The Little Prince – a book to return to

By: Emily Maybanks

The Little Prince – originally Le Petit Prince – was penned by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and was first published in 1943. Now, 75 years after it was published, it’s become a worldwide phenomenon and is the most translated book in the French language, with 265 translations to date. The Little Prince has become one of the most influential books of the generations.

The Little Prince is predominantly a children’s book. It is the story of an adult meeting his inner child – embodied by a Little Prince. The Little Prince leaves his little planet, his sheep and his single capricious rose, hoping for better, brighter, more exciting things in adulthood. However, what he discovers instead are narcissism, pomposity, consumption and avarice in abundance. When the Little Prince lands on Earth, he befriends a fox and a snake. The fox helped him to understand the rose he left behind, and the snake offered to help him return to his planet (but at a price).

Returning to The Little Prince as an adult reader, what is most striking is its strangeness. The books key elements include a plane crash, a visitor from another planet carried from his home by a flock of birds, the taming of a talking fox. All of these elements combined make up an intriguing children’s fantasy. Through the Little Prince’s experiences throughout the story, we learn the vital lesson that “what is essential, is invisible to the eye” rather than something you can capture or count. In amongst its themes of friendship and loyalty is an important lesson of loss being the flip-side of love.

Another lesson we learn from The Little Prince is the importance of holding onto our imaginations as adults. In Saint-Exupéry’s world, the adults seem the absurd ones, going nowhere quickly and persisting stubbornly in mindless pursuits – even when they no longer have any idea of why they are pursuing them. Saint-Exupéry’s wider point about creativity and about thought is that as we age, how we see the world changes. It is rare that a person is able to keep hold of the sense of wonderment, of presence, of the sheer, simple enjoyment of life and its possibilities that is so much more apparent in our younger selves. As we age and mature into adults, we gain experience. We become more able to exercise self-control. We become more in command of our faculties, our thoughts, and our desires. Yet, somehow, we lose sight of the effortless ability to take in the world in full. The very experience that helps us become successful threatens to limit our imagination and our sense of the possible. As children, we were remarkably aware. We absorbed and processed information at a speed that we would never again come close to achieving. New sights, new sounds, new smells, new people, new emotions, and new experiences; we were learning about our world and its endless possibilities. Everything was new, everything was exciting, everything engendered curiosity. And because of the inherent newness of our surroundings, we were exquisitely alert; we were absorbed; we took it all in. As we grow older, the blasé factor increases exponentially. We develop an attitude of “been there, done that, don’t need to pay attention to this, and when in the world will I ever need to know or use that?” As the demands on our attention increase – an all too real concern as the pressures of multitasking grow in the increasingly 24/7 digital age – so, too, does our actual attention decrease. And, as this happens, we become much less able to know or notice our own thought habits. Instead, we increasingly permit our minds to dictate our judgments and decisions, rather than the other way around.

In the original, French text, Saint-Exupéry never actually uses the term “adult” to describe his uncomprehending elders. He terms them les “grandes personnes” (“big people”). Not once does he refer to them as anything else. This is not a coincidence; it’s a crucial distinction. This is because what matters, in the end, is the attitude, rather than the age. You can have children who are “grandes personnes”, just as you can have adults who aren’t. The question is one of mind-set, of a way of looking at the world. We also never find out how old the Little Prince is.

5 beautiful quotes from The Little Prince:

  • “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched; they are felt with the heart.”
  • “All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.”
  • “It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.”
  • “Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.”
  • “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

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