Themes in The Little Prince

While seeming to speak to children, the author of The Little Prince addresses us all and the text can be read at many different and surprising levels of meaning, from fairy tale to philosophical treatise.

Understanding The Little Prince
« What is essential is invisible to the eye », says the fox. The little prince repeats the phrase to himself so as to be sure to remember, a way for the author to underline its importance to an understanding of the story. He had already given a hint in the beginning of the story with his drawings of the boa « from the inside » and « from the outside », as an indication that everything, every being, conceals within itself a treasure, a mystery we must discover. Beyond appearances, there is the spirit that can only be discovered with the heart.

Spirit
The spirit is what makes things unique. It is the culmination of our choices, of our efforts, of friendship and of love. A thousand roses in a garden resemble the one that the little prince left behind on his planet, but that rose is unique because she is the one he has watered, she is the one he has protected, because he has « tamed » her, to quote the fox, who added: « for what you have tamed, you become responsible forever ». The spirit establishes ties. Because of it, the world is peopled with signs: the cornfield recalls the golden hair of the little prince, the stars are little bells that echo his laugh, the sky is full of planets on which ancient wells squeak as water is drawn up because on one of those planets there lives an aviator who found such a well in the desert. The true life is that of the spirit which, at need, can dispense with matter, with the « shell »: in order to return to his rose, the little prince sacrifices his fleshly body, allowing the poisonous snake to bite him : « I shall look as if I were dead and it will not be true… », he says, in his last message to us.

Tame, love, bid goodbye…
In the story of the Little Prince, we have all been struck by the lesson learned from the fox: “If you want a friend, tame me!” (Chapter XXI). In learning this lesson, the Little Prince finally begins to understand what he feels for his rose: “I think she has tamed me…” (Chapter XXI). The Little Prince realises that by taming someone, he picks out from the general mass a being that becomes, for him, “unique in all the world”.  Through these words, Saint-Exupéry wants us to understand that our eyes alone are not enough to perceive the singularity of an individual or an object. People and things are locked inside their outward appearance, and only by taming them can we begin to know and appreciate their wonderful individuality.

“To be sure, an ordinary passer-by would believe that my very own rose looked just like you, but she is far more important than all of you because she is the one I have watered. And it is she that I have placed under a glass dome.  And it is she that I have sheltered behind a screen. And it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars []. And it is she I have listened to complaining or boasting or sometimes remaining silent…” (Chapter XXI). It is by the sum of all these efforts that the Little Prince has made his rose unique in all the world, and has come to love her.

It will take the Little Prince a year of travelling to understand his feelings towards the rose. To understand that the pleasure of a meeting ends in the pain of a separation. To tame another being is to accept that, some day, that being will disappear. It is the “danger of early disappearance” of his rose that plunges the Little Prince into melancholy and prompts him to let the snake bite him so that he can return to her on planet B612.

« Grown-ups »
Alas, with age children lose the gift that allows them naturally to live in harmony with the spirit. They become « grown-ups » whose only concerns are utilitarian. Trapped by the material, vulgar side of existence, victims of their own conceit, greed or intellectual laziness, « grown-ups » judge what a man says according to the way he is dressed (as in the case of the Turkish astronomer), gauge the beauty of a house by its value and think they know a young friend by how much money his father earns.  Yet the child that once was is not dead: he is only buried, and an experience like that of the aviator (who is perhaps « getting a little old ») meeting The Little Prince allows that child to come back to life.



Invitation

Since the spirit, which cannot be seen with the eye, is the effort to tame someone or something, to establish ties, and since it is, in essence, the element of imagination and love that we put into what we do, simply reading the text should be enough to bring it into being. As we turn the pages, the little prince becomes our friend because we spend  our time on him, because we tame him. Saint-Exupéry’s tale is not a lesson but an invitation.