The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) is a novella written by French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It was originally published in 1943 in the author’s native tongue, French. Since the original publication, it has been translated into over 250 different languages and has become one of the best-selling books of all time. It tells the story of a pilot who has crashed in the Sahara desert and meets a peculiar little boy, who he calls the Little Prince, who tells him of his home planet and the journey he has undertaken to reach Earth. It’s simple language and short length meant it was first seen as a children’s book, but it soon became apparent that The Little Prince could have a profound effect on adults too. It takes a cynical and meaningful look at modern society, which is driven by materialistic gain, through the eyes of a child. It is full of metaphors and holds deep meaning in the minds of many who read it.
The main plot of the story is well known; an aviator meets an ethereal little boy in the middle of the Sahara desert. The boy tells him of his home planet, the small asteroid B-612, which he shares with a solitary rose and three small volcanoes. He falls in love with the rose, but she manipulates him and causes him to become unhappy. Eventually, he decides to leave the asteroid and his rose behind, in search of new planets. He meets a host of human characters on different asteroids, each of whom show traits that are common in adults but often lacking in children; they are narrow-minded and irrational and cannot see the bigger picture that is clear to the Little Prince. There is a king without any subjects, an extremely vain man who sees himself as the most admirable person on his otherwise uninhabited planet, a drunkard who drinks to forget the shame of drinking, a businessman who spends his time counting the stars and believing he owns them, a lamplighter obsessed with following his orders to put out and relight his lamp every minute and a geographer who does not venture from his desk to find out what geography is like on his planet because he is not an explorer.
The seventh planet the Little Prince visits is Earth. As he lands in the desert, he does not meet any people to begin with. Instead, he encounters a snake, who tells him that it can send him easily back to his home planet. He climbs a large mountain, thinking he will be able to see the entire planet from the peak, but can only see more mountains. He tries to talk, and his echo makes him believe that the inhabitants of the Earth can only repeat what has been said, and that the whole of the Earth is similarly inhospitable terrain. He walks along a road and finds a rose bush. There, he discovers that his own rose is not unique in the universe as she had led him to believe, causing him to re-evaluate his volcanoes and rose as not as special as he believed them to be. He meets a fox, who wishes to be tamed, and befriends him. He encounters the first human, a railway signalman, who explains how the disillusioned adults travel on trains, and that only the children understand what they are looking for. All of his meetings can serve as metaphors for the way humans interact with each other in modern times.
The backdrop of the novel as Saint-Exupéry was writing was the Second World War. Many people believe it to be the biggest influence on The Little Prince. He wrote it in various locations in New York City and Long Island in 1942. Saint-Exupéry was living in exile due to the occupation of France by Nazi Germany, and as he could not speak much English, found living in New York difficult. He also took inspiration from his own aeroplane crash in the desert in 1935, where he narrowly escaped death by dehydration. The rose in the novel was likely inspired by his wife, Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, with whom he had a tumultuous but loving relationship. Saint-Exupéry was brutal and efficient in his drafting, and often cut out large swathes of what he had written, garnering only a sentence from an entire page of writing. He also created all of the famous watercolour paintings found in the book, which depict the little prince and the people and animals he meets during the novel.
The Little Prince is one of the most widely-translated books ever. Over 250 languages and dialects have their own versions of the novella, including Esperanto and Braille. It is a very popular book in countries such as China, where it has been translated over seventy times. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry died while flying as part of the Free French Air Force rebelling against Nazi rule in 1944, just one year after The Little Prince was first published.
With it’s paradoxical metaphors and meaningful gaze at modern society, The Little Prince is often seen as a book that everyone should read at some point during their lives. It offers the reader a chance of introspection and an ability to re-evaluate the things we do in our daily lives that would be seen as irrational if presented through the eyes of The Little Prince. The paradoxical nature of the novel also means that nobody has really been able to give a concrete answer as to what the book is about. This allows each individual reader to draw their own conclusions and withdraw a personal meaning from the book.