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At the beginning of his journey, the little prince finds himself near asteroids 325, 326, 327, 328, 329, and 330, and he decides to visit them one by one. On the first asteroid, he encounters a king sitting on a throne and wearing a magnificent fur cloak. The king, happy finally to have a subject, begins ordering the little prince around. The king claims to reign over every star in the universe, but in reality he always tailors his orders to fit the actions of the person he commands. For example, when the little prince yawns, the king quickly “orders” him to yawn. When the prince asks the king to order a sunset, the king replies that the sun will obey him but that it will have to wait until 7:40 P.M., a time he arrives at after consulting an almanac.
The king insists that his commands be obeyed, but he is a kindly man and so always makes them reasonable. The king asserts that it is because he is so reasonable that he has the right to command. When the prince decides to leave, the king hastily tries to get him to stay, ordering him to become minister of justice. The prince finds the request ridiculous, since there is nobody else on the planet to judge. The king points out that his planet has an old rat, whom the prince can continually condemn to death, pardon, and then condemn again. The prince says he has no interest in condemning anyone to death. As the prince is departing, the king names the prince his ambassador. The prince comments that grown-ups are strange.
On the second planet the prince visits, he encounters a vain man, who asks the prince to clap his hands and then modestly tips his hat in acknowledgement. The prince enjoys the game at first but begins to tire of its monotony. The vain man asks whether the little prince really admires him, but the prince does not understand the meaning of the word “admire.” The vain man explains that he wants the prince to say he is the most intelligent, good-looking, and wealthy man on the planet. The prince points out that such a request is absurd since the vain man is the planet’s sole inhabitant. With a shrug of his shoulders, the prince says, “I admire you,” but he asks why his admiration means anything to the man. The prince departs, commenting again that grown-ups are very strange.
The prince visits a third planet, where he meets a drunkard. When the prince asks the drunkard why he drinks, the drunkard claims that he drinks to forget. Feeling pity, the prince inquires what the drunkard wants to forget. The drunkard answers that he is trying to forget that he is ashamed of his drinking. The drunkard then falls into stubborn silence. Confused, the little prince continues his journey, observing that grown-ups are very, very strange.
The chapters in which the narrator describes the prince’s journey from planet to planet are an example of a picaresque narrative. Picaresque is a genre of episodic literature in which a protagonist travels from place to place or has one adventure after another. In The Little Prince, each of the adults the prince encounters on the various planets he visits symbolizes a particular characteristic of adults in general.
The king is a political figure, but Saint-Exupéry satirizes the king’s personality rather than the political system the king represents. Saint-Exupéry emphasizes that the king is not a tyrant but simply a ridiculous man who possesses a petty need for power and domination. The king, like the other characters the prince encounters, is very lonely. Yet the king’s desire to rule so consumes him that he doesn’t treat the prince’s visit as an opportunity to lessen his loneliness. Instead, he tries to fit his visitor into his own distorted worldview by commanding the prince to serve as his minister of justice.
Even though the king is a nice man who tailors his commands to suit the little prince’s wishes, the prince objects on principle to the idea of being commanded. The prince’s reaction to the king emphasizes the importance of free will and taking responsibility for one’s actions. The prince refuses to judge others, and he refuses to do anything he has not willed himself. Since the king points out that he always pardons the rat, it would be simple for the prince to please the king by condemning the rat to death. Yet the prince refuses because the idea of condemnation bothers him. The prince reacts in a similar way when the king appoints him as his ambassador. The prince remains silent as he leaves, implicitly rejecting this title. He then continues his travels on his own volition, not as a representative of the king.
Read more about taming as a motif.
The vain man’s sense of self-worth parallels the king’s authority in its meaninglessness. Like the king’s authority, the vain man’s superiority depends on being alone. As long as he is the only man on the planet, he is assured of being the most attractive man on the planet. At the same time, the vain man’s sense of superiority depends on the praise of visitors. These contradictions underscore Saint-Exupéry’s disdain for grown-up life. He argues that adults, with their limited, unimaginative views, don’t know what they truly need in their lives. The adults the little prince meets are capable of only pushing companionship away when it presents itself.
Read more about how the little prince differs from adults.
Though he is flawed, the drunkard is more sympathetic than the king and the vain man are. Unlike them, the drunkard seems somehow trapped against his will. The fact that he drinks to forget that he is ashamed of his drinking is absurd and irrational, but the fact that “shame” plays such a big part in his actions indicates his awareness of his life’s emptiness. However, the drunkard shows himself to be just as much of a grown-up as the king and the conceited man are. The arrival of the prince presents an opportunity for the drunkard to break the cycle, but instead the drunkard retreats into silence, as he is too stubborn and unwilling to address his serious problems.
Read more about the theme of the dangers of narrowmindedness.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Little Prince!