I’ve loved the Little Prince since 5th grade and have reread it many times through the years. Recently I had the great pleasure of sharing this work with my own children. It’s long overdue I put my thoughts on this transformative book into text.
To start, as any writer knows a work/character is not representative of the writer, but no work is written in a vacuum. Antoine De Saint Exupery underwent many hardships, stranded on a desert much like his pilot in the story, and saw many of the horrors of WWII firsthand. I think viewing the book through the context of his surroundings is vital for understanding the little prince and his relationship with the pilot.
The book starts with the famous drawing of a hat…or is it a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant? The problem is not that “grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them;” it is that they shut down discourse when reality does not match their expectations. The problem also lies in how the pilot interpreted their response. Sure he was 6, but as an adult he should have seen he wasn’t fair to the grownups. So much of our vision is perception based on our situational experience. How many grownups have seen or know that boa constrictors can swallow an elephant and how they’d look after having done it? How many more grownups have seen hats? In reality, both the children (through no fault of their own) and adults (though the fault of age and higher reasoning) talk past each other.
The pilot points out that, “When you tell them about a new friend, [grown-ups] never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: ‘What does his voice sounds like?’ ‘What games does he like best?’ ‘Does he collect butterflies?’ They ask: ‘How old is he?’ ‘How many brothers does he have?’ ‘How much does he weigh?’ ‘How much money does his father make?’”
Is it any wonder that the pilot points this out when the author himself saw the breakdown of communication all around him? Maybe if people had bothered asking about those things that mattered the whole mess of genocide over differences of religion, abilities, sexual orientation, etc could have been avoided.
The Little Prince says, “Only the children know what they are looking for. They waste their time over a rag doll and it becomes very important to them; And if anybody takes it away from them they cry.”
“They are lucky,” the switchman said.
Why are they lucky? Because they know what they’re looking for? I would argue not that alone. It’s because they don’t fear making connections and strong bonds with a rag doll. To a child that rag doll is no small thing, it’s no waste of time. It is a world. A companion. A piece of themselves. And they offer it to the rag doll with no expectation of anything in return.
My favorite part of the book is the chapter with the fox and taming.
But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince. “There is a flower… I think that she has tamed me…”
Again and again this book centers on the theme of making connections and relationships. A child and their rag doll. A little prince and his rose. A pilot and his laughing stars. I can’t speak for the author but as a reader I wonder, does Antoine De Saint-Exupery think if we tamed each other more the problems in the world could cease, or at the least lessen?
“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for…” “They don’t find it,” I answered. “And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…” Of course,” I answered. And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”
Here is his lesson to the world. Tame each other. Be unique to one another. Because those we tame, we dare not hurt. We dare not see their loved ones hurt. Look with our hearts. Ask the questions that matter.
“But what does that mean– ‘ephemeral’?” repeated the little prince, who never in his life had let go of a question, once he had asked it.
And of course all this taming is important because we, like the little prince’s rose, are ephemeral. We only have so much time to tame each other. But more than that, we must also not let go of our questions. Once the answers are at hand, the work is not over. We must examine the answers too. How could critical thinking, and questioning the status quo have changed the world Antoine De Saint-Exupery knew?
The book focuses a lot on the invisible things that bring us joy or sorrow. The power of the invisible. Is it power partly derived because of its invisibility? I think it hearkens back to why the rag doll matters. It’s invisible because people have lost sight of it, because they look at it the wrong way. They see the hat and not the boa constrictor. But if they looked…they’d see a fox waiting for a little prince. A little prince tending to his rose–its soil just so. It’s invisible because the world in 1939 (and really at any time given the right location) couldn’t see it.
Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“It is the time I have wasted for my rose–” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”
“What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…”
The power is not because it’s invisible.We know the well is there…somewhere. Once found it’s no longer invisible and not any less valuable.
This book is a prayer from author to reader. A prayer that says: please, return the lost connections.
A prayer to teach others not to be lost again, not to forget because when we do, something as awful as WWII can happen. I believe here Antoine De Saint-Exupery and/or the pilot is reflecting on what adults lost sight of in his time. We must take responsibility for the essential things. We must not forget. It can start with roses, with rag dolls, with streetlamps, with foxes…it must not end there. Invisible why? Because without vigilance they can become invisible. And once they do, it’s so much harder to tame and bear responsibility.
So if you’ve made it this far…tell me what does your voice sound like? What games do you like best? Do you collect butterflies?