The Little Prince

(Le Petit Prince)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

1943

(A little man leaves his tiny planet to explore the universe, only to discover that the most important things in life can be found anywhere.)

ExuperyIllustration

Watercolor illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from chapter 26 of Le Petit Prince. Original drawings, watercolors (though not this one!), and pages from the only known handwritten draft of the novelette are housed in The Morgan LibraryNew York. Saint-Exupéry wrote and illustrated this story in New York City and Long Island following the Nazi invasion of France.

 

As hackneyed as the term “gem” is in the description of short and delightful books, The Little Prince has got to be the epitome. What other modern story is so small, simple, beautiful, and valuable? It radiates purpose modestly, its convincing naivete managing somehow to soften sharp lessons within a sweet and personal story. An actual gem, however, can be valued by anyone, even the unworthy—those who value it only because they can use it to get something else. The Little Prince has no such utility. Its essence is a rebellion against the importance we tend to place on utility. If we find ourselves appreciating The Little Prince, it can only be because we see some light in the book’s countercultural perspective—because we love this small meandering tale according to its true worth.

Le Petit PrinceI am biased towards this book because of a line on paper I was given long ago, in a beautiful and cheerful feminine hand: “What is essential is invisible to the eye; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly”… This from someone who was, let us say, very visible to me in my high school days. The line seemed magical when handed to me in that way, and I can’t be sure even now what proportion of the draw this book has on me derives ultimately from that circumstance, versus my private reading of it at home shortly afterwards, or even from my recent reading out loud to my young daughter. Ironically the little prince would tell us that to focus on that question—to seek something “objective” in our preference for a special thing—is to miss the point entirely. Precisely this missing of the point is the disease of grown-ups, of (I love the implied sarcasm in French) grandes personnes. It is not les grandes who have wisdom in this matter, but les petits. And by this the author is not encouraging a heart-shaped, scented, Hallmarkian glorification of the superficial. He is saying that imagination and relationships—things alive with spirit—are the most important things in life. These are, as the prince continues to expound, precisely the things that egotists, businessoids, drunken whiners, narrowminds, rigid order-givers and order-followers alike all disregard or disparage. And so they count and organize and posture and blab while everything truly meaningful slips through the cracks.

Strangely enough, having decided this morning to write on a twentieth century French novel, I was torn between this and The Stranger, an absurdist, cynical work by Albert Camus published in the same year. In a sense, both works represent responses to suffering, of which both authors were dealt plenty. One gets the sense that the author and narrator of The Little Prince worried that in his pain and mourning he might follow the path of the dreaded grown-ups and lose his heart-vision: “I have had to grow old” (ch.4). Pushing back in this fictional manifesto, Saint-Exupéry champions a fierce cling to beautiful and meaningful things. For Camus on the other hand, the very beauty and meaning of such things has been bled dry, and he will not pretend otherwise. Both authors reject superficiality and capitulation to the empty standards of contemporary culture. Both, as we see when the little prince allows a poisonous snake to remove him from Earth, saw no ultimately successful avenue out of suffering this side of death.

Whatever caused Saint-Exupery’s unarmed P-38 reconnaissance plane to crash into the Mediterranean the year after he published this tale, we will likely never know. He once wrote that “when the night has fallen, I, delivered, shall read my course in the stars” (Wind, Sand & Stars). He was speaking of celestial navigation in more than just a literal sense. The myth of the stars as a hatchery and final destination is explicit in The Little Prince. We can imagine the sky-loving author, along with his curly blonde hero, giving us a final encouragement:

“…you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…" (ch. 26).

The book begins with the failure of adults to understand certain things that come easily to children, related to a conflict in their priorities. The narrator then tells us that he is a pilot, who has crashed in the African desert. He is visited by a boyish person with an odd little voice and golden hair, who promptly asks the pilot to draw him a sheep. The first explicit lesson of the prince is the baobab problem (ch.5): little bad things rapidly grow and destroy you—you have to nip them in the bud. The little prince then tells the pilot his story.

The prince lives on a very small planet, Asteroid B-612. His companion there is a flower, the only other speaking inhabitant of his tiny sphere. The flower is in love with him (ch.7-8), and just wants to be pampered and loved. The prince wonders whether he really wishes to be with this flower rather than somewhere else, so he leaves his planet and visits seven others. The first six have only one inhabitant apiece:

  1. Ridiculous king who believes he rules universally with reasonable order, but in fact rules nothing
  2. Conceited man who thinks everyone is an admirer
  3. Tippler who is ashamed of drinking
  4. Businessman who thinks he owns the stars
  5. Lamplighter, who mindlessly follows orders (the little prince likes him because at least he thinks of something besides himself)
  6. Geographer, who has a real profession but is only interested in non-ephemeral things.
  7. Earth, where the prince meets a snake, flower, mountain, roses, and a fox. The roses depress him because he realizes that his flower back home is not unique. But the fox shows him that their relationship is what makes the rose important. Then he meets a railway switchman and a merchant.

Through the prince’s account of his travels, the pilot comes to understand what is so strange about “grown-ups”. The prince very simply reveals to the pilot the ridiculous biases and assumptions we adult humans tend to have. Towards the end of his journey, a fox had presented to the prince an alternative way of thinking, a way the prince in turn explained to the pilot. The pilot is drawn into a renewed appreciation of qualitative things, and especially his relationships, such as his with the prince. As soon as he realizes the truth of the prince’s perspective, his life is saved—he finds the well of water in the desert. The little prince’s task complete, he comforts the pilot and returns home to his flower. What he was looking for in life need not be found in any particular place. He can find it on his own little planet as easily as anywhere else in the universe.

Here are nuggets of the little prince’s wisdom, contrasting with the views of “grown-ups”. Numbers in parentheses are chapters.

“GROWN-UPS” THE LITTLE PRINCE
– stunted imagination (1) – fertile imagination (1,2)
– interests= bridge, golf, politics, neckties (1) – interests= boa constrictors, primeval forests, stars (1)
– prejudiced and narrowminded in dress (4) – abstract, subtle thinkers (2)
– “they love figures”: quantitative and utilitarian features (4) – “figures are a matter of indifference”; they love qualitative, aesthetic, and descriptive features (4)
– functions of plant parts are not as important as functions of engine parts (7) – functions of engine parts are not as important as functions of plant parts (7)
– meaningful pastime is adding up figures (7) – meaningful pastimes are smelling flowers, looking at stars, loving people, being concerned for species extinction (7)
– ridiculous king: impotent, but obsessed with authority (10) – response= “the grown-ups are very strange” (10)
– conceited man, to whom everyone is an admirer (11) – response= “the grown-ups are certainly very odd” (11)
– tippler, ashamed of drinking (12) – response= “the grown-ups are certainly very, very odd” (12)
– businessman, thinks he owns the stars, and is content to count them (13) – response= “the grown-ups are certainly altogether extraordinary”. Ownership is ridiculous, and any possession carries with it responsibility (13)
– ephemeral things are unimportant (15) – ephemeral things are interesting (15)
– have no friends, no time to understand anything (21) – friendship is important (21)
– invest no time in loving anything (22) – spend time caring for things (22)
– don’t know what they are looking for (22) – know what they are looking for (22)
– want to save time (23) – want to savor time (23)
– mill about and rush aimlessly (25) – rushing is not worth the trouble (25)

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TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE

(The English is translated from the French by Katherine Woods. This version, which was released contemporaneously with Saint-Exupéry’s French in 1943, is nevertheless out of print, and has largely been replaced by another by Richard Howard (although there are others). Woods’ translation evokes classic English fairy tales—good luck finding anyone who prefers the dry Howard version. He himself prefers it, and defends his literary lèse majesté with the argument that the prose even of classic books should be continually updated to match the preferences of each subsequent generation. In this case, apparently our generation requires a determined flattening and the studious removal of color. Still, I find the Howard version to be closer to the letter, though not the spirit, of the original; but instead of his translation I simply include the French.)

 

All grown-ups were once children-- although few of them remember it.

Toutes les grandes personnes ont d’abord été des enfants. (Mais peu d’entre elles s’en souviennent.)

-Dedication.

 

Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.

Les grandes personnes ne comprennent jamais rien toutes seules, et c’est fatigant, pour les enfants, de toujours et toujours leur donner des explications.

-ch.1.

 

Then I would never talk to that person about boa constrictors, or primeval forests, or stars. I would bring myself down to his level. I would talk to him about bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties. And the grown-up would be greatly pleased to have met such a sensible man.

Alors je ne lui parlais ni de serpents boas, ni de forêts vierges, ni d’étoiles. Je me mettais à sa portée. Je lui parlais de bridge, de golf, de politique et de cravates. Et la grande personne était bien contente de connaître un homme aussi raisonnable.

-ch.1, of a man who failed to imaginatively interpret a drawing by the narrator.

 

They are like that. One must not hold it against them. Children should always show great forbearance toward grown-up people.

Elles sont comme ça. Il ne faut pas leur en vouloir. Les enfants doivent être très indulgents envers les grandes personnes.

-ch.4, describing the peculiar preference of grown-ups who undervalue imagination and relationships and “who are no longer interested in anything but figures”.

 

But certainly, for us who understand life, figures are a matter of indifference.

Mais, bien sûr, nous qui comprenons la vie, nous nous moquons bien des numéros!

-ch.4.

 

To forget a friend is sad. Not every one has had a friend.

C’est triste d’oublier un ami. Tout le monde n’a pas eu un ami.

-ch.4.

 

Indeed, as I learned, there were on the planet where the little prince lived--as on all planets--good plants and bad plants. In consequence, there were good seeds from good plants, and bad seeds from bad plants. But seeds are invisible. They sleep deep in the heart of the earth's darkness, until some one among them is seized with the desire to awaken. Then this little seed will stretch itself and begin--timidly at first--to push a charming little sprig inoffensively upward toward the sun. If it is only a sprout of radish or the sprig of a rose-bush, one would let it grow wherever it might wish. But when it is a bad plant, one must destroy it as soon as possible, the very first instant that one recognizes it. Now there were some terrible seeds on the planet that was the home of the little prince; and these were the seeds of the baobab. The soil of that planet was infested with them. A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces...

Et en effet, sur la planète du petit prince, il y avait comme sur toutes les planètes, de bonnes herbes et de mauvaises herbes. Par conséquent de bonnes graines de bonnes herbes et de mauvaises graines de mauvaises herbes. Mais les graines sont invisibles. Elles dorment dans le secret de la terre jusqu’à ce qu’il prenne fantaisie à l’une d’elles de se réveiller. Alors elle s’étire, et pousse d’abord timidement vers le soleil une ravissante petite brindille inoffensive. S’il s’agit d’une brindille de radis ou de rosier, on peut la laisser pousser comme elle veut. Mais s’il s’agit d’une mauvaise plante, il faut arracher la plante aussitôt, dès qu’on a su la reconnaître. Or il y avait des graines terribles sur la planète du petit prince… c’étaient les graines de baobabs. Le sol de la planète en était infesté. Or un baobab, si l’on s’y prend trop tard, on ne peut jamais plus s’en débarrasser. Il encombre toute la planète. Il la perfore de ses racines. Et si la planète est trop petite, et si les baobabs sont trop nombreux, ils la font éclater.

-ch.5.

 

When you've finished your own toilet in the morning, then it is time to attend to the toilet of your planet, just so, with the greatest care.

Quand on a terminé sa toilette du matin, il faut faire soigneusement la toilette de la planète.

-ch.5.

 

"You know--one loves the sunset, when one is so sad..."

"Tu sais… quand on est tellement triste on aime les couchers de soleil…"

-the little prince, ch.6.

 

"I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: 'I am busy with matters of consequence!' And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man--he is a mushroom!"

"Je connais une planète où il y a un Monsieur cramoisi. Il n’a jamais respiré une fleur. Il n’a jamais regardé une étoile. Il n’a jamais aimé personne. Il n’a jamais rien fait d’autre que des additions. Et toute la journée il répète comme toi: 'Je suis un homme sérieux! Je suis un homme sérieux!' et ça le fait gonfler d’orgueil. Mais ce n’est pas un homme, c’est un champignon!"

-the little prince, ch.7.

 

"The fact is that I did not know how to understand anything! I ought to have judged by deeds and not by words. She cast her fragrance and her radiance over me. I ought never to have run away from her... I ought to have guessed all the affection that lay behind her poor little stratagems. Flowers are so inconsistent! But I was too young to know how to love her..."

"Je n’ai alors rien su comprendre! J’aurais dû la juger sur les actes et non sur les mots. Elle m’embaumait et m’éclairait. Je n’aurais jamais dû m’enfuir! J’aurais dû deviner sa tendresse derrière ses pauvres ruses. Les fleurs sont si contradictoires! Mais j’étais trop jeune pour savoir l’aimer."

-the little prince, about his rose, ch.8.

 

…the world is simplified for kings. To them, all men are subjects.

…pour les rois, le monde est très simplifié. Tous les hommes sont des sujets.

-ch.10.

 

…to conceited men, all other men are admirers.

…pour les vaniteux, les autres hommes sont des admirateurs.

-ch.11.

 

"I am drinking," said the tippler, with a lugubrious air.
"Why are you drinking?" demanded the little prince.
"So that I may forget," replied the tippler.
"Forget what?" inquired the little prince, who already was sorry for him.
"Forget that I am ashamed," the tippler confessed, hanging his head.
"Ashamed of what?" insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him.
"Ashamed of drinking!" The tippler brought his speech to an end, and shut himself up in an impregnable silence.
And the little prince went away, puzzled.
"The grown-ups are certainly very, very odd, " he said to himself, as he continued on his journey.

"Je bois," répondit le buveur, d’un air lugubre.
"Pourquoi bois-tu?" lui demanda le petit prince.
"Pour oublier," répondit le buveur.
"Pour oublier quoi?" s’enquit le petit prince qui déjà le plaignait.
"Pour oublier que j’ai honte," avoua le buveur en baissant la tête.
"Honte de quoi?" s’informa le petit prince qui désirait le secourir.
"Honte de boire!" acheva le buveur qui s’enferma définitivement dans le silence.
Et le petit prince s’en fut, perplexe.
"Les grandes personnes sont décidément très très bizarres," se disait-il en lui-même durant le voyage.

-ch.12.

 

"…I have so much to do! I am concerned with matters of consequence. I don't amuse myself with balderdash. Two and five make seven..."

"J’ai tellement de travail ! Je suis sérieux, moi, je ne m’amuse pas à des balivernes ! Deux et cinq sept…"

-The businessman, ch.13.

 

"Good morning. Why have you just put out your lamp?"
"Those are the orders," replied the lamplighter. "Good morning."
"What are the orders?"
"The orders are that I put out my lamp. Good evening."
And he lighted his lamp again.
"But why have you just lighted it again?"
"Those are the orders," replied the lamplighter.
"I do not understand," said the little prince.
"There is nothing to understand," said the lamplighter. "Orders are orders. Good morning."

"Bonjour. Pourquoi viens-tu d’éteindre ton réverbère?"
"C’est la consigne, répondit l’allumeur. Bonjour."
"Qu’est-ce que la consigne?"
"C’est d’éteindre mon réverbère. Bonsoir."
Et il le ralluma.
"Mais pourquoi viens-tu de le rallumer ?"
"C’est la consigne, répondit l’allumeur."
"Je ne comprends pas," dit le petit prince.
"Il n’y a rien à comprendre," dit l’allumeur. "La consigne c’est la consigne. Bonjour."

-ch.14.

 

"To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world..."

"…Tu n’es encore pour moi qu’un petit garçon tout semblable à cent mille petits garçons. Et je n’ai pas besoin de toi. Et tu n’as pas besoin de moi non plus. Je ne suis pour toi qu’un renard semblable à cent mille renards. Mais, si tu m’apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde…"

-the fox, to the little prince, ch.21.

 

"Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more."

"…Les hommes n’ont plus le temps de rien connaître. Ils achètent des choses toutes faites chez les marchands. Mais comme il n’existe point de marchands d’amis, les hommes n’ont plus d’amis."

-the fox, ch.21.

 

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

"On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux."

-the fox, ch.21. [This is often considered the central theme of the book. The care Saint-Exupéry took to construct it is remarkable. According to a 2014 exhibit at New York’s Morgan Library, the author revised this sentence at least 15 times before settling on this wording.]

 

"It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important."

"C’est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante."

-the fox to the little prince, ch.21.

 

"Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox. "But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."

"Les hommes ont oublié cette vérité, dit le renard. Mais tu ne dois pas l’oublier. Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé."

-the fox, ch.21.

 

"Men," said the little prince, "set out on their way in express trains, but they do not know what they are looking for. Then they rush about, and get excited, and turn round and round..."

"Les hommes, dit le petit prince, ils s’enfournent dans les rapides, mais ils ne savent plus ce qu’ils cherchent. Alors ils s’agitent et tournent en rond…"

-ch.25.

 

"The men where you live," said the little prince, "raise five thousand roses in the same garden—and they do not find in it what they are looking for."
"They do not find it," I replied.
"And yet what they are looking for could be found in one single rose, or in a little water."

"Les hommes de chez toi, dit le petit prince, cultivent cinq mille roses dans un même jardin… et ils n’y trouvent pas ce qu’ils cherchent…"
"Ils ne le trouvent pas," répondis-je…
"Et cependant ce qu’ils cherchent pourrait être trouvé dans une seule rose ou un peu d’eau…"

-ch.25.

 

One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed...

On risque de pleurer un peu si l’on s’est laissé apprivoiser…

-ch.25.

 
Back to Section Head

 
 

READ THIS WHEN...

….the complexities and superfluities of life leave you feeling disconnected and off-kilter;

or,

...you want to take comfort in a simple, pleasant, children's story for adults.

 

IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU'D LIKE:

(for the followers of simplicity, beauty and love:)

  • Murasaki Shikibu, Tale of Genji (early 11th century).
  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854).
  • Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country (1948).
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea (1955).

(for those intrigued by this pilot-poet:)

  • Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Night Flight (1931).
  • Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939).
  • Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Flight to Arras (1942).
  • Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands (d.1944).
 
 

FIND THIS BOOK:

Be sure to get a copy that has the author’s own illustrations throughout. I don’t know if any edition exists without them; but if one does, the publisher deserves to be exiled to one of the first six planets mentioned in this book.

Hardcover

The classic translation by Katherine Woods (now out of print but still available)

 
A recent literal translation by Richard Howard, together with an audiobook narrated by Viggo Mortensen

 

Paperback

The Katherine Woods translation

 
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