Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Little Prince exposes the ignorance that accompanies an incomplete and narrow-minded perspective. In Chapter IV, for example, when the Turkish astronomer first presents his discovery of Asteroid B-612, he is ignored because he wears traditional Turkish clothing. Years later, he makes the same presentation wearing European clothing and receives resounding acclaim. Because the three-petaled flower described in Chapter XVI has spent its whole life in the desert, it incorrectly reports that Earth contains very few humans and that they are a rootless, drifting people.
Even the protagonists of The Little Prince have their moments of narrow-mindedness. In Chapter XVII, the narrator confesses that his previous description of Earth focused too much on humans. In Chapter XIX, the little prince mistakes the echo of his own voice for that of humans and falsely accuses humans of being too repetitive. Such quick judgments, the story argues, lead to the development of dangerous stereotypes and prejudices. They also prevent the constant questioning and open-mindedness that are important to a well-adjusted and happy life.
For the most part, The Little Prince characterizes narrow-mindedness as a trait of adults. In the very first chapter, the narrator draws a sharp contrast between the respective ways grown-ups and children view the world. He depicts grown-ups as unimaginative, dull, superficial, and stubbornly sure that their limited perspective is the only one possible. He depicts children, on the other hand, as imaginative, open-minded, and aware of and sensitive to the mystery and beauty of the world.
In the story’s opening pages, the narrator explains that grown-ups lack the imagination to see his Drawing Number One, which represents a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, as anything other than a hat. As the story progresses, other examples of the blindness of adults emerge. As the little prince travels from planet to planet, the six adults he encounters proudly reveal their character traits, whose contradictions and shortcomings the little prince then exposes.
The little prince represents the open-mindedness of children. He is a wanderer who restlessly asks questions and is willing to engage the invisible, secret mysteries of the universe. The novel suggests that such inquisitiveness is the key to understanding and to happiness. However, The Little Prince shows that age is not the main factor separating grown-ups from children. The narrator, for example, has aged enough to forget how to draw, but he is still enough of a child to understand and befriend the young, foreign little prince.
As the critic James Higgins points out, each of the novel’s main characters hungers both for adventure (exploration of the outside world) and for introspection (exploration within himself). It is through his encounter with the lost prince in the lonely, isolated desert that the friendless narrator achieves a newfound understanding of the world. But in his story of the little prince’s travels, Saint-Exupéry shows that spiritual growth must also involve active exploration. The narrator and the prince may be stranded in the desert, but they are both explorers who make a point of traveling the world around them. Through a combination of exploring the world and exploring their own feelings, the narrator and the little prince come to understand more clearly their own natures and their places in the world.
The Little Prince teaches that the responsibility demanded by relationships with others leads to a greater understanding and appreciation of one’s responsibilities to the world in general. The story of the prince and his rose is a parable (a story that teaches a lesson) about the nature of real love. The prince’s love for his rose is the driving force behind the novel. The prince leaves his planet because of the rose; the rose permeates the prince’s discussions with the narrator; and eventually, the rose becomes the reason the prince wants to return to his planet. The source of the prince’s love is his sense of responsibility toward his beloved rose. When the fox asks to be tamed, he explains to the little prince that investing oneself in another person makes that person, and everything associated with him or her, more special. The Little Prince shows that what one gives to another is even more important than what that other gives back in return.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
At the heart of The Little Prince is the fox’s bold statement that “[a]nything essential is invisible to the eye.” All the characters the little prince encounters before coming to Earth eagerly and openly explain to him everything about their lives. But the little prince finds that on Earth, all true meanings are hidden. The first character to greet him on Earth is the snake, who speaks only in riddles. In subsequent chapters, the narrator and the little prince frequently describe events as “mysterious” and “secret.” This choice of words is crucial to the book’s message. To describe the mysteries of life as puzzles or questions would imply that answering them is possible. The fact that events on Earth are cast as mysteries suggests that they never can be resolved fully. However, this idea is not as pessimistic as it might seem. The novel asserts that, while many questions in life remain mysteries, exploration of the unknown is what counts, even though it does not leads to definite answers.
The narrator’s illustration of his story emphasizes Saint-Exupéry’s belief that words have limits and that many truths defy verbal explanation. The narrator places drawings into the text at certain points to explain his encounter in the desert, and although his illustrations are simple, they are integral to understanding the novel. Saint-Exupéry defies the convention that stories should be only text and enriches his work by including pictures as well as words.
The drawings also allow the narrator to return to his lost childhood perspectives. He notes that he uses his Drawing Number One to test adults he meets. The drawing is actually of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, but to most adults it looks like a hat. Whether or not a character recognizes the drawing as a hat indicates how closed-minded he is. The narrator notes several times in his story that drawing is very difficult for him because he abandoned it at age six, after finding that adults were unreceptive to his drawings. Therefore, his decision to illustrate his story also indicates his return to the lost innocence of his youth.
Saint-Exupéry’s tale is filled with characters who either should be or have been tamed. The fox explains that taming means “creating ties” with another person so that two people become more special to one another. Simple contact is not enough: the king, the vain man, the drunkard, the businessman, the geographer, and the lamplighter all meet the prince, but are too stuck in their routines to establish proper ties with him. The fox is the first character to explain that in order to be truly connected to another, certain rites and rituals must be observed, and two people must give part of themselves to each other. In fact, the process of taming is usually depicted as being more labor-intensive for the one doing the taming than for the person being tamed. Despite the work and emotional involvement required, taming has obvious benefits. The fox explains that the meaning of the world around him will be enriched because the little prince has tamed him. In contrast, the businessman cannot even remember what the stars he owns are called.
The concept of “serious matters” is raised several times in the novel, and each time, it highlights the difference between the priorities of adults and children. To adults, serious matters are those relating to business and life’s most basic necessities. For example, the businessman who owns all the stars refers to himself as a “serious person,” an obviously ridiculous claim since he has no use for and makes no contribution to his property. Even the narrator expresses an understandably desperate claim that fixing his engine is more serious than listening to the prince’s stories. However, the narrator soon admits that the engine troubles in truth pale in comparison to the little prince’s tears.
Saint-Exupéry clearly sides with children, represented by the little prince, who believe that serious matters are those of the imagination. For the little prince, the most serious matter of all is whether the sheep the narrator has drawn for him will eat his beloved rose. As the story progresses, the narrator’s understands the importance of the little prince’s worry. The narrator responds with compassion to the prince’s concern about the sheep from the beginning, setting his tools aside and rushing to comfort the prince in Chapter VII, when the little prince cries out that the question of whether his sheep eats his rose is much more important than the narrator’s plane. However, in his final comment, the narrator says that the question of the sheep and the flower is so important that it has changed his view of the world, revealing that he has understood the question’s importance himself.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
As a pilot, the narrator attaches importance to stars because he depends upon them for navigation. After the narrator meets the little prince, he finds the stars hold new meaning for him because he knows that the prince lives among them. The stars in The Little Prince also symbolize the far-off mystery of the heavens, the immensity of the universe, and at the end, the loneliness of the narrator’s life. The narrator’s final drawing, which accompanies his lament of his loneliness, is of a single star hovering over the desert landscape in which the prince fell. In this one image, the presence of the star both highlights the prince’s absence and suggests his lingering presence. The star is also a reminder of the large and densely populated universe beyond Earth that the prince recounted visiting.
The novel is set in the Sahara Desert, a barren place ready to be shaped by experience. The desert is also a hostile space that contains no water and a deadly serpent. In this capacity, the desert symbolizes the narrator’s mind. Made barren by grown-up ideas, the narrator’s mind slowly expands under the guidance of the little prince in the same way that the deadly desert slowly transforms itself into a place of learning and, once the well appears, refreshment.
The trains that appear in Chapter XXII represent the futile efforts we make to better our lot. The train rides are rushed voyages that never result in happiness because, as the switchman informs the prince, people are never happy where they are. Also, the trains rush at each other from opposite directions, suggesting that the efforts grown-ups make are contradictory and purposeless. Again, it is children who grasp the truth. They see that the journey is more important than the destination and press their faces hungrily against the windows as they ride, taking in the scenery.
By the story’s end, the drinking of water emerges as a clear symbol of spiritual fulfillment. The narrator’s concerns about running out of water after he first crashes into the desert mirror his complaint that he has grown old. Later, when he and the prince find the mysterious well, the water the narrator drinks reminds him of Christmas festivities. His thoughts of Christmas ceremonies suggest that his spirit, and not his body, is what truly thirsts. The salesclerk sells a thirst-quenching pill, but the little prince reveals that there are no true substitutes for real spiritual food. The pill may quench one’s desires, but it has little to offer in the way of real nourishment. The prince declares that he would use the minutes saved by the pill for getting a cool drink of water, the only real spiritual fulfillment for which one can hope.