The Little Prince | Study Guide

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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The Little Prince | Context

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Allegory

The Little Prince has been classified as a fable, a parable, and an allegory. Although at times it takes on the attributes of all three, it is primarily an allegory.

While fables and parables tend to be simple and short, allegories are generally longer. Allegories explore life issues such as isolation in the modern world or the meaning of friendship. They are intended to be thought-provoking. Each character in an allegory represents an idea or viewpoint relating to the theme. For example, in The Little Prince the king is a symbol of self-delusion, or the failure to recognize reality. How the story is interpreted—what it is meant to teach—is for the reader to decide.

The Little Prince slips into the land of fables. Fables examine moral or ethical dilemmas: in short, simple tales featuring animals and plants that speak and are central to the action. The meaning of the story is made absolutely clear with an ending epigraph that begins, "And the moral of the story is ..." Good examples of fables are those by Aesop, such as "The Tortoise and the Hare." With the characters of the talking rose, fox, and snake, The Little Prince takes on some attributes of a fable though it does not explicitly state its moral. The moral is made clear through the fox teaching the Little Prince.

The story also incorporates some qualities of a parable. Parables are similar to fables in length, subject matter, and purpose. Here again the moral of the story is made clear to the reader, though it is not directly stated as in a fable. However, the characters in parables are generally people, and the situations more realistic. The marooned pilot in The Little Prince, who is in danger of dying from thirst, faces a realistic obstacle such as are found in parables.

The Little Prince also embodies many autobiographical elements. Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's life experiences raised for him philosophical questions about life, which he explored in his writing. Among the events that influenced the book were World War II and the fall of France, Saint-Exupéry's life as a pioneer in aviation, and his stormy marriage to writer and artist Consuelo Suncín Sandoval.

The Little Prince in Saint-Exupéry's novella reveals to the pilot the lessons he has learned—the secrets of love and friendship. However, circling back to the fact that this is primarily an allegorical tale, it is up to the reader to decide the greater meaning of these lessons and how they should be applied in the real world.

The Fall of France

Saint-Exupéry was 39 years old when World War II broke out. He had been a pilot for 18 years. Over those years serious flying accidents had taken a toll on him. Yet he volunteered for military service flying reconnaissance (spy) planes. The fall of France would have a profound effect on his life and writing.

Following World War I, French military policy focused on defense. Military leaders especially feared future attacks by Germany. Therefore, along the French-German frontier, a string of fortifications called the Maginot Line were built. However, as extensive as it was, the Maginot Line neglected to cover the French-Belgian border. This was a fatal mistake for France.

The people of France placed full confidence in the ability of the formidable Maginot Line to protect their country. The best military minds apparently never dreamed that German forces would skirt the fortifications and invade through a heavily forested region along the French-German-Belgian border. Relying on a strategy of surprise called blitzkrieg (lightning war), the Germans began their attack on May 10, 1940. The battle for France continued into June, with French and British forces fiercely resisting the German onslaught. But on June 14, Paris was taken by German forces, and by June 22 France had surrendered.

In less than two months, the lives of the people of France were drastically altered because of war. The swiftness of their country's collapse and its Nazi occupation was bewildering. Many patriots, like Saint-Exupéry, were forced to flee the country.

In exile in America, Saint-Exupéry and other French expatriates struggled to understand the dreadful fate of their beloved country, wondering how things could have gone so wrong. Saint-Exupéry agreed with those who believed the fault lay with the French people themselves. They had put too much faith in inflexible, theoretical solutions to real-life problems. This was exemplified by the Maginot Line, which, on paper, was unbreachable. They had overlooked the full realm of possibilities—that is to say, life in the real world—which requires imagination, flexibility, and resourcefulness. They were unprepared to respond effectively to surprise, which is inherent in reality and absent from abstract theory. And in defeat they were forced to engage with life as it is, at a time when they had forgotten how to see its deeper meaning.

In The Little Prince Saint-Exupéry illustrates this danger of disengaging from reality; of exchanging empty, abstract ideas for what is real and meaningful in life. He warns readers of such dangers as counting stars instead of seeing their beauty or of going through each day devoted to duty but missing every sunset.

The author also warns against leaving problems unchecked. Clearly, the seeds of war planted by the Treaty of Versailles had been allowed to sprout and flourish. The world preferred the illusion that peace could be secured by ignoring growing evils. In The Little Prince Saint-Exupéry uses the baobab seeds that threaten tiny Asteroid B-612 to emphasize the need to uproot problems while they are still small.

And finally, Saint-Exupéry addresses the dehumanizing aspect of war, which reduces people to statistics and renders individuals unimportant. This idea is illustrated when the Little Prince discovers a garden of 5,000 roses that makes his own precious rose seem too common to be important. To understand her worth the prince must learn to see his rose with his heart just as humans must learn to see more clearly in order to value one another.

The Age of Flight

When Saint-Exupéry began his flying career in 1921, aviation was still in its infancy, but rapidly growing. Airplanes had improved structurally since the American aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright first successfully demonstrated sustained powered flight in 1903. And during World War I aviation was employed as a tool of war for the first time in history.

The devastation of war hindered train travel in parts of Europe during the early postwar years, and the transport of people and mail by ship remained inefficiently slow. But the skies were wide open. Aircraft designers and businessmen of vision could see the potential for the commercial use of aircraft. In France, plane builder Pierre Latécoère (1883–1943) launched a commercial air service less than two months after World War I ended.

Nevertheless, planes were still primitive by today's standards, with poor records for safety. Pilots were men of skill and daring who willingly pitted themselves and their aircraft against the forces of chance and nature, crossing open seas, unfriendly African deserts, and mysterious South American jungles. They flew without radios or navigation aids. A compass, their eyes, and experience were their only guides. A pilot whose plane was downed by engine failure, if he survived, had no guarantees of being rescued. He had to know how to fix the plane himself, if that were possible.

This was the service that Saint-Exupéry joined in 1924, becoming a pioneer in the field of airmail transport. Along the way he helped to establish routes that linked many far-flung places across the world.

Considering the safety records of planes at the time, it is no wonder Saint-Exupéry suffered several crashes along the way. When his plane went down in the Sahara Desert in 1935, he and his navigator had no hope of repairing the aircraft. With no food or water their chances of survival were slim at best. For four days the two wandered, seeking help. They were tormented by thirst and beset by mirages and hallucinations. But luck was with them, and they were rescued by a passing tribe of Bedouins (nomadic Arab peoples). This experience would find its way into Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince.

Illustrations

While living in New York City, after fleeing France because his life was in danger, Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince and drew all of the illustrations for the novella. Saint-Exupéry's watercolor illustrations are rendered in a naïve style. Although the author-illustrator had studied architecture, his training was limited. Nevertheless, he infuses a great deal of expression in his characters' faces and posture. Color enhances facial features, as in the red nose of the tippler and angry-looking flush over the businessman's jowls. Landscapes and backgrounds, though lacking detail, include those important features mentioned in the text that children would expect to see. Saint-Exupéry's original drawings, rendered in pen and brown ink on onionskin paper and covered in cigarette burns and coffee stains, have been exhibited at the Morgan Library in New York City.

Consuelo Suncín Sandoval, Comtesse de Saint-Exupéry

In 1930 Saint-Exupéry met 29-year-old and twice-widowed Consuelo Suncín Sandoval in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She was an artist and a writer and has been described as petite, beautiful, aristocratic, and flamboyant. Their courtship was passionate and brief. Their marriage became a series of affairs on both sides, followed by threats of divorce, then reconciliation. This marital turbulence provided raw material for The Little Prince, inspiring the character of the vain and demanding—yet fragile—rose.
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