The Little Prince (French: Le Petit Prince; French pronunciation: [lə pəti pʁɛ̃s]), first published in 1943, is a novella, the most famous work of French aristocrat, writer, poet, and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry(1900–1944). The novella is the fourth most-translated book in the world and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France. Translated into more than 250 languages and dialects (as well as Braille), selling nearly two million copies annually with sales totaling over 140 million copies worldwide, it has become one of the best-selling books ever published.
After the outbreak of the Second World War Saint-Exupéry was exiled to North America. In the midst of personal upheavals and failing health, he produced almost half of the writings for which he would be remembered, including a tender tale of loneliness, friendship, love, and loss, in the form of a young prince fallen to Earth. An earlier memoir by the author had recounted his aviation experiences in the Sahara Desert, and he is thought to have drawn on those same experiences in The Little Prince. Since its first publication in the United States, the novella has been adapted to numerous art forms and media, including audio recordings, radio plays, live stage, film, television, ballet, and operatic works. The Little Prince is a poetic tale, with watercolour illustrations by the author, in which a pilot stranded in the desert meets a young prince fallen to Earth from a tiny asteroid. The story is philosophical and includes social criticism, remarking on the strangeness of the adult world. It was written during a period when Saint-Exupéry fled to North America subsequent to the Fall of France during the Second World War, witnessed first hand by the author and captured in his memoir Flight to Arras. The adult fable, according to one review, is actually “…an allegory of Saint-Exupéry’s own life—his search for childhood certainties and interior peace, his mysticism, his belief in human courage and brotherhood, and his deep love for his wife Consuelo but also an allusion to the tortured nature of their relationship.”
Though ostensibly styled as a children’s book, The Little Prince makes several observations about life and human nature. For example, Saint-Exupéry tells of a fox meeting the young prince during his travels on Earth. The story’s essence is contained in the lines uttered by the fox to the little prince: “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.” Other key thematic messages are articulated by the fox, such as: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” and “It is the time you have lost for your rose that makes your rose so important.” The fox’s messages are arguably the book’s most famous quotations because they deal with human relationships.
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The narrator explains that, as a young boy, he once drew a picture of a boa constrictor with an elephant digesting in its stomach; however, every adult who saw the picture would mistakenly interpret it as a drawing of a hat. Whenever the narrator would try to correct this confusion, he was ultimately advised to set aside drawing and take up a more practical or mature hobby. The narrator laments the lack of creative understanding displayed by adults. As noted by the narrator, he could have had a great career as a painter, but this opportunity was crushed by the misunderstanding of the adults.
Now an adult himself, the narrator has become a pilot, and, one day, his plane crashes in the Sahara, far from civilization. Here, the narrator is greeted by a young boy whom he refers to as “the little prince”. The little prince asks the narrator to draw a sheep. The narrator first shows him his old picture of the elephant inside the snake, which, to the narrator’s surprise, the prince interprets correctly. After three failed attempts at drawing a sheep, the narrator simply draws a box in his frustration, claiming that the box holds a sheep inside. Again, to the narrator’s surprise, the prince exclaims that this is exactly the picture he wanted. The narrator says that the prince has a strange habit of avoiding directly answering any of the narrator’s questions. The prince is described as having golden hair, a scarf, and a lovable laugh. Over the course of eight days stranded in the desert, as the narrator attempts to repair his plane, the little prince recounts the story of his life, often caused by his discussion of the sheep. The prince begins by describing life on his tiny home planet: in effect, an asteroid the size of a house (the asteroid was “named” B-612; a real asteroid was named after the fictional asteroid). The asteroid’s most prominent features are three minuscule volcanoes (two active, and one dormant or extinct) as well as a variety of plants. The prince describes spending his earlier days cleaning the volcanoes and weeding unwanted seeds and sprigs that infest his planet’s soil; in particular, pulling out baobab trees that are constantly trying to grow and overrun the surface. The prince wants a sheep to eat the undesirable plants, until the narrator informs him that a sheep will even eat roses with thorns. Upon hearing this, the prince tells of his love for a mysterious rose that began growing on the asteroid’s surface some time ago. The prince says he nourished the rose and listened to her when she told him to make a screen or glass globe to protect her from the cold wind. Although the prince fell in love with the rose, he also began to feel that she was taking advantage of him, and he resolved to leave the planet to explore the rest of the universe. Although the rose finally apologized for her vanity, and the two reconciled, she encouraged him to go ahead with his journey and so he traveled onward. The prince misses his rose, and claims that he only needs to look at the millions of stars to be reminded of his rose, since his rose is among one of them.
The prince has since visited six other asteroids, each of which was inhabited by a single, narrow-minded adult, each meant to critique an element of society. They include: a king with no subjects; a vain man, who believes himself the most admirable person on his otherwise uninhabited planet; a drunkard who drinks to forget the shame of being a drunkard; a businessman who endlessly counted the stars in order to “own” them all (critiquing materialism); a lamplighter who blindly follows orders by extinguishing and relighting a lamp once a minute; and an elderly geographer, who had no maps of the world he was mapping because he claimed not to be an explorer. When the geographer asked the prince to describe his home, the prince mentioned the rose, and the geographer explained that he does not record “ephemeral” things, such as roses. The prince was shocked and hurt by the revelation. The geographer recommended that the prince next visit the planet Earth.
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Since the prince landed in a desert, he believed that Earth was uninhabited. He then met a yellow snake that claimed to have the power to return him to his home, if he ever wished to return. The prince next met a desert flower, who told him that she had only seen a handful of men in this part of the world and that they had no roots, letting the wind blow them around and living hard lives. After climbing the highest mountain he had ever seen, the prince hoped to see the whole of Earth, thus finding the people; however, he saw only the enormous, desolate landscape. When the prince called out, his echo answered him, which he interpreted as the mocking voices of others. Eventually, the prince encountered a whole row of rosebushes, becoming downcast at having once thought that his own rose was unique. He began to feel that he was not a great prince at all, as his planet contained only three tiny volcanoes and a flower that he now thought of as common. He lay down in the grass and wept, until a fox came along. The fox desired to be tamed and explained to the prince that his rose really was indeed unique and special, because she was the object of the prince’s love. The fox also explained that, in a way, the prince had tamed the rose, and that this is why the prince was now feeling so responsible for her. The prince then took time to tame the fox, though the two were sad to have to part ways. The prince next came across a railway switchman, who told him how passengers constantly rushed from one place to another aboard trains, never satisfied with where they were and not knowing what they were after; only the children among them ever bothered to look out the windows. A merchant then talked to the prince about his product, a pill that eliminated thirst, which was very popular, saving people fifty-three minutes a week. The prince replied that he would instead gladly use that extra time to go around finding fresh water. Back in the present moment, it is the eighth day after the narrator’s plane-crash and the narrator is dying of thirst; miraculously, he and the prince find a well. The narrator later finds the prince talking to the snake, discussing his return home and eager to see his rose again, who he worries has been left to fend for herself. The prince bids an emotional farewell to the narrator and states that if it looks as though he has died, it is only because his body was too heavy to take with him to his planet. The prince warns the narrator not to watch him leave, as it will make him upset. The narrator, realizing what will happen, refuses to leave the prince’s side; the prince consoles the narrator by saying that he only need look at the stars to think of the prince’s lovable laughter, and that it will seem as if all the stars are laughing. The prince then walks away from the narrator and allows the snake to bite him, falling without making a sound.
The next morning, the narrator tries to look for the prince, but is unable to find his body. The story ends with the narrator’s drawing of the landscape where the prince and the narrator met and where the snake took the prince’s life. The narrator requests that anyone in that area encountering a small young man who refuses to answer questions should contact the narrator immediately.