The Little Prince: Truth in Metaphor
A Timeless Tale
Antoine de Saint Exupery's author's note on The Little Prince-- "not for grownups" -- is a bit facetious. On the one hand, The Little Prince does portray 'grownups' as folks who go around foolishly pursuing wrong values; still the story themes (and the subtle ironies) are best appreciated by those selfsame adults. The Little Prince is probably my all-time favorite book, and yet... that was hardly my first response. I remember pulling it down from a library shelf in elementary school: I didn't like the pictures, I wasn't particularly captivated by the story, and I set it back on the shelf. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate the metaphor; perhaps I just lacked an adult guide.
I was reintroduced to The Little Prince in my early twenties when I read a memoir, One Child, by Tori Hayden. Hayden described reading The Little Prince to a brilliant but troubled child. Key scenes from the book were reprinted in Hayden's book. Thus I finally read about the fox who pleads with a little boy to tame him, then cries when it is time for the child to get on with his journey. I learned how the Little Prince laments that the taming did the fox no good whatsoever, but the fox tells him oh no, it has done him good. The fox shares some secrets about love and attachment and responsibility... big, big ideas for such a slim little book.
At that point, I had to read the full story of the little prince who leaves his home planet because his rose (a personified flower) does not seem to love him the way he loves her. And at that point, I was captivated indeed, enchanted by the parable of the mystical and wide-eyed little observer of human nature who learns some lessons about love and -- not without some pain -- finds his way back home.
Opening image is by the author of the page
Plot, Theme, and Metaphor
In The Little Prince
The Little Prince is narrated by an adult -- an aviator who is concerned with "matters of consequence". Stranded in the Sahara, the pilot is shocked to hear a little person asking him to draw a sheep. The little person, it turns out, wants the sheep to take back to his planet: a house-sized asteroid that has three volcanoes, a talking rose, and baobab shoots. (The little baobabs must be pulled out before they take hold -- either that, or they need to be eaten by a little grazing animal of some sort.) To the narrator's surprise, the little prince, who is not satisfied with any of the sheep drawings, is delighted by a picture of a closed box with (supposedly) a sheep inside.
The backstory tells how the Little Prince left his planet because he had grown disenchanted with his rose; she was boastful and did not seem to appreciate all he did for her. On his journey, The Little Prince encountered a number of small planets, each with a single inhabitant who represented some negative aspect of human nature: pride, greed, desire for power. When a self-important geographer told him that his rose was ephemeral -- subject to quick disappearance -- he experienced some regret about leaving his planet behind. Still, he continued on to Earth, where he made the acquaintance of a fox.
Some of the most beautiful lines in the story are uttered by the fox. Probably the most famous is, "One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes." This is one of the book's central themes, and one that was introduced in a playful way early in the story. (One can imagine that the little prince was able to see the sheep in the box because he saw with his heart!)
The fox also introduces taming as a metaphor for creating meaningful bonds. The fox couldn't just starting out playing with the boy right away because (as he explained) he wasn't yet tame. There is a bit of humor here. When he first uses the word 'tame', it sounds like he is using it in the sense that we usually use the word. However, he is talking about something larger. This fox is not your average wild creature -- nor yet your typical 'crafty' storybook fox. He appears as a voice of wisdom.
A favorite bit of fox-wisdom is, "It is the time that you wasted on your rose that makes it unique in all the world." How true! We don't love because something or someone is perfect; if we did, love, too, would be ephemeral... and not love at all. The value we find in another can be created by what we pour into them: blood, sweat, and tears. The fox, who is so knowledgeable, tells the prince also that one carries with them forever what they have 'tamed' or loved -- and that so, too, they become responsible for it.
The Little Prince in turn has much to teach to his next companion, the book's own awe-struck narrator. Soon, however, they too must part. The pilot succeeds in fixing his plane, and thus can return home. The Little Prince, though, must have a rendezvous with a snake in order to be sent back where he came. "Don't come with me," he advises the narrator (who ignores his words). He warns the narrator that he will look like he is suffering and dying, but the truth is something else. The narrator assumes he does make it home, as there is no body left behind.
Although Antoine de Saint Exupery's illustrations are quite simple, they are poignant. One is burned in my mind: the image of the Little Prince going to meet up with the snake. It represents the strength that comes from really loving. I think that attachment has gotten a bad rap, that pop culture too easily dismisses it as weakness... a thought that I would not likely have had if I had read the book at eight or nine!
Video: The Little Prince and the Fox
Here it is: the most moving scene in the book narrated by a master storyteller. The little prince forges a friendship with a fox and learns what it means to be tamed.
"IT'S THE TIME YOU WASTED ON YOUR ROSE THAT MAKES IT UNIQUE IN ALL THE WORLD"
More Little Prince Quotes
Lesson Plans For The Little Prince - Philosophy and Big Ideas
The Little Prince can be an excellent book for developing critical literacy skills. I have read this book aloud to elementary school children, and feel that they are in the best position to appreciate it when it's done as a read-aloud. Older students are better able to 'go it alone' but guided study can still help them appreciate the metaphors.
- Philosophy For Kids
These questions help kids get at the 'big ideas' in The Little Prince. There are some good discussion question for the early chapters, where the Little Prince through space and meets some confounding individuals.
Sparknotes provides online resources for analyzing and understanding The Little Prince. The character is particularly interesting here. The writer notes that both the Little Prince and the narrator are protagonists and explores similarities and diffe
- Little Prince Lesson Plans
Here are lesson plans from the Vinton-Shellsburg School District: journaling and essay topics.
- Essay Questions
Here are Little Prince essay questions from Sparknotes --test yourself online.
- Discussion Questions
Questions for The Little Prince range from basic comprehension to sophisticated interpretation. The section at the top of the page marked "Discussion Questions" includes questions to challenge mature readers; not all are child-friendly. The latter s
- Resources for Chapter 1 - 4
Here is key vocabulary for Chapters 1 - 4, plus an introductory question and several discussion questions. These resources are from Beacon Hill Academy.
- Great Performances
This set of lesson resources was designed for students who will be watching the operatic version.
70th Anniversary Gift Set
The Little Prince is the 20th best-selling book of all time, and for good reason. The language is simple, yet poetic, and the message appeals to our inner idealism and goodness. Thus the book speaks to to generation after generation of adults and children alike. Originally written in French, it has been translated into many languages.
There are two translations readily available in English. The first was by Katherine Woods in 1943, the second by Richard Howard in 2000.
This is one of Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt's 70th anniversary releases,a gift set featuring audio and text. The hardback book and audio are the Richard Howard version.
The Little Prince Lands on Earth - The Little Prince, upon landing on Earth, at first believes the whole planet is altogether dry and pointed.
Students can discuss their own first impressions of people and places. Have they ever acted like The Little Prince did when he first beheld our planet?
Who is The Little Prince written for?
Is The Little Prince primarily for children or for grownups?
The Little Prince Activity Book
The Little Prince Book of Fun and Adventure strives to get young kids into the character and story. I understand that there is a dry erase pen, and some activities can be done over and over.
More Reviews and Analysis - Of The Little Prince
- Reading Matters
This simple review -- and the writer's apt use of quotes -- captures the beauty in this timeless tale.
- Beauty in the Breakdown: The Little Prince
This Blogspot book analysis explores the theme of attachment.
- The Literary Link
Here you can find discussion questions and detailed answers.
- Buzzle Editorial: The Little Prince
The Little Prince inspires deep feelings in many readers. Here another writer shares.
This site includes some clever and well-written short reviews. (You can tell when someone really loves a book!)
- Harcourt Books
Here is further information and links from Harcourt Publishing (the publisher of The Little Prince). A new edition with a study guide was recently published next year for the book's 70th anniversary.
- Chicago Reader
This is actually a review of the play version, but it contains quite a bit of discussion of themes that are central to both the book and play.
- A High School Student's Perspective
A mature high school student tackles the themes in The Little Prince.
- Editor Eric
This is a comparison of the two most common English language translations. Editor Eric prefers the Richard Howard translation -- I'm not sure I agree.
Here an articulate high school student talks about how the book is being used in her class. (They discussed the historical context of World War II.)
- Scientific American
Many see childhood wonder and imagination as the dominant theme. Here is a reflection.
Do You Have a Favorite Translation?
If you truly love a book, you know: Those turns of phrase matter. Slight differences in translation can alter the mood and the meaning in a text. I am most acutely aware of the differences in the key scenes with the fox. While I'm not fond of the reference to the time 'wasted' on the rose -- that one little word! -- the Katherine Wood version is otherwise my favorite.
Which edition do you prefer?
More About the Two Translations
From the publisher: compare passages from the Woods and Howard translations.
More from Antoine de Saint-Exupery - Especially for Grownups
Antoine de Saint-Exupery was very good at the one-liner, and at summing up life truths with deceptively simple words. This collection draws from The Little Prince as well as from the wisdom of Saint-Exupery's adult books. If you believe that a lot of your learning came in kindergarten -- on the monkey bars as opposed to the corporate ladder -- you'll probably find quite a bit more here that rings true.
Share them here.