But [a grown-up] would always answer, “That’s a hat.” Then I wouldn’t talk about boa constrictors or jungles or stars. I would put myself on his level and talk about bridge and golf and politics and neckties.
The novel’s narrator says that when he was six years old, before he became a pilot, he saw in a book a picture of a boa constrictor devouring a wild animal. In the same book, the narrator read that boa constrictors must hibernate for six months after swallowing their prey in order to digest it. Fascinated by this information, the narrator drew his first drawing, which he calls Drawing Number One. The drawing, a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, looked like a lumpy blob with two flat lines tapering off to the left and right. But grown-ups were not frightened by the picture, because they thought it was supposed to be a hat.
To explain his drawing to adults, the narrator drew Drawing Number Two, an x-ray view of Drawing Number One that showed the elephant inside the snake. Disturbed by this image, grown-ups advised the narrator to give up drawing and pursue geography, arithmetic, and grammar instead. Realizing that grown-ups would always require things to be explained to them, the narrator decided not to be an artist and became a pilot instead. He admits that the geography he learned did prove to be useful for flying.
The narrator’s opinion of adults never improved. Every time he met a grown-up, he would test him by showing him Drawing Number One. The grown-ups would always think it was a picture of a hat. Consequently, the narrator knew he could talk with the grown-ups only about boring, pragmatic topics like politics and neckties.
The narrator feels lonely his whole life until one day, six years before he tells his story, he crashes his plane in the middle of the Sahara desert. As the situation is beginning to look dire, the pilot is shocked to hear an odd little voice asking him to draw a sheep. He turns to see the little prince. The prince looks like a small, blond child, but he stares intently at the pilot without the fear that a child lost in the desert would have. The pilot does not know how to draw a sheep, so instead he sketches Drawing Number One, and he is astounded when the little prince recognizes it as a picture of an elephant inside a boa constrictor. The little prince rejects Drawing Number One, insisting that he needs a drawing of a sheep. After drawing three different sheep that the prince rejects, the pilot finally draws a box and gives it to the little prince. He says that the box contains exactly the type of sheep for which he is looking. This drawing makes the little prince very happy. The prince wonders if the sheep will have enough grass to eat, explaining that the place where he lives is quite small.
The pilot tries to find out where his mysterious new friend comes from, but the little prince prefers asking questions to answering them. He questions the pilot about his plane and what it does, and the pilot tells the little prince that it allows him to fly through the air. The little prince takes comfort in the fact that the pilot also came from the sky, asking him what planet he comes from. The pilot is surprised by this question and tries to find out what planet the little prince comes from. But the little prince ignores the pilot’s queries and admires the sheep the pilot has drawn for him. The pilot offers to draw a post and a string to tie the sheep to so that it won’t get lost, but the little prince laughs. The sheep will not get lost, he says, because he comes from a very small planet.
By beginning his story with a discussion of his childhood drawings, the narrator introduces the idea that perception of an item varies from person to person. The narrator intends for people to see his drawing as a boa constrictor eating an elephant, but most adults can’t see the hidden elephant and think the drawing represents a hat. Throughout The Little Prince, the narrator’s drawings allow Saint-Exupéry to discuss concepts that he would not be able to express adequately in words. Drawings, the novel suggests, are a way of imparting knowledge that is more creative and open to interpretation, and thus more in line with the abstract perspectives of children. Because it must be interpreted, Drawing Number One is an example of a symbol. It is a picture of a hat that actually signifies a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant, but the viewer must have the imagination to spot that non-literal meaning.