Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince in New York as World War II raged in Europe, and after his homeland had been captured by the Nazis. Are there any symbols that are particularly evocative of war and exile?
Although it is impossible to know what was in the author’s mind as he wrote The Little Prince, several aspects of the novel can be read as commentary on the painful World War II period. Most notably, the baobab trees can be read as a warning of what happens when a close eye is not kept on things that are dangerous. The story in Chapter IV of a Turkish astronomer whose work is initially dismissed because of his ethnic costumes addresses the problems of racial prejudice and discrimination.
Nonetheless, the story’s vagueness opens it up to a number of readings, and not everything relates to war. Many of the ideas that Saint-Exupéry discusses in the work—modern civilization’s misplaced priorities and its lack of spirituality, for example—are common literary themes, although it is rare to find them discussed with such frankness. Saint-Exupéry’s complaints about the general degeneracy of the human condition apply to any era and can be understood without any knowledge of the historical context of The Little Prince.
What differentiates adults from children in The Little Prince? Is the distinction simply one of age, or is it based on something else?
Throughout The Little Prince, Saint-Exupéry portrays children as innocent and truthful and adults as corrupt and dull. As the little prince journeys from one planet to another, he finds grown-ups such as the businessman and the geographer to lack creativity and imagination. They can only quantify the world in the dullest of terms. The little prince, on the other hand, acknowledges that the most important qualities in life are invisible and mysterious. He constantly asks questions instead of giving answers, and the search for spiritual truth seems to be his sole priority. Above all, he understands that relationships are the most important thing in life and that no one needs an entire well or rose garden when a single drop of water or a single flower will do.
Unlike most adults, the little prince knows what he is looking for and exactly how much of it he needs. The narrator also recognizes the validity of the childhood perspective, even though he occasionally lapses into a grown-up mind-set. By the end of the story, however, the narrator has regained some of his childhood passion, demonstrating that the clear viewpoint of children is not limited by age.
When the narrator and the prince search for a well, the narrator appears finally to understand the lessons that the prince has related to him. What does this say about the morals of the novel?
One of the story’s themes is that true understanding cannot be achieved without real-world experience. The events that happen to the narrator in the desert exemplify this theme. Even though the narrator learns much from listening to the prince’s story, it’s evident that learning the prince’s lessons through firsthand experience gives them a clarity that would not be attained otherwise. The narrator finds the well on his own—his guide, the prince, falls asleep and needs to be carried all night. In the end, the prince’s story provides only a blueprint to the narrator about how much he has been missing. To obtain the fulfillment he seeks, he must act on his own. By extension, Saint-Exupéry teaches us that we must ourselves act to learn the lessons in his story, although this moral is never made explicitly clear.