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The Little Prince: Dichotomies and Enlightenment

First published in 1943 in French, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince is a book that has managed to stay relevant and attractive for both adult and children through time. Still one of the most read books in the whole world, it is the story, mainly a conversation, between a pilot and a Little Prince he met in the desert after his plane crashed. Stemming from a seemingly simple plot, the novella is a philosophic tale, a contemplative text proposing many reflexions upon many notions in an intimate and essential narrative style. This article proposes to analyze the reflexion upon the different perceptions of the world based upon what appears to us as an essential literary feature in The Little Prince: the dichotomy between childhood and adultness.

Figure 1: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The Little Prince, Front cover, Wordsworth editions.

From the very first lines, The Little Prince presents one of its essential dichotomies to the reader. Indeed, the very first words of Antoine de Saint Exupéry's masterpiece, most probably influenced by classical tales, introduces what could already be deduced from the title, the notion of childhood:

"Once when I was six years old..." ( K. Woods, 1971, p.4)

This particular period of everyone's life, both specific to each individual and universally shared, is almost immediately opposed to the "grown-ups", which is the term used by the narrator to designate adults, emphasizing the contrast and distinction with children. It seems relevant to specify that in Saint Exupéry's narrative, these two periods of life, adulthood and childhood, are opposed to each other, and do not seem to share a casual type of relationship. As a matter of fact, with the story of the first two drawings, the narrator intends two illustrate how vastly different the perception of the world is for a child and for an adult. While adulthood should be the continuity of childhood, and, to that extent, the adult should have acquired a certain lucidity, partly thanks to the previous experiences he has lived, it appears, in The Little Prince, that this is the lack of understanding that defines the "grown-ups":

"Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them." ( K.Woods, 1971, p. 5)

This sentence, closing the drawings episode, is particularly relevant, as it illustrates one of the cornerstone of The Little Prince narrative and introduces one of its main topoi. By stating that "grown-ups", adults, "never understand anything by themselves" and that children have to explain things to them, the narrator introduces, through the previously mentioned dichotomy, two different and complementary notions. First, it inverts the commonly accepted idea according to which adults know things and need to teach it to children. Here, it is the contrary,"grown-ups" need to be taught, and children are the ones able to do so. Secondly, this part supposes that there is something to be taught, something that would lie beyond the apparences, as illustrates by the drawings. So, this particular sentence states that children, in opposition with "grown-ups" have the ability to see "beyond the veil" of apparences. As Elizabeth Hale and Michael Allen Fox verbalized it in their essay Childhood and the environment in The Little Prince, "the novella contrasts with the adult perspective and advocates ways of being-in-the-world that involve first of all, intensified perception, or the ability to see both the visible (or surface) and the invisible (what lies beneath the surface), or is immanent"(Hale and Fox, 2013). With this enlightenment, it is now possible to discern the "intensified perception" of what the children / grown-ups dichotomy really entails in Antoine de Saint Exupéry's work: it is actually a classic opposition between apparences and reality, between what things seem to be and what they truly are. And in the following paragraph, the narrator himself confesses that he also tends to trust apparences too much:

Figure 2: A. Saint-Exupéry, 1943, Le Petit Prince, "This is a hat".

"Whenever I met one of them [grown-ups] who seemed to me at all clear-sighted, I tried the experiment of showing him my Drawing Number One [...] but, whoever it was, would always say :
"That is a hat."
"I would bring myself down to his level [...] And the grown-up would be greatly pleased to have met such a sensible man." ( K. Woods, 1971, p. 5)

The irony of this last sentence shows both the disillusionment felt by the narrator, and the vacuity of apparences maintained by the grown-ups, only preoccupied by "bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties", and not by what really lies beyond the picture, the apparence of the hat in the drawing.

Finally, the dichotomy between grown-ups and children being a reflect of the opposition between "intensified perception" and apparences is perceptible through the eponym character of The Little Prince. Indeed, probably influenced by traditional tales, Saint-Exupery used the figure of the Prince, but turned it into a "little" prince. This archetype is no longer the valiant young adult presented in many tales, but is a child travelling the universe, searching for a certain truth. The second chapter opens on the encounter with the Little Prince, as the life of the narrator is on the line, almost introducing the little prince character as a savior. Again, the child, crystallized by the figure of the Little Prince, is essential to save the narrator, who "lived [his] life alone", not being able to find anyone who could see things as he sees them, for what they really are.

Yet, the Little Prince characters does present mystic features, similar to the more traditional figure of the tutor in tales:

"Now I stared at this sudden apparition with my eyes fairly starting out of my head in astonishment. Remember, I had crashed in the desert a thousand miles from any inhabited region. And yet, my little man seemed neither to be straying uncertainly among the sands, nor to be fainting from fatigue or hunger or thirst or fear." ( K. Woods, 1971, p. 7)

Figure 3: A. Saint-Exupéry, 1943, Le Petit Prince.

However, in opposition to more traditional figures present in tales, the character is called "my little man" , with a condescending tone on the part of the narrator, an adult. It is only with the drawing of the sheep, an echo of the previously evoked boa which the narrator himself drew as a child, that the latter realizes the true nature of the Little Prince.

First, he is, as previously mentioned, an initiatory figure, as he is the one who , in the immensity and emptiness of the desert, will show and teach the "intensified perception" of things mentioned by Hale and Allen Fox. Able to travel from one universe to another, he appears almost as a prophetic figure, carrying truths and perceptions that the adult narrator was not able to reach. Through encounters, as for example in chapter IV with the Turkish astronomer, The Little Prince explores and discovers, showing to the narrator that curiosity is a primordial notion in order to elevate one's perception. Indeed, this curiosity brings to reconsider the world beyond the apparences and the narrow-mindedness, a trait often shown by grown-up people.

But The Little Prince is not merely an archetype: indeed, he is a more subtle character, being at the same time a teaching figure, and a companion of the narrator as the latter is learning through the narration of the prince's journey. Through his narration, the Little Prince is bringing the narrator with him in his discovering of the different perceptions of the world(s), and both learn together. For example, in the Chapter XVI, The Little Prince confesses that his previous representation of Earth was too much focused on humans. He is learning and teaching at the same time, and the simplicity and contemplative narrative style emphasizes the polymorphic nature of the character. As James Higgins verbalized in his critic of the novel, The Little Prince - A reverie of Substance (1990), both the main characters (the Little Prince and the narrator) share a hunger for adventure (exploration of the outside world) and introspection.

Figure 4: A. Saint-Exupéry, 1943, Le Petit Prince.

By basing its narrative upon a seemingly classic and simple dichotomy, adult opposed to children, Antoine de Saint Exupéry proposed a philosophic tale, a "layered meaning" (E.Hale, M.A. Fox, 2013.) full of ramifications and reflexions upon the perceptions one has of the world one lives in. If the narrow-mindedness of the certitudes based upon apparences and the ignorance it leads to is at the center of the narrative, many other notions are approached in The Little Prince, such as the position of the individuality within the cosmos it lives in, or the notion of love and effort, notably through the figure of the rose. Yet, all these considerations are based upon the dichotomy between "grown-ups" and children, between apparences and "intensified perception", and the fascination this novella has for both children and adult may seems to indicate that they are intrinsically connected to one another.

Bibliographic references

Allen Fox M., Hale E. (2013), Childhood and the environment in "The Little Prince".

Higgins J. (1996), The Little Prince : A reverie of Substance, Twayne's Masterwork Studies #150.

Saint-Exupéry A. (1943), Le Petit Prince, Reynald et Hitchcock.

Wood K. (1971), The Little Prince : A translation, Harvest.

Visual sources


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Martin Chef

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