“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” -C.S. Lewis
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (originally written in French under the name Le Petit Prince) is a children’s book told from the story of a pilot who is stuck in the Sahara desert when his plane malfunctions. He must fix his plane before his water supply runs out, but his repair is slowed down when he sees the Little Prince: a strange, golden-haired child who claims to come from another planet. For most of the book, the pilot (along with the reader) listens to the Prince retelling the journey he made to find Earth.
The story of the Little Prince features a lot of fantastical, unrealistic elements. While I can forgive some errors because the knowledge of astronomy was probably more limited in de Saint-Exupéry’s time, I couldn’t help but notice that the details of the Prince’s journey through space were not very accurate. You can’t ride a flock of birds to another planet; you and the birds would probably run out of oxygen before that happened. This sounds like a criticism of the book, but I don’t mean it to be. The fantasy of the Little Prince works because the logic of the story is based on the imagination of children, rather than the strict realism of adults.
That’s where the quote above by C.S. Lewis comes in, because one of de Saint-Exupéry’s main statements throughout the Little Prince is that the mind of a child has certain advantages over the mind of an adult. Because adults try to be serious all the time, de Saint-Exupéry argues, they no longer have the capacity for imaginative exploration. In order to illustrate his point, the author has the Little Prince find adult characters on other planets on the way to Earth: a king, a vain man, a businessman, a lamplighter, a geographer, and a drunkard (yes, there’s a drunk man in a children’s book). Each of these characters embodies a certain flaw that de Saint-Exupéry sees in adults. The scenes add not only humour into the book, but also interesting social commentary that would interest even adult readers.
The Little Prince is a short book, which means that the characters don’t have time for the same level of complexity as characters in longer works. Most of them are included for the idea behind them (the drunkard is little more than a symbol of alcoholism) rather than to act like real people. The character with the most depth, of course, is the titular prince himself, who has to evolve, grow, and learn throughout his journey so he can understand the universe around him. Even though de Saint-Exupéry provides plenty of details about the prince’s personality, the author also implies a deeper level of sadness about him as well. In one of my favourite scenes of the book, the prince tells the narrator about how he once watched forty-four sunsets in one day (his planet is very small, so he can see many sunsets in a short time) and he says that sad people like sunsets. The narrator then asks the prince how sad he was on the day of the forty-four sunsets, but the prince doesn’t respond, leaving the reader to ponder the inner sadness of the character. The moment is a subtle reminder that the prince, like most people, has hidden emotions that we will never truly know.
Since my version is an English translation rather than the original French, I cannot examine de Saint-Exupéry’s writing style first hand, but I will say that he does not experiment very much. His prose is very basic, but it works because his primary audience consists of children. His true talent is in how he structures the story of the Little Prince. De Saint-Exupéry writes the book with a sense of ambiguity and mystery surrounding the story. He does not attempt to explain why or how certain events occur, nor does he directly state one specific lesson that the reader should learn from the story. Many questions still linger by the book’s conclusion, but I believe that’s the charm of the Little Prince: when the book is done exploring the imagination, it expects you to use your own imagination to think about what the story means to you.
I give the Little Prince a 5 out of 5. I was pleasantly surprised by de Saint-Exupéry’s interesting concepts and the quality of his writing. It’s a wonderful book for kids, but I would also recommend it as a quick, entertaining read for adults who are open-minded enough to appreciate the quirks of a child’s imagination.