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The Little Prince | Study Guide

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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The Little Prince | Themes


The Spiritual Quest for Meaning

There are two spiritual quests for meaning in The Little Prince that converge in the Sahara Desert. First is the narrator's quest. He is a reluctant member of the grown-up world and, as such, feels lost and alone, with no one to talk to who understands him. Forced to give up his childhood dream of being an artist, he now must deal with "serious matters." He has turned away from things that are not practical, like seeing the world with the heart and welcoming all its possibilities. Yet practical things add no meaning to his life and leave him feeling lonely. The small child inside him who once drew a boa constrictor that swallowed an elephant continues to look for a friend who will see his drawing and understand.

The second quest is that of the Little Prince who is seeking truth and a cure for loneliness. He leaves his tiny planet after a misunderstanding with his beautiful but aloof, unappreciative flower. His search leads him to six other planets where he finds examples of the mindless pursuits and pointless obsessions of grown-ups that rob life of meaning. However, this leads him no closer to discovering what brings it meaning.

On Earth the Little Prince finds an answer in the wisdom of the fox. He learns about the nature of friendship and how to see clearly with the heart. In turn he shares this wisdom with the narrator, whom he finds stranded in the desert—notably the same desert where the prince himself first landed. At this point their individual quests are joined. As the reader may have noticed, their personal stories are not so different. Both are travelers who "fell" from the sky. Both are marooned in the desert and want to get back home. Both are lonely. The prince's travels have been driven by his search for a friend who will give his life meaning, while the narrator's travels have been a substitute for meaning that was lost. Both travelers suffer thirst that mere water cannot quench. It is a spiritual thirst.

In the last step in their quest, the prince and the narrator walk through the desert in search of a well. For the narrator it is an act of faith, while the Little Prince is certain the well exists. "What makes the desert so beautiful," he says, "is that it hides a well, somewhere." But whether they find the well or not seems less important to the prince than the fact that he has found a friend to walk with him. "It is good to have had a friend," he says, "even if one is going to die." That friendship has added meaning to his life.

The narrator discovers the well at daybreak. He has been carrying the weary prince for much of the night and gives him the first drink. The water pulled up from the well is cool and sweet, but the narrator perceives it is more than just water. It is nourishment for the soul "born from the walk under the stars, the singing of the pulley and the effort of my arms." It is a gift for the heart, shared between friends.

With this, their quest is over. A cure for loneliness has been found. The importance of "serious matters" has been put in its proper perspective. Life has gained a truer and deeper meaning. The Little Prince can return to his planet and his flower, and the narrator can return to his homeland. Both are wiser and know that somewhere among the stars they have a friend.

The Dual Nature of Friendship

Early in the tale the Little Prince confides to the narrator that the misunderstanding with his flower could have been avoided. He should never have listened to her but should just have taken pleasure from her presence, enjoyed how she perfumed his planet. "I was too young to know how to love her," he explains. The unfolding story of the prince's travels reveals how this changes as he learns the dual nature of friendship.

The Little Prince goes off in search of a friend as a cure for loneliness, but first he must learn what friendship means. On the other planets he visits, he finds only lonely people obsessed with trivial things and too busy to be a friend. They lead empty lives.

Then the Little Prince reaches Earth. At first he is dismayed to discover that his flower, which seemed so important, is nothing more than a common rose among thousands. He suspects he has wasted his time and affection on something unworthy. "That doesn't make me a very great prince," he says, and his life suddenly feels as empty as all the other lives he has witnessed.

By good fortune he meets the fox, whose wise counsel alters his perspective. First, the fox teaches the Little Prince what friendship means. As he terms it, it means being tamed, or establishing ties. These ties are important because those who are tamed—bound by friendship—are unique to one another and need one another. This is love.

From this new perspective the prince sees that he has tamed his rose, and she has tamed him. This renders her unlike any other rose and not common at all. The time the prince has lavished on her has made her special—his rose. Because none of the other roses have been tamed, they are just flowers; nothing more.

The fox also teaches the Little Prince that friendship carries responsibility. It is not enough to have tamed his rose. "For what you have tamed," the fox tells him, "you become responsible forever." In other words, the Little Prince is accountable for the well-being of his rose. The fox further explains, "Men have forgotten this truth." This indictment is supported by the behavior of the grown-ups the Little Prince has met so far: they care for no one but themselves.

This dual nature of friendship—love and responsibility—is expressed with a touch more realism in the relationship between the Little Prince and the narrator. By the time the Little Prince is ready to go home, the narrator has come to love the child and wishes only to protect him. He has been tamed. The prince, in turn, recognizing the responsibility he has to his new friend, gives him the gift of his laughter so that he need never feel alone.

The fox and the narrator learn the dangers of friendship when the Little Prince must go away. "Oh! ... I shall cry," says the fox. But memories of the child have enriched their lives and made their world a better, less lonely place.

Limitations of the Grown-Up World

In The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry explores the strange blindness of grown-ups to the truth and beauty of the world. These are the essential qualities beneath outward appearances, or as the fox describes them, the qualities visible only to the heart. As the Little Prince journeys to different planets, he encounters grown-ups very busy with "matters of consequence"—real jobs, in their view. Yet all the while they are overlooking the true wonders of life. Their imagination has atrophied, and their focus has narrowed to empty pursuits, such as counting stars in order to own them, or endlessly lighting and extinguishing lamps because those are the orders. They see only the job or routine right in front of them. Their eyes are closed to life's wonder, their minds to life's possibilities.

The narrator in The Little Prince makes it clear that grown-ups in general suffer from withered imagination. He tells the reader in Chapter 4 that he would have liked to start his story like a fairy tale: "Once upon a time there was a Little Prince who lived on a planet scarcely bigger than himself and who had need of a friend." But he knows that grown-ups reading the book would fail to take it seriously if he had; they would not believe in the Little Prince. For grown-ups only facts and figures would be proof, like the number of the Little Prince's planet, Asteroid B-612. Tell them the Little Prince was enchanting, with a laugh like little bells, and that he wanted a sheep to eat baobabs, they would not believe he exists. They would be unable to imagine it.

Saint-Exupéry does not suggest that growing up is the problem. It is inevitable and necessary. But the condition could be improved if grown-ups remember they were once children and do not forget how to see with the heart and recognize what is truly important.

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