This is a guest post by Erika Hope Spencer, Reference Specialist, French Collections, The Latin American, Caribbean and European Division (LAC&E)
Le Petit Prince
Author, poet, aviator and adventurer par excellence, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is one of the most well-known French writers in contemporary history. Born in Lyon on June 29th in 1900, he enjoyed an indulgent and idyllic youth in the French countryside. His mother allowed him a great deal of freedom and he developed a taste for exploration that would direct his life, and subsequently, his writings. This year marks the 80th anniversary of his most famous publication, Le petit prince (The Little Prince) published in 1943.
Le petit prince is translated into over 250 languages with adaptations into radio plays, films, ballets, operas, musicals, children’s board books, and even an animated film. You can find a copy in Yiddish or the Burundian language of Kirundi. You can find self-help books such as, How to Live Like the Little Prince: A grown-up’s guide to rediscovering imagination, adventure and awe.
Yet at the time of publication, The Little Prince was not immediately popular. Saint-Exupéry wrote it while he was living in New York at the height of World War II, while the Nazis occupied much of France. He had traveled to the United States before the start of the war, but he returned there again in 1940 in a passionate attempt to gain American support for the war effort. It was a complicated time for the French community in New York because leadership in Nazi-occupied France was contentious. While Philippe Pétain was ostensibly in charge of the southern regions of France, General Charles de Gaulle was fashioning himself as the leader of the “Free France” government in exile via broadcasts from London.
In New York there was considerable disagreement among the French about which leader to support. Saint-Exupéry himself was deeply opposed to Hitler and desperate to fight for his fallen country, yet he did not whole-heartedly back de Gaulle. It was during this dismal time that he wrote one of his most evocative pieces, Lettre à un otage (Letter to a Hostage). Not published until after the Liberation of France in 1944, this was a call to unity to his fellow Frenchmen whose partisan behavior he resented. By all accounts his self-imposed American exile was a miserable time, and yet out of that grim period sprung three masterpieces, including what would be his most popular novel, Le petit prince.
At first many readers did not know what to make of this slim novella. Its charming illustrations (hand-drawn by Saint-Exupéry himself) were reminiscent of a children’s book, yet the text was philosophical and somewhat morally ambiguous. The narrator is a pilot who crash landed in a desert who meets a little boy from a far-away planet. The prince befriends the stranded pilot and they engage in conversations that range from the prince’s non-sequitur comments to his penetrating and “beyond-his-years” wisdom. The similarities between the pilot of the novel with Saint-Exupéry himself are plainly obvious as they closely mirror Saint-Exupéry’s plane crash and fight for survival in the Sahara Desert. This adds to the intimate feel of the book.
Today Le petit prince continues to captivate even the most reluctant readers and engross untold numbers of French-language students. While the story has an arguably predictable framework, the mood manages to be an unpredictable mix that is both melancholy and hopeful. The dialogue between the pilot and the prince is alternately mundane and profound. The illustrations evoke innocence and whimsy, but the messages are somber. The prince’s stories about the individuals he has encountered on various planets carry philosophical messages about how to live life. The author has a barely-veiled disdain for adulthood, which the narrator shares. It is with tongue in cheek that the narrator says,
“Les enfants doivent être très indulgents envers les grandes personnes” (Saint-Exupéry, 12) translated as “Children should always show great forbearance toward grown-up people”.
The most oft-quoted line of the book is from the fox (le renard) who the little prince encounters (and is invited to tame) after realizing that his own love, a rose, is not as unique as he has been led to believe. The fox teaches him an important lesson about what gives value to the things we love. It is not their unique beauty that makes them special, but the time we have spent loving them. The fox tells the little prince,
“On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux” (Saint-Exupéry, 65) or “…one can only see well with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye”.
Saint-Exupéry: The Man
Antoine Saint-Exupéry himself was a daredevil, a philosopher, and a bit of an outsider. As a child he grew up between two grand chateaux where he was allowed to play in fantasy worlds and write poetry. In her masterful biography, Saint-Exupéry, Stacy Schiff describes his attachment to this free-range childhood and explains how it influenced his life-long passion for exploration. He was also accustomed to and even drawn to solitude— something that prepared him well for seemingly endless flights in the quiet, dark skies. No doubt the hours spent alone in flight provided him with ample room to ponder the mysteries of life.
Along with this most popular work, Saint-Exupéry published numerous works that drew upon his personal experience as a pilot and his pioneering flights to Africa and Latin America. He was a commercial pilot until World War II broke out, at which point he joined the French Airforce and flew reconnaissance missions up until the 1940 armistice with Germany. His first novel, written in 1929, Courrier Sud (Southern Mail) is based on his experiences flying for the French postal service. His novel, Vol de nuit (Night Flight) was published in 1931 and chronicles his experiences as a pioneer airmail pilot flying at night from Chile, Patagonia and Paraguay to Argentina. It won the Prix Fémina that year. As early as 1939 he began writing a manuscript of his personal thoughts, Citadelle (The Wisdom of the Sands) which was not published until after his death. That same year he published Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) which narrates his first flight in 1926 from France to Dakar and over to the coast of South America. Pilote de guerre (Flight to Arras) written in New York, was published in 1942 as a memoire of his role in the Armeé de l’Air (French Airforce) during the Battle of France in 1940.
The subject matter of Saint-Exupéry’s novels (full of adventure, the technical aspects of flying and ruminations on life) made them perfect selections for a new program that sent books to Allied soldiers fighting in World War II. When the United States joined the Allied forces in 1941, a program run by the Army Library Service began distributing what were called Armed Service Editions (ASEs) to soldiers fighting abroad. These were small paperbacks that soldiers could easily carry. They were meant to boost morale and inspire the troops. Not surprisingly, the subject matter of Saint-Exupéry’s books was appealing to these soldiers and both Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars were selected as titles for ASEs. The Library holds many of these ASEs in the Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room, and has compiled a research guide on the Armed Services Editions Collection at the Library of Congress.
Saint-Exupéry disappeared in flight on a reconnaissance mission for France on July 31st, 1944. Based on his posthumous work, Citadelle, some literary scholars speculate that Saint-Exupéry’s views on life were more pessimistic than his novels would indicate. Regardless of Saint-Exupéry’s disposition, Le petit prince manages to lure even the most cynical reader into suspending the pragmatism and banality of their daily life to ponder those unexplored realms that exist in one’s own imagination.
Works by Saint-Exupéry
- Courrier sud
- Vol de nuit, Army Service Edition
- Terre des Hommes
- Pilote de guerre
- Lettre à un otage
- Le petit prince
- Écrits de guerre 1939-1944
- Saint-Exupéry : a biography / Stacy Schiff
- Saint-Exupéry / par Virgil Tanase
- Renaissance de Saint Exupéry : le pilote, l’écrivain, l’homme / sous la direction de Alain Vircondelet
- Antoine de Saint Exupéry : the last knight of the heavens / George C. Papageorgiou ; translation: Anna Stefanou and Philo Stefanides
- The little prince / Paramount Pictures presents ; screenplay and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner ; produced and directed by Stanley Donen.
- Introducing the Little Prince : four board books inspired by the classic story / by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- Saint-Exupéry : le paladin du ciel / Michel Lhospice
- La ligne de Mermoz, Guillaumet, Saint Exupéry et de leurs compagnons /Jean Gérard Fleury
- Os aviadores franceses, a América do Sul e o Campeche / João Carlos Monsimann
- Mira la catedral que habitas : la vida de Saint-Exupéry en la Argentina / Álvaro Abós
- Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry : la rose du Petit Prince / Paul Webster
- Le Petite prince: edición en lengua totonaca (Indigenous language of Mexico)