The Little Prince | Study Guide

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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The Little Prince | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Chapters 1–4

When the narrator is six years old, he is inspired to draw what looks to grown-ups like a hat. It is, in fact, a boa constrictor that swallowed an elephant. A second drawing explaining this to the grown-ups is no help to them. They advise him to devote himself to more worthwhile endeavors, like learning geography. Thus discouraged, the narrator gives up his dream of being a painter to become a pilot and a seemingly sensible person. But he leads a lonely life.

One day while flying alone over the Sahara Desert, his engine breaks down. The narrator finds himself marooned far from human habitation. But to his surprise he is awakened the next morning by a small voice requesting, "Please ... draw me a sheep." The voice belongs to a little boy.

Reluctantly, the narrator tries, but each attempt is rejected by the child. At last he draws a box and explains that the sheep is inside. Pleased—for this is exactly what was wanted—the child peers into the box and announces the sheep inside has gone to sleep.

This is how the narrator meets the Little Prince. He learns that the prince comes from a tiny alien planet "no bigger than a house." The narrator surmises this must be the little-known Asteroid B-612, spotted once by a Turkish astronomer in 1909. He is pleased to provide this information, knowing that grown-ups set great store by numbers and will look upon it as proof that the Little Prince exists. The narrator reflects on the difficulty of communicating wonder to adults. Personally, he would have preferred to tell the story as a fairy tale about a Little Prince who was enchanting, who laughed, and who wanted a sheep and needed a friend.

Chapters 5–9

Over the next few days the narrator learns more about the Little Prince's planet, why he left it, and where his journey has taken him. He learns that the prince's planet is infested with baobab trees, which must be pulled out when they are small. Otherwise, they will spread. The Little Prince is hoping his new sheep will eat the baobab shoots. He impresses on the narrator the dangerous nature of the baobabs, how—left unchecked—they would cover the planet, and encourages him to make a drawing to show just how destructive they can be when left to grow. Driven by a sense of urgency, the narrator obliges and presents it to the reader with the warning words, "Children. Beware of the baobabs!"

The narrator also learns that the Little Prince's planet is so small that to witness a sunset, he has only to move his chair a little. The prince is very fond of sunsets and tells the narrator that, one day, he watched the sun set 44 times. He then adds that "when one is so terribly sad, one loves sunset."

By the fifth day things are looking very grim for the narrator. His plane is more damaged than he had thought, and his water is running out quickly. Yet the Little Prince rejects that these are "serious matters," as the narrator labels them. He pointedly states, "You talk just like grown-ups." For the Little Prince what is important is a flower "unique in the world" that lives on his planet; a flower that has only four thorns and needs protection. And vulnerable to the sheep, his flower could be lost to him.

In this way the narrator learns that the Little Prince has nurtured a fragile flower of great beauty who is vain, demanding, and has a chronic, delicate cough. She mysteriously appeared on his planet, and he cares for her deeply. But she is difficult and demanding and fails to return his affection, which leaves him feeling lonely and sad. She is the reason he leaves Asteroid B-612 to search among the stars for friendship.

The narrator now jumps back in time to relate the prince's travels before meeting him in the Sahara. Before having left his planet with a flock of migrant birds, the Little Prince had tidied things up, swept out the volcanoes, pulled up the last baobab shoot, and watered his flower. Out of pride, she feigned indifference to his departure, but she was crying.

Chapters 10–15

Continuing in flashback, the narrator tells how the Little Prince proceeded to visit six different planets. On the first he found an old king who insisted that he ruled the universe. Yet he sat alone on a planet so small that his ermine robes nearly covered it, and he issued ridiculous orders, such as "I order you to yawn." The king arrogantly believed that the Little Prince must be his subject since, to kings, all men are automatically subjects. Desperate to hang on to the only subject he had, the king made the Little Prince an ambassador as the child departed the planet.

On the second planet the Little Prince found a conceited man who begged to be admired. He was alone on his planet and craved the praise of the little stranger. The prince quickly learned that the man was incapable of hearing anything other than praise. As he was leaving, the Little Prince wondered why the attention from a stranger meant so much to the conceited man.

A drunkard inhabited the next tiny planet the prince visited. Sad and lonely, he drank to forget his shame, which was the drinking itself.

On the fourth planet the Little Prince found a businessman busily counting and recounting the stars. By writing the number on a piece of paper and locking the paper away in a drawer, he believed he owned all the stars he counted, though he barely recalled the name for these glittering, celestial objects. Amassing wealth was the point of his business. The prince observed that stars could not care whether they are owned since the businessman was of no use to them and they were of no practical use to him.

A lamplighter occupied the fifth little planet. His job was to light and extinguish his planet's single lamp as the time of day demanded. Unfortunately, over time the rotation of the planet has sped up, so that day passes into night and vice versa in about a minute. Though exhausted, the lamplighter doggedly kept to his task because no one had revised his orders and he was devoted to duty. The prince left the planet somewhat reluctantly because of the swift procession of sunsets, which he enjoyed.

The final planet was quite large compared to the others. It was inhabited by an old gentleman who said he was a geographer. However, he had created no maps because his planet had no explorers who could bring him information about rivers, mountains, cities, and so on. To leave his office and go exploring on his own was unthinkable. Still, the Little Prince learned something valuable from the geographer: the concept of eternal versus ephemeral things. For the first time the prince felt regret at having left his flower alone on his planet. She is ephemeral and thus "in danger of early disappearance."

Chapters 16–20

For a moment the narrator speaks to the reader and offers a description of Earth in terms the Little Prince would understand. Among the nearly two billion grown-ups, there are "111 kings ... 7,000 geographers, 900,000 businessmen, 7,500,000 drunkards, and 311,000,000 conceited individuals." Because Earth is so big, nearly a half million lamplighters were needed, before electric lamps, to light the lamps on all six continents. From a distance it was quite a sight as lamps were lit and light spread across the lands.

The narrator then takes care to clarify that, in spite of all the lamplighters needed, the space occupied by people on Earth is really quite small. In fact, should the two billion inhabitants gather for a meeting, they "could be piled up on a tiny islet in the Pacific." They are not as important as they think.

This is why—the narrator explains, returning to the flashback—when the Little Prince arrived on Earth, he saw no people. The first living creature he met was a snake who explained that the child had fallen into an uninhabited desert in Africa. Straight overhead in the sky the Little Prince's star twinkled. Although unfamiliar with snakes, the Little Prince soon learned that this one was more powerful than a king. The venom in its bite will send its victim "back to the earth from which they came." The snake told the prince that, should he become homesick, it would help him go home.

The Little Prince crossed the desert in search of men. He met a plain flower who observed that it is difficult to find men because they have no roots and are easily blown around by the wind. Next, he climbed a high mountain and encountered an echo. Unfamiliar with echoes, he thought that the people of Earth lacked imagination and were only able to repeat what was said to them.

The Little Prince finally found a road to follow. It led him to a garden full of roses, all of which resembled his flower. He realized that his flower is not unique in the universe, but common: one of thousands. Overcome with sadness and a sense of loss, he lay down in the grass and cried.

Chapters 21–23

At this moment a fox appeared, sitting under an apple tree. He greeted the Little Prince but refused his invitation to play. "I cannot play with you," the fox explained. "I am not tame."

The prince learned that to tame something means "to establish ties." If the prince had tamed the fox, he would have become unique to the fox. The sound of the prince's step would call the fox from his burrow. The golden color of the wheat fields would remind him of the prince and his golden hair. In turn the fox would become unique to the prince, unlike any other fox. They would need and understand each other. "One can only understand what one tames," explains the fox.

The prince agreed to tame the fox, but then it was time for him move on. The fox encouraged him to go back and look at the roses. He would see that his rose is indeed unique because he has cared for her; he has tamed her, and she has tamed him. Among all the roses in the universe, she is his rose.

As a gift before he left, the fox shared an important secret with the prince: "It is only with one's heart that one can see clearly," he said, and explained that the eye cannot see what is essential. The fox added a word of caution, "For what you have tamed, you become responsible forever." The Little Prince understood that he was responsible for his rose.

The prince continued his travels on Earth, next encountering a railway signalman. The signalman's trains carried passengers by the thousands, endlessly shuttling them back and forth in pursuit of nothing. Only the children on the train pressed their faces to the windows and seemed to enjoy the journey.

The Little Prince next met a merchant selling pills that quenched thirst. With no more time wasted drinking water, the user would save 53 minutes a week. The prince observed that he would spend that time walking "very slowly towards a spring of fresh water."

Chapters 24–27

Returning to the narrative present, the narrator remarks how this talk of water is discouraging. Eight days have passed since his plane crashed. He is out of water and his engine is still broken. But the Little Prince appears both naïvely hopeful and unconcerned about the problem—though he says, "I too am thirsty." He then suggests they go find a well.

Considering the immensity of the desert, the idea seems absurd. Nevertheless, the narrator agrees to the plan. They walk for hours. Along the way the prince remarks, "Water may also be good for the heart." He later adds that the desert is beautiful because somewhere it hides a well. This unseen treasure is the source of its beauty.

During the night the Little Prince falls asleep, and the narrator must carry the child as he continues the search. Looking down at the boy in his arms, he realizes he has come to love the prince and wishes to protect him.

Then as day breaks, he discovers a well.

Noting that it is unlike any other Saharan well, the narrator draws water, and the Little Prince tells him, "I am thirsty for this water." In a flash of insight the narrator understands that it is more than simple water the prince was thirsting for. He was thirsting for the friend who walked with him through the desert beneath the beauty of the stars; he was thirsting for the song of the rusty pulley as the water was raised, and he was thirsting for the strength of a friend who helped him to drink. This water quenches his thirst, but it is also "good for the heart."

Now the Little Prince reminds the narrator that he once promised to draw a muzzle for his sheep to prevent the sheep from accidentally eating the rose on his planet. The child then reveals that the next day marks the anniversary of his descent to Earth, when he landed very near to this place. Without further explanation he sends the narrator back to his plane to finish repairs and instructs him to return the next evening.

Returning as instructed, his plane successfully repaired, the narrator is surprised to see the Little Prince sitting on top of a ruined stone wall and talking to someone. Drawing closer, he sees that the someone is a deadly snake. But before he can reach the prince, the snake has slipped away into the sand.

The narrator soon learns that the Little Prince is going home to his planet. Later that evening he will meet the snake, who has promised to help him. The narrator is deeply saddened by this news.

To comfort his friend, the Little Prince reminds him of what they have shared. He describes how the narrator, when looking at the stars, will now remember that the Little Prince lives on one of them. It will make all the stars special and his friends. And he will remember the Little Prince's laughter, so it will be as if all the stars are laughing. In time he will be comforted by this and be glad he met the Little Prince.

For his part, the Little Prince explains that at night, he will look at the stars and remember the sweetness of the water given to him by his friend. "All the stars will be wells with rusty pulleys. All the stars will pour me some water to drink."

Moments later, the Little Prince steps away from the narrator. There is a flash of yellow near his ankle. Soundlessly, the Little Prince falls to the sand.

Since that event, six years have passed. The narrator is finally able to tell the story. He reveals that the body of the Little Prince disappeared, so he can only hope that the prince made it back to his planet. The narrator listens to the stars and seems to hear the bell-like laughter of his friend. Now looking at the sky will never be the same, knowing that somewhere "a sheep which we never have seen may or may not have eaten a flower."

In a final word, the narrator asks the reader to study his last drawing carefully. It is the place where the Little Prince was last seen on Earth. He pleads for any reader who may spot the child one day, while traveling in Africa, to write quickly "to tell me that he has come back."

Analysis

The Structure

On the surface The Little Prince is a simple tale of a small, interstellar wanderer in search of friendship and truth, and about the man he befriends, who has lost his way on the road to growing up. Readers can learn the ways of friendship and love, and how to compassionately see with the heart. But on a deeper level Antoine de Saint-Exupéry presents an allegory for adults inspired by the times in which he lived and his own life experiences. In it, he explores various aspects of human nature, the origins of conflict, and the seeds of war. In structure it is a problem-solution tale. The first half sets up what has gone wrong, what humanity has forgotten or never learned, and why this is important. The second presents a solution and where it can be found.

The Dedication

The book's dedication foreshadows what is in store for the reader. It asks the children to be patient with the author for dedicating the book to a grown-up—Leon Werth, Saint-Exupéry's best friend. This prepares readers for a story meant for both children and adults. The story, more accurately, is meant for all grown-ups who were once children since the author intends to reach and inspire what remains childlike in his adult readers.

The author's reference to his friend being cold and hungry in France grounds the tale in the loss and despair of the current time period, which is during World War II. The author tells the reader his friend needs cheering up. Saint-Exupéry intended to do just that, for all his readers.

Setting the Scene

The narrator introduces himself as a child who reluctantly but inevitably grew up. He has closed the door on childish dreams and become a sensible adult. But the imagination and creativity of the child he was haunts him. He cannot forget his drawing—constantly misinterpreted by adults—of a boa constrictor with an elephant inside, and he constantly seeks someone—a friend—who can see it too. The loneliness that permeates his life and the strain of it find a metaphor in the breakdown of his plane and location of his crash. "Something broke down in my engine," he writes, and he lands in a desert, completely cut off from other humans. This theme of isolation will be repeated as the story unfolds.

With this event the author introduces the problems of the modern world—a world at war. As he sees it, people have lost their way and are isolated from one another. They have forgotten what is truly important in life, and problems have been allowed to grow unchecked.

Enter the Little Prince. He shares many characteristics with the narrator/pilot. This young, intergalactic wanderer has fallen from the sky. He is far from home and suffers loneliness. He is looking for a friend. In his last days on Earth he will thirst for more than water, much like the narrator, who unknowingly has been thirsting for more than water much of his life.

The narrator's response to the Little Prince's request to draw him a sheep is critical. It stirs imagination in the man, imagination that has been asleep since he was six years old. His final drawing (a box with a sheep hidden inside) is as clever and imaginative as his boa constrictor with an elephant hidden inside. The six-year-old child is waking up. Now it is possible for the narrator to believe in a Little Prince who has fallen from the stars and lives on a tiny planet with a flower unlike any other in the universe. After all, as the man says, "When you want a sheep, it proves you exist."

Imagination is key in the exploration of new ideas. Rigid, unimaginative minds have little success in this endeavor. The Little Prince underscores this notion when he says that on his planet, "Straight ahead of oneself, one cannot go very far." He was ready, though sad, to leave Asteroid B-612 to explore and find a cure for his loneliness. In a similar fashion, the narrator is now prepared to detour from his grown-up path to make a friend and recapture the wonder of childhood.

Problems of the Modern World

As the narrator learns more about the Little Prince, his planet, the rose, and his journey, the unfolding tale delves into the roots of misunderstandings, conflict, sadness, and isolation in the modern world. First touched upon are misunderstandings based on prejudgment of others as is epitomized by the Turkish astronomer. Only when the man looks like everyone else is he trusted and taken seriously as a scientist.

Next come the baobab seeds that infest Asteroid B-612. As the prince explains, if left untended, they will sprout, grow, spread their roots, and eventually destroy his planet. The baobabs are like problems among people and nations. When left untended, they grow, eventually take over, and cannot be stopped as they tear apart the planet.

In Chapter 6 the Little Prince highlights sunsets as a source of happiness when he is sad. Here the story calls attention to life's joyful moments of enjoying natural beauty, which should not be overlooked in the grown-up pursuit of "serious matters."

In the next chapter the prince reveals the source of his sadness: lack of affection from a lovely flower that grows only on his planet. However, he admits that a misunderstanding was the cause of his unhappiness. At this point Saint-Exupéry's personal relationship with his wife, Consuelo Suncín Sandoval, inspires and colors the story. The conflict that develops between the prince and his flower illustrates how misunderstandings lead to feelings of sadness and loneliness. The text hints that there are life lessons the author has learned and through his Little Prince intends to share. The prince says, "At the time, I was unable to understand anything! ... I was too young to know how to love her."

Next, the prince encounters the peculiar occupants of six planets. These vignettes explore ways in which grown-ups become obsessed with the absurd and lose sight of what's important. The self-deluded king is convinced he is a monarch who wields absolute authority. Yet he lives utterly alone on his planet. The conceited man has made himself the lonely object of unearned admiration. The friendless drunkard defines himself by his drunkenness. Then he drinks to forget. He is followed by the greedy businessman consumed by "serious matters," the lazy but duty-bound lamplighter, and the unambitious geographer. Each in his way illustrates how people pointlessly bind themselves to a job or function. They become isolated and lonely; trapped in an existence empty of meaning. Absurdly, the function becomes their reason for being. They cease to see or engage with life as it really is.

By the time the Little Prince drops down to Earth, he has seen and learned a great deal. Clearly grown-ups can be unwise. This does not prepare him, however, for the shock of learning that the flower he left back on Asteroid B-612 is a common rose, one of thousands. He does not realize that he has been using the wrong measure for judging his rose. He has been focused on the wrong things and misunderstandings have occurred.

The Secrets to a Solution

The introduction of the fox ushers in the solution phase of the story. It is significant that the fox is seated under an apple tree. In Greek mythology apples are a classic symbol of wisdom. To the Little Prince the fox becomes a mentor. He teaches the prince the beauty of being "tamed" by bonds of love that cannot be seen, and how those bound by love are special to each other. He shares with him the secret of seeing with the heart, to see beyond outward appearances, to perceive what is essential. He also teaches the prince that he is responsible for whomever he has tamed.

The wisdom of the fox helps the Little Prince see his rose anew. He discovers that she is no less wonderful because there are others like her. Because he loves her and has cared for her, she is unique. In fact, as the fox tells him, it is the time he has "wasted" on the rose that makes her so important. She is his rose. And now he is responsible for her.

The fox's wise counsel contrasts sharply with what the Little Prince has witnessed on the other planets. It offers a remedy for isolation, loneliness, misunderstandings, and conflict. It is a recipe for friendship and love.

This wisdom the Little Prince passes on to the narrator through the stories of his journey. However, the narrator has yet to really understand. He is still consumed with "serious matters" like fixing his plane and not dying of thirst. The Little Prince gently prods him with the story of the railway signalman. In this vignette the Little Prince describes express trains full of people rushing to and fro in mindless pursuit of nothing. Only children press their faces to the windows with the expectation that the journey may hold surprises. They live in the moment and can still wonder at the world. The prince seems to be reminding the narrator to be childlike, open to possibilities. The journey is not over yet.

The last vignette concerns the merchant who sells time-saving pills that quench thirst without water. But there is more to a drink of water than its function, and this pill eliminates the sensory joy in the act of satisfying thirst. However, the narrator initially misses the point of the story. It simply reminds him that his water is gone. But it also prepares him for the final secret the Little Prince has to share.

At this moment the narrator sees water only as a wet substance that quenches thirst. However, the Little Prince seems to have more in mind than simple water when he suggests that they go find a well. The narrator notes the prince has never been hungry or thirsty, yet he says, "I too am thirsty." Then later he adds, "Water may also be good for the heart."

Along the way the prince points out that the desert's secret beauty lies in the fact that "it hides a well, somewhere." As with the true beauty of his rose, the desert's most essential quality is hidden beneath the surface, invisible to the eye. The prince affirms that this principle is true of all things, "be it a house, the stars, or the desert."

Later that night the narrator must carry the Little Prince until the well is found, significantly, at the dawn of a new day. And when he finds the well, he draws up the water and helps the child drink. As he realizes, each selfless act adds spiritual nourishment to that sip of water. It enriches the substance so that now it both quenches the prince's bodily thirst and satisfies his heart, which thirsts for friendship and love. It represents the invisible but essential ingredient in all acts of kindness: nourishment for the soul.

Now the lessons have been shared, and it's time for the Little Prince to go home. The narrator now learns that love has its dangers. "One runs the risk of crying a bit," he tells the reader, "if one allows oneself to be tamed." The fox could have told him this. Yet the alternative is loneliness and a kind of spiritual stupor in which a person passes through life untouched and unchanged by the world. But if that person stops long enough to see with his heart, the world is transformed and becomes new again.

Six years later, the narrator has not forgotten the Little Prince or his lessons. He looks up at the stars and hears laughter like "five hundred million little bells." He can see with his heart the tiny planet with its flower, sheep, and three volcanoes.

The poet William Wordsworth once wrote, "The child is the father of the man." In other words, the experiences that shape the child will profoundly influence the adult that child will become. Saint-Exupéry seems to take this one step further, reminding readers not to forget the child they were as they rush toward—and through—adulthood. As he states in the dedication to this book, "All grown-ups were once children ... but only a few of them remember it."

He tells readers that, while growing up is inevitable, it's important not to forget how to keep their eyes open to the wonder and possibilities of life. The key here is imagination. Though people must work, they must not define their lives and themselves by the job. They must be vigilant and "Beware the baobabs!" And finally, they must look beyond outward appearances to see what is essential in people around them and in life, and to care responsibly for whomever they have tamed.

The Little Prince Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 At age six the narrator's artistic spirit is crushed.

Rising Action

2 He becomes a lonely pilot who one day crashes in the Sahara.

3 The second day in the desert, he meets the Little Prince.

4 The prince tells the pilot about his home, Asteroid B-612.

5 He tells how he left home to seek a cure for his sadness.

6 He relates his journey to six planets and what he observed.

7 He shares what he's seen and learned while visiting Earth.

8 On the eighth day the pilot's supply of water gives out.

9 The prince and the pilot set out in search of a desert well.

10 Incredibly, at daybreak they find one and drink their fill.

Climax

11 Their physical and spiritual thirst is quenched at last.

Falling Action

12 The Little Prince reveals it is time for him to go home.

13 He directs the pilot to finish repairing his plane.

14 Bitten by a snake—as planned—he dies; his body disappears.

Resolution

15 Six years later the pilot writes down this adventure.

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