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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.
Read more about the motif of taming in the context of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Little Prince!