Friday, October 21, 2005

Book Review: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

All grown-ups were once children--although few of them remember it.

The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince for those who like to be accurate), a novelette, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was published in 1943. Even today, this wonderful story of love, loneliness, and life exercises its wonderful magic over readers and is much cherished by both children and adults. It's easy to see why: a simple prose style that delights, fresh and funny illustrations, a wealth of imagery, a simple story that's yet effortlessly profound and above all the character of the Little Prince that tugs at your heart strings without ever getting overly cute and sweet.

The story is narrated by an aviator downed in the Sahara Desert who is trying to repair his wrecked airplane. His frenetic efforts are suddenly interrupted by the appearance of the Little Prince who, of all the things in the world, asks him to draw a sheep. The narrator is astonished and even wonders what a kid is doing in the middle of a desert.

But, "When a mystery is too overpowering, one dare not disobey. Absurd as it might seem to me, a thousand miles from any human habitation and in danger of death, I took out of my pocket a sheet of paper and my fountain-pen."

Thus begins the interaction between the Little Prince and the aviator out of which is born a classic tale.

On a simplistic plane, The Little Prince is the story of an aviator whose plane is forced down in the Sahara Desert and there meets a boy who has traveled to earth from another small planet. The boy, the Little Prince, asks him numerous questions about sheep, trees and flowers. The boy also shares his various adventures, his journeys from one planet to another and finally leaves.

Yet, the story is much more enriching and satisfying. It's also the tale of a young prince who has left his tiny planet to seek answers to all his questions. The Little Prince is also the story of a man who learns a lot about the nature of life from an innocent kid whose journeys and innocence have given him the wisdom of a sage who has lived many years and traveled many miles. The Little Prince and the aviator come to understand what is really important in life -- love. What matters is caring about someone or something, living up to the trust invested in you, and sustaining that relationship.

It is only when one realizes the importance of love that one understands the responsibility towards those who one has "tamed." As the prince did:
"No," said the little prince. "I am looking for friends. What does that mean, 'tame'?"

"It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. It means to establish ties."

"'To establish ties'?"

"Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world..."

"I am beginning to understand," said the little prince. "There is a flower... I think that she has tamed me..."

[. . .]

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time. "Please, tame me!" he said.

"I want to, very much," the little prince replied. "But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand."

"One only understands the things that one tames," said the fox. "Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me..."
The prince loves his flower so much that he protects her every night with a glass cover. He also requests the aviator to draw him a muzzle for his sheep so that it wouldn't eat the flower. The prince knows that his flower is naive and it is his duty to protect her.

Adults forget that love and friendship matter the most and allow themselves to be consumed with things that are inconsequential. In a way, The Little Prince, is also somewhat of a satire on adults. The novelette describes how adults lack imagination. When the narrator draws a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, adults only see it as an odd-shaped hat. This lack of imagination translates into adults who are unable to focus on the essentials of life and instead concentrate on the unnecessary. Saint-Exupéry carries this throughout the book and pulls off some fine satiric touches.

There's the king who commands the Little Prince to function as his judiciary:
"I have good reason to believe that somewhere on my planet there is an old rat. I hear him at night. You can judge this old rat. From time to time you will condemn him to death. Thus his life will depend on your justice. But you will pardon him on each occasion; for he must be treated thriftily. He is the only one we have."
The author similarly satirizes a conceited man, a tippler, a businessman, a geographer, and a few others. They all serve to show how adults make some futile aspect of lives their very existence.

And that's the nature of this little book. It delivers its message, its wisdom, unobtrusively, often casually through the Little Prince's encounters with various people, through his innocent questions that seek only the truth, and through his understanding of the self and of the life and people beyond oneself. And all the time, it also remains an excellent children's tale, without ever turning didactic.

After you've read the book, things start looking a bit different. You realize that somewhere, for someone it is possible to love a flower and lavish attention it. You realize that such love and responsibility is not be ridiculed, because you've understood that the object of love is not important – what matters is that there is love and there is a commitment to sustain that relationship.

And if you are bold enough (and if life hasn't corrupted you totally yet) you too would start questioning some of your priorities in life.
[. . .] nothing in the universe can be the same if somewhere, we do not know where, a sheep that we never saw has eaten a rose... Look up at the sky. Ask yourselves: is it yes or no?

Has the sheep eaten the flower? And you will see how everything changes... And no grown-up will ever understand that this is a matter of so much importance!
This story of a boy in love with his flower is told in a little over a hundred pages. If there's anything to crib about the book, it's that it gets over so soon and you wish that you had not read it so fast. However everyone of those pages of is fantastic and will stay with the reader forever.

If you appreciate the simple things in life, if you want to know what is it that makes children find so much joy out of life, read this book and you'll treasure its simple but deep wisdom.

You can read The Little Prince online here and here.


Anonymous said...

I have read it several times over the years, and each time, I discovered a new layer.

One of the best 'philosophy' books I've read by far !

mandar talvekar said...

Hi Ash,
You are spot on. The Little Prince is definitely an excellent philosophy book.

This is the first time I am reading it (I am a retard in such matters). I remember we had the first two chapters as a lesson in our Balbharti English Textbook for the fifth standard, complete with the illustrations of the Boa digesting an elephant. While that was interesting, unfortunately the experience was spoiled by having to mug-up numerous "reference to context" questions and answers that our teacher loved.

I didn't look out for the book ever.

Thankfully, a friend gifted me the book for my birthday this year. And I regretted immediately for staying away from such a gem for so many years.

I plan to rectify matters. The Little Prince is definitely on my "read and re-read many times" list.

Pranay Manocha said...

My girlfriend made me buy this book because she absolutely loves it! Anyway, it is a great book. Thanks for this exhaustive review.

Anonymous said...

loved ur review mandy...made me want to go and re-read my own copy:-)

Anonymous said...

i love this story
it is not just a story for me
its everything!

my id is shazdeh_kocholo
you know in persion little prince means shazdeh kocholo =
شاهزاده کوچک

one other thing
im study english and im looking for the little prince in english

i find it here at least

thank you

Anonymous said...

I think this is one of the best book reviews in your blog. Just love reading it over and over again. Vey well written.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderfully great book. I have been told I did not read this book correctly. I now understand what message they are trying to get across. This review is truely aweinspring.