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Born in Lyons, France, in 1900, Antoine
de Saint-Exupéry considered himself a pilot above all else. For twenty
years, he flew everything from cartography missions to commercial
airlines, and flying occupied a significant place in his philosophical
essays and fantasy writings. The theme of aviation was often Saint-Exupéry’s
launching point for more abstract discussions on issues like the
search for wisdom and the meaning of life.
Saint-Exupéry began writing The Little Prince during
World War II, after Germany’s invasion of France had forced him
to give up aviation and flee to New York. In addition to his torturous
thoughts of the war in Europe, having to leave his homeland and
no longer being able to fly planes affected Saint-Exupéry deeply.
The novel’s nostalgia for childhood indicates both Saint-Exupéry’s
homesick desire to return to France and his hope of returning to
a time of peace. This wartime stress undoubtedly contributed to
the sense of urgency in Saint-Exupéry’s message of love and compassion.
In its glorification of childlike innocence, The
Little Prince is also an indictment of the spiritual decay
Saint-Exupéry perceived in humanity. In 1943,
he wrote, “For centuries, humanity has been descending an immense
staircase whose top is hidden in the clouds and whose lowest steps
are lost in a dark abyss. We could have ascended the staircase;
instead we chose to descend it. Spiritual decay is terrible. . .
. There is one problem and only one in the world: to revive in people
some sense of spiritual meaning. . . .” By celebrating a worldview
unsullied by the drab restrictions of adulthood, the novel attempts
to revive a sense of spirituality in the world.
Some of the story of The Little Prince uses
events taken from Saint-Exupéry’s own life. If the novel’s surreal
fairy tale feels strangely real and personal, this effect is achieved,
at least in part, by the fact that Saint-Exupéry was drawing from
his own experiences. In Wind, Sand and Stars, his 1939 account
of his aviation adventures, he recollects a crash landing he was
forced to make in the Sahara desert. In his wanderings across the
desert, Saint-Exupéry had a number of hallucinations, including
an encounter with a fennec, a type of desert sand fox that bears
a striking resemblance to the fox depicted in The Little
Saint-Exupéry may have seen himself in his characters
of both the narrator and the little prince. Like his narrator, Saint-Exupéry was
a pilot, crashed in the Sahara, and experienced there a kind of mystical
revelation. The prince, however, represents aspects of Saint-Exupéry
as well, and he very definitely embodies Saint-Exupéry’s philosophy
and aspirations. The prince’s relationship with the rose could be
a reflection of Saint-Exupéry’s relationship with his wife, and
the prince is also an explorer and traveler of the skies—it is one
of the first things that the prince and the narrator share in common.
Seen in this light, The Little Prince can be read
as a metaphor of the process of introspection itself, wherein two
halves of the same person meet and learn from each other.
Although The Little Prince was undoubtedly
influenced by the tenor of World War II, Saint-Exupéry aims for
a general, apolitical analysis of human nature. The prevalence of
symbols of death and evil in The Little Prince are
often interpreted as references to Nazi Germany, but the book’s
universally applicable fairy-tale symbols and the emblems of World
War II make an awkward match. The Little Prince builds
on a long tradition of French parables and fantasy literature, most
notably expressed in Voltaire’s Candide. Like Voltaire,
Saint-Exupéry urges his readers to participate actively in the reading
process, using their imaginations to assign deeper meaning to deceptively
simple prose and poetry. Saint-Exupéry and his novel were certainly
affected by the historical events of the time, but The Little
Prince aspires to be a universal and timeless allegory
about the importance of innocence and love. Indeed, since it was
first published, The Little Prince has become one
of the most widely translated books in the history of French literature.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Little Prince!