowing the elephant put me off on page one. I got really caught up on the plight of that elephant. How cruel to have him swallowed on the first page. We need to get him out. Now!
I was too young for this book. I remember that I argued with everything the author presented. Was I a horrible child?
The best excuse I can offer is that my mother raised me on her own. With suitors coming and going, I developed a keen suspicion of any attempt to gain my trust or good will. So when Saint-Exupéry tries to identify with me on kid terms, explaining that he sees things like I do, that he’s writing from a child’s point of view (and certainly not in agreement with the often erring adults), he lost me. I was on to him. What was next? Was he going to grab me by my ankles and toss me into the air repeatedly until I socked him in the jaw?
Since then, a couple of people have said this is their favorite book—of all time!
My silent response has been: really???? But when someone identifies a favorite book or author, I tend to notice. I have to know why.
So I purchased The Little Prince through iTunes and read it on my iPod.
As an adult, the first thing I notice, oddly enough, is a number: 1943. This was the date of the book’s first publication and an important number for me.
The story goes something like this. The little prince has left his home planet, which is very small. There was a unique flower there that somehow went to his planet as a seed and grew there, but she was foreign to that planet.
She was very vain and had all sorts of requirements. The prince grew weary with her and disillusioned and decided to leave the planet and her forever. As he left, she admitted that she loved him. She said it was her fault for never letting him know. (Had he ever told her about his feelings for her?)
The prince then travels to other planets. On one of them, he finds a lonely king. I suppose the king’s planet is also pretty small and he is glad to finally have a subject, our little prince. To get the prince to stay with him, the king offers the prince a position as a minister of justice. The prince points out that there is no one to judge, since the king is the only person on his planet. The king offers that the prince can judge himself. That’s the hardest person to judge anyway. But the prince says he can judge himself anywhere. He doesn’t need to live on the planet with the king.
Well, well! the king said. “I have good reason to believe that there is an old rat living somewhere on my planet. I hear him at night. You could judge that old rat. From time to time you will condemn him to death. That way his life will depend on your justice. But you’ll pardon him each time for economy’s sake. There’s only one rat.
Then the little prince visits Earth. He lands in the desert. When asked why he came, he answers that he was having trouble with a flower. He is lonely and wanders upon a fox. The little prince wants to know if the fox will be his friend. The fox says no because he’s not tamed.
“For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But 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…”
“…The only things you learn are the things you tame,” said the fox. “People haven’t time to learn anything. They buy things ready-made in stores. But since there are no stores where you can buy friends, tame me!”
Then the fox says this: “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
A long time ago a French girl informed me that the young man I liked so much was “wild.” This was such an odd idea for me. What did she mean? He must have liked her quite a bit because he often hung around with her. Even to my jealous eye, I couldn’t see why. And here she knew this detail about him that I had never guessed, that he was wild. Did she mean that he formed no ties? That he was not in the habit of taking on responsibilities? That he would have no friends?
“What makes the desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere…”
“…whether it’s a house [and it’s hidden treasure], the stars [the lost flower], or the desert [the hidden well], what makes them beautiful is invisible!”
And then: “you risk tears if you let yourself be tamed.”
It’s really odd, but I get the meaning of this book in a way I never had before. The little prince will return to the stars, but because he won’t point out which star he is returning to, his friend (our narrator) will forever find significance in all the stars. Every star will remind him of the little prince, just as every visitor from England reminds me of one particular friend and every smart ass remark reminds me of another.
[Saint-Exupéry wrote several successful novels, including Night Flight; Wind, Sand, and Stars; Flight to Arras; and Letter to a Hostage. He was a pilot and flew missions in World War II. In July of 1944, he set out to fly over occupied France. He never returned.]