The little prince then meets a salesclerk who is selling pills invented to quench thirst. The merchant explains that taking the pills means a person never has to drink anything, which can save as many as fifty-three minutes a day. The prince replies that if he had an extra fifty-three minutes, he would spend them by walking very slowly toward a cold fountain.
The episode with the fox requires a note on Saint-Exupéry’s use of the verb “tame.” In English, this word connotes domestication and subservience. But the French have two verbs that mean “to tame.” One, “domestiquer,” does, in fact, mean to make a wild animal subservient and submissive. The Little Prince, however, uses the verb “apprivoiser,” which implies a more reciprocal and loving connection. The distinction between these two words is important, since the original French word does not have the connotations of mastery and domination that unfortunately accompany the English translation.
The fox’s disclosure of his secret neatly sums up a moral that runs through the novel: that which is secret is also what is most important. Beginning with the narrator’s insistence that the hidden image in Drawing Number One is the most important one, the significance of secrecy is hinted at throughout The Little Prince, but the fox’s words make it explicit. In 1939, Saint-Exupéry wrote, “Don’t you understand that somewhere along the way we have gone astray? . . . we lack something essential, which we find it difficult to describe. We feel less human; somewhere we have lost our mysterious prerogatives.” This “something essential,” and these “mysterious prerogatives” are the invisible secrets that the fox urges the prince to value.
The fox’s lessons must be learned rather than taught, and when the fox reveals his secret, he really only confirms what the prince has already learned for himself in his explorations. The little prince’s journey allows him to explore himself as well as the world around him, but the fox shows that even the hardiest of explorers need validation. The fox is a mentor figure who points out the important things the prince has learned and helps him clear his thoughts. When the fox explains what it means to be tamed, the prince realizes that he has already been tamed by his rose, even though he didn’t know that the process had a name. The fox urges the prince to revisit the rose garden, but the prince learns the second part of the fox’s secret—that the time he has devoted to his rose is what makes her unique—on his own.
After stressing in Chapter XXI that devoting time to one another is what creates the special bonds between different beings, The Little Prince offers two examples of time poorly spent, where technology speeds people along at the expense of things that have genuine value. The trains race by at lightning speed, but only the children are able to appreciate what is worthwhile about the trip. The switchman points out that all their moving does not make the grown-ups any happier. The salesclerk with his water pills also emphasizes time-saving, telling the prince that his pills can save people up to fifty-three minutes a day. The little prince’s retort that these extra minutes would best be put to use walking slowly toward a cool fountain undermines the purpose of the salesman’s thirst-quenching product.