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The Little Prince | Study Guide

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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Antoine de Saint-Exupéry | Biography


Early Years

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (pronounced Sahnt Ex-ZOO-peh-ree) was born into an aristocratic Catholic French family in Lyon, France, on June 29, 1900. To shorten his full name—Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger de Saint-Exupéry—he was nicknamed Tonio by family and close friends. Some friends and fans called him Saint-Ex.

Saint-Exupéry was the third of five children and the oldest son of Jean Martin Louis Marie Marc de Saint-Exupéry and Marie Louise Andrée Boyer de Fonscolombe, Comtesse de Saint-Exupéry. Despite the family's upper-class status they were not well-off. However, following the sudden death of his father in 1904, Saint-Exupéry's mother inherited the Castle of Saint-Maurice-de-Rémens, and the family lived there in the summers. It provided an idyllic, carefree setting for the growing children. In 1909 Saint-Exupéry moved to the town of Le Mans in central France with his mother and brother while his sisters stayed behind in Lyon. Though best known today for its world-famous automobile race, Le Mans at this time was host to other exciting exhibitions: flying demonstrations by aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright (1867–1912) in his Wright Model A, the most advanced incarnation of his flying machine. Three years later, in 1912, future pilot Saint-Exupéry got his first taste of flying when he went for a ride in a French-constructed metal monoplane, a plane with one pair of wings.

For Saint-Exupéry and his younger brother, François, life in Le Mans now included attending Notre-Dame de Sainte-Croix, a Jesuit school. Saint-Exupéry was an indifferent student. In July 1914 France became embroiled in World War I, and a year later the brothers were sent away to study safely in Switzerland. In the fall of 1917, Saint-Exupéry returned to France alone because earlier that year François had died of a fever. In Paris, Saint-Exupéry attended a prestigious college preparatory school before seeking entrance to the French Naval Academy in 1918. However, upon failing the oral entrance exam, he opted to study architecture at the Paris École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts).

Aviator to Author

In 1921 Saint-Exupéry's career as an aviator began. Flying became a passion that would have a profound influence on his writing. Entering the French military service, he began training to fly in June and earned his military aviator's certificate by December. Then in 1923 a crash caused by pilot error left Saint-Exupéry severely injured and put an end to his military service. This crash would not be his last.

Within a few years he began transporting mail by plane part time. By 1926 he had taken on a full-time job flying for the Compagnie Latécoère based in Toulouse. Through his pioneering work in postal aviation, Saint-Exupéry helped establish continuous regular mail transport routes by air over northwest Africa and South America. He also spent a great deal of time in Dakar, Senegal, which lies along the West African edge of the Sahara Desert. Acquiring consent from the local Spanish and Arab authorities, he executed several notable rescues of fellow pilots stranded in the desert. Later, in the 1930s, Saint-Exupéry worked as a test pilot.

In 1931 Saint-Exupéry married Consuelo Suncín Sandoval. Their marriage was tumultuous—with infidelity on both sides—yet sustained by passion. She would become the muse who inspired the fragile, vain flower with a cough, "unique in all the world," and much loved in The Little Prince.

Similarly, Saint-Exupéry found inspiration and raw material for several novels in his adventurous life as a flyer. In 1929 he published his first novel, Southern Mail (Courrier sud). His second novel, Night Flight (Vol de nuit; 1931), earned him high praise and a prestigious French literary prize. These novels capture the intoxication of flight and pay homage to the heroic aviators who first took to the skies in their fragile, primitive flying machines.

Over the years several more serious flying accidents took their toll on Saint-Exupéry. These included a memorable crash in the Sahara Desert in 1935. This became the subject of his 1939 novel Wind, Sand, and Stars (Terre de hommes), and would serve as a backdrop for The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince). Nevertheless, these injuries were ignored. When World War II broke out in September 1939, Saint-Exupéry signed up to fly spy planes for the French military. Then, when France fell to Germany in May 1940, he escaped to Portugal and set sail for the United States.

For three years Saint-Exupéry lived, drew, and wrote in New York City. The author created many of the illustrations for The Little Prince before writing the book, which was published during this time. The Little Prince is Saint-Exupéry's most well-known work. Other publications include Flight to Arras (Pilot de guerre; 1942) and Letter to a Hostage (Lettre à un otage; 1943).

Critical Reception

In 1943 The Little Prince was published in French and English but released only in the United States. Release in France would have to wait until postwar 1945.

Though the book received several positive reviews in America, many reviewers and critics were uncertain just how to classify the work. They could see that while it read like a children's story, it held a deeper meaning for adults. Initial sales of the book were disappointing, and its appearance on the bestseller list was brief.

Nevertheless, over time The Little Prince found its audience and continues to do so. The book has been translated more than any other authored in French. Worldwide, only the Bible has been more translated.

Death and Legacy

Shortly after this last publication, Saint-Exupéry returned to military service. Hitler's Third Reich was weakening, and Saint-Exupéry's squadron was once again flying reconnaissance missions, this time out of North Africa. On July 31, 1944, he took off from an air base in Corsica and disappeared that same day. It would take 54 years before clues to his disappearance were discovered off the coast of Marseilles, France, which included an identity bracelet inscribed with Saint-Exupéry's name and the nearby wreckage of a World War II reconnaissance plane.

Saint-Exupéry is best known for The Little Prince, a children's classic with a message for adults of all ages. Authored in French, it was initially published in America in French and English. Since then it has been translated into more than 270 languages, with nearly two million copies being sold worldwide each year. In addition, the story has been reimagined for film and television, a musical, a ballet, and an opera. It has inspired artists, a specialty store in Paris, a museum in Japan, and a traveling exhibition. There is even an award-winning rose named Le Petit Prince.

The Little Prince retains its popularity today because its life lessons are timeless. It reminds readers to look beneath the surface to find true meaning in life—and then shows them how. It shares the secret to meaningful love and friendship while reminding readers to look at life with wonder.
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