Analysis of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince

This last novel by the popular French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–44) is ostensibly a children’s book, set in the author’s familiar and cherished landscape of the Sahara of northern Africa. Although the central character is a pilot, this tale has little to do with actual flight; the storytelling of The Little Prince is far removed from the quasi-biographical and autobiographical musings of the author’s earlier works that often deal with an airplane pilot’s exploits. These earlier works include Night Flight (Vol de nuit, 1931) and Southern Mail (Courrier sud, 1929). The pilot as narrator in The Little Prince does appear as he is forced to land in the desert, but this is where the biographical familiarity ends, for it is here that the protagonist encounters the eponymously small prince who tells wise and enchanting stories of other worlds that he has visited. The simple beauty of this charming parable has delighted adults and children alike over the many decades since it was written in the late years of World War II. In addition, Saint-Exupéry’s own illustrations of The Little Prince have appeared on a plethora of merchandise, perpetuating the success of the novel and its author.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his wife in Paris

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his wife in Paris.Photograph by Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty

The book was dedicated to Leon Werth, Saint-Exupéry’s closest friend, and more particularly to Werth when he was a child. The dedication states that Werth—unlike many adults—does in fact remember when he was a child. This assertion sets the tone for the tale proper, which ponders the loss of innocence in the world and rejoices in the simple joy and vast imagination that children possess. The narrator begins his story with a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, drawn when he was six years old; he relates to his readers the frustration he felt when the adults who viewed it thought it looked like a hat and therefore discouraged him drawing any further pictures. Disillusioned from his dream, the narrator becomes a pilot and remains distrustful of grown-ups; when he does meet any adults who appear clear-sighted, the pilot shows them his childhood drawing as a means of testing their true understanding, but unfortunately they always see a hat, and their lack of imagination and interest allows them to see no further.

The pilot is so truly disappointed by the other adults he meets that he chooses the solitary existence familiar to many of Saint-Exupéry’s characters. He lives his life alone until he crashes his plane in the Sahara desert and meets a very serious and very small person. The little prince teaches the narrator to appreciate the beauty in life and the joy that is to be found in the mutual appreciation that one obtains from love and friendship. The little prince relates his adventures around numerous planets and his curious encounters with several adult characters, grown-ups who all occupy themselves with so-called matters of consequence, restricted by the ridiculous rules and regulations they impose upon themselves. Saint-Exupéry exposes the peculiarity of everyday adult activities through the man who drinks to forget that he is ashamed of drinking and the businessman who counts the stars so obsessively that he is barely aware of what it is he is counting. Once again, Saint-Exupéry urges his readers to find freedom from modern life and materialism and stresses the importance of a responsibility to something beyond ourselves, a duty to others, the value of living for the good of someone else, be that through friendship, love, or work; after all, “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The narrator urges his readers not to read this book thoughtlessly, as he has experienced so much grief recording his memories; this perhaps is a little insight into the spirit in which Saint-Exupéry writes and wishes to be read. Certainly the personal nature of all his stories resonates clearly, and there is an intimacy in The Little Prince that inspires a feeling of conspiracy between the author and those to whom he relates the memories of his dear friend. The pilot laments his own growing up and his diminishing ability to see beyond the immediate, unlike his little prince, who can see the elephant inside the boa constrictor and the sheep inside the box.

Des Vallières, Nathalie. Saint Exupéry: Art, Writing and Musing. Translated by Anthony Zielonka. New York: Rizzoli, 2004.
Higgins, James E. The Little Prince: A Reverie of Substance. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.
Saint Exupéry, Antoine de. Wartime Writings, 1939–1944.San Diego: HCJ, 1986.
Schiff, Stacy. Saint Exupéry, A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1994. Webster, Paul. Antoine de Saint Exupéry: The Life and Death of the Little Prince. London: Macmillan, 1993.

Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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