While on the hunt for some replacement books this week, I had the amazing fortune of coming across a 1946 French edition of Le Petit Prince for just $8. Not only does this prove the eternal wisdom of shopping for books second-hand, it also reacquainted me with one of my all-time favourite books. I first came across The Little Prince in French class, as a child struggling with the usual challenges of making friends and finding a place for herself in a world so preoccupied with what ‘normal’ looks like. Although I first read the novella in French, the story’s magic wasn’t lost on me (even if many of the subtleties were). As a child, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s masterpiece was a transformative one for the way in which I began to understand the world. Now a couple of decades older, the emotional resonance of The Little Prince remains palpable to me. It is a work with so many layers and so much to say that every read-through uncovers new elements. That Saint-Exupéry disappeared in 1944, shortly after the book’s publication, only adds the mystery that surrounds it.
Rediscovering this novella at the age of 30, I can’t help but wonder at the tremendous staying power of this short and complex story. The Little Prince has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects and continues to sell roughly two million copies per year, making this both the most translated and one of the best-selling books of all time. Layered with elements of autobiography, the story follows an unnamed narrator (based on Saint-Exupéry) after he crashes his plane in the desert. Here he meets with the golden-haired little prince, neither quite a boy nor quite a man, who has travelled from his home on Asteroid B-612 in the hope of making friends. Over time, the little prince relates his story to the narrator, revealing the details of his travels and the various encounters that he has had along the way. Offered in this kind of brief summary, the plot appears to be a superficially entertaining adventure story, with the usual cast of quirky and diverse characters at its centre. Yet the peculiar wisdom of the story – the moments of almost transcendental insight into the heart of human experience – are what continue to make The Little Prince such a beloved work.
Reading over the novella as an adult, it is clear that no detail of the story is wasted or superfluous. Each element speaks to Saint-Exupéry’s core theme – the importance of learning that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The revelation of this ‘secret’, as offered to the prince by a fox whom he meets on his travels, gives form to most of the story. The little prince’s journey is abundant with characters who are struggling to move past their lack of true sight into what is essential. They are preoccupied with occupations, as though this kind of ‘purpose’ will serve as the salvation and connection that we all seek. From the alcoholic man who drinks to forget that he ashamed of drinking to the businessman determined to own all of the stars in the sky, there is a foolishness about these characters that is in no way subtle. This misguided fruitlessness is repeated elsewhere, as the prince comes across a merchant selling ‘water quenching tablets’ on the basis that they will save people 53 minutes per week. At this, the prince wonders, “…if I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water.”
Joined to these insights is a clear condemnation of the ‘big people’ way of doing things. This is a theme that definitely isn’t exclusive to The Little Prince. The idea that adults have it wrong is a favourite component of children’s literature. Roald Dahl employed this theme to great effect – from Willy Wonka’s determination to turn his factory over the the right child to Matilda’s campaign of revenge against the cruel and misguided adults in her life. Much of children’s literature revolves around the idea that adults have abandoned most of the fundamentals with which they were born, given over the monotony of jobs and attempts to find meaning in all the wrong places. It’s a harsh lesson and yet it is the truth that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Roald Dahl have both created books that remain universally beloved by adults. The mystery to this continued relevance and magic is surely the possibility of reclamation that both authors pose as available to the world’s lost souls.
Saint-Exupéry makes his disdain for adulthood clear from the novella’s outset. In detailing the facts of the little prince’s home asteroid, he explains:
“If I have told you these details about the asteroid, and made a note of its number for you, it is on account of the grown-ups and their ways. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead, they demand: ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”
This lesson relates back to the message at the heart of The Little Prince – that what is essential cannot be seen. Yet in the narrator, Saint-Exupéry shows us that salvation from this way of doing things – a preoccupation with figures and what can be measured – is possible. The narrator is a grown-up who, through his encounter with the little prince, begins to understand more of the essentials. Re-reading this book as an adult, it seems to me that herein lies the key to the story’s continued success. In reminding us of what is ‘essential’ – true connections, creativity, the heart – The Little Prince resounds with messages directly tied to the momentum afforded to the push back against traditional social and cultural norms. We live in a world largely given over to concrete ideas of what appropriate adulthood represents – hours of work, family and marriage status, the accumulation of wealth and belongings. As we choose to engage with this framework, we are simultaneously aware that the demands and restrictions placed on us by society are some of the largest contributors to a life poorly lived. We are getting sicker, more stressed, and becoming less fulfilled as time goes on. This is a disconnect that Saint-Exupéry recognised when he wrote the novella in the early 1940s and it is a chasm that has only widened since. As a way to reconcile the capacity to live a happy, fulfilled life with society’s demands for conformity, we’ve seen the rise of the ‘self-care’ movement – an attempt to provide space for reconnection with whatever we recognise as essential to us. Self-care emphasises creativity, relationships, and fulfilment as fundamental to happiness. In this sense, it asks a disconnection from the ‘concrete’ and a reclamation of what is truly important.
Although self-care has become something of a catch-all term that, over time, has lost a large amount of its original intent, it is a concept that we find just about everywhere. I can’t help but see the parallels between the desperation that increasingly characterises our search for something ‘more’ and the love that we have for books like The Little Prince. The messages of love and connection feel, in many respects, like the solutions that we are all actively searching out as we engage in attempts to discover personal fulfilment and reject the pull towards ‘more money, more things’. One of the most bittersweet moments of the novel is the little prince’s parting from the narrator. On his journey, the wise fox has taught the prince what it means to be ‘tamed’ by another. The fox explains:
“But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”
From this lesson, the prince sets about making connections where he can, thwarted in many instances by everyone’s concrete and blind preoccupations. With the narrator, however, the little prince is able to find true friendship. When he is getting ready to depart the earth for a journey back to his asteroid, the prince tells the narrator:
“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.”
It is a beautiful moment and one that resounds not with condemnation of what we have lost, but the possibilities of what we are able to find. The Little Prince is a reminder that, even though the world may try to lead us toward a life of mindless preoccupations, what is truly essential is never actually out of reach. As we struggle against the tides of expectations and judgments, the magic of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s timeless work is surely its call to look beyond what we can see.