Analysis of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Night Flight

This work marks the second novel written by France’s long-loved author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–44). The author’s first novel, Southern Mail (Courrier sud), appeared in 1929. His masterpiece, The Little Prince (Le petit prince) was published a year before the author’s death in 1944. Vol de nuit was first published in French in 1931 and translated into English the following year under the title Night Flight. This publication focuses on the operations of those daring pilots who transported the mail during overnight journeys, stressing the importance, danger, and grave responsibility associated with this hazardous work. Drawn from Saint-Exupéry’s own experiences as a night pilot, Night Flight is an intricate and authentic piece of writing that ponders the nature of time, duty, and mortality.

The novel is set at the introduction of the first mail flights to take place after dark. Initially, aviation companies did not operate at night, unlike the railways and steamships; it is explained that postal flight operators were in competition with these other modes of transport in terms of speed. Due to the hazardous nature of the early night flights, the air operations received much criticism before later becoming safer and more normal practice. Night Flight relates the story of the pilot Fabian who sets out on one such dangerous journey and subsequently goes missing; his disappearance prompts a variety of responses, from his wife’s outpouring of emotion to Rivière’s calmer contemplations of the meaning and the place of the individual within the greater workings of the world.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry / DMPA

The novel revolves around the director of operations of the mail flights, Rivière. Rivière is a fascinating and uncompromising character who consistently works toward the successful delivery of the mail and is not afraid to be unjust and risk the lives of others in the higher interest of completing the job. Rivière is depicted as leading an isolated existence; rather than cultivating personal relations he concentrates on his responsibility toward the efficient and safe operations of the postal service. Saint-Exupéry evokes a comparison between the director and the lighthouse keeper, as both remain solitary to benefit the smooth movement of the world.

Rivière also has a secondary motivating belief in the value of constructing hardworking, dutiful men. Rivière’s uncompromising approach toward duty and responsibility attacks the fear in men and replaces it with discipline. “ ‘Regulations,’ thought Rivière, ‘are like the rites of a religion which seem absurd but which mould men.’ ”

André Gide’s introduction to the novel states that Night Flight locates the contentment of man not in total freedom but in the fulfilment of a higher duty; it is in the accomplishment of a task that we find the repose of happiness. This attitude is reflected much earlier in Voltaire’s ending of his novel Candide. Certainly Rivière suggests that something exceeds human life in value, and Night Flight’s exploration of the force of the human will represents humankind’s power to act for the greater good. The author once claimed that the character of Rivière was constructed in the likeness of a former boss as an act of revenge, yet the portrayal is not entirely unsympathetic. Although the harsh treatment of his staff is criticized somewhat, Rivière reveals the love and courage behind his actions and the determination to achieve a higher goal beyond his own personal happiness.

In Night Flight Saint-Exupéry once again evokes the recurring masculinized rhetoric of freedom and conquest in connection with flight. Through his panoramic vision of the world, the pilot acquires a power over the landscape, becoming master of all he surveys; to what extent this is enough is questioned by his characters’ yearnings for human contact. Within the novel there is a great sense of admiration for the courage and dignity of the men who traverse the skies; although their world is dangerous and merciless, it is also portrayed with a sublime beauty that the author clearly experienced. Although this second novel is more detailed in its description of the work of the aviators, it is still full of the lyrical qualities identified in Southern Mail and evokes the intimate beauty that Saint-Exupéry identifies in believing in something beyond oneself.

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, 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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: