Gareth B. Matthews
Review of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1943). Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 16(1): 1.
I recently received the following letter from my daughter, Sarah, with whom I have had philosophical discussions since she was four years old. Sarah, I should say, now has beautifully philosophical conversations, often about books, with her own two children – Pearl, almost seven, and Julian, three.
February 20, 2002 Dear Dad,
I just finished reading The Little Prince to Pearl. It’s beautifully written and very sad. It’s also very philosophical and might be worth your re-reading. The book’s narrator makes clear from the start that children are natural philosophers and creative thinkers with interesting views on life – in stark contrast to adults, who are almost invariably clueless dolts who do not understand anything of importance, and who often act in ways which hinder and even threaten children. He is definitely anti-Piaget.
The story is a sort of coming-of-age story about the main character, the Little Prince, who comes to earth from a distant planet. Out of loneliness he has left his own tiny planet, where his only friend is a rose. Before landing on earth he travels to a series of planets all occupied by self-important adults engaged in ridiculous and meaningless occupations. The adults on these planets are all caricatures of adults doing and saying the kind of things adults typically do and say, drawn from a child’s perspective. The adults who read this book must all recognize themselves in these characters and have a good chuckle.
After the Little Prince lands on earth he gradually discovers that what is most meaningful to him in life is his relationship with the rose he has left behind. This is not because his rose is essentially different from other roses, but because he has developed a relationship with his particular rose by watering her and otherwise tending to her needs. It is the Little Prince’s relationship with his rose that makes her unique to him and this relationship is what makes his life worth living. It becomes clear to the Little Prince that he must return to his rose and that in order to do so he must die because the journey is a long one and his body is too heavy to take with him. He arranges to have a poisonous snake bite him, which is very sad, but the narrator assures us that he does return to his planet. (There are obvious Christian overtones to all this – particularly when the narrator tells us that he knows the Little Prince has managed to return to his planet because the morning after his death, the body had disappeared.)
The story of the Little Prince is told by a narrator who is now an adult but who has retained his childhood disdain for grownups. The Little Prince befriends the narrator, who has also fallen to earth from the sky, but from an air plane, not another planet. The narrator is gradually charmed by the Little Prince, as we are, and suffers greatly, as we do, when the Little Prince dies. But through his relationship with the Little Prince he undergoes a transformation of spirit, parallel, if not identical, to that of the Little Prince. The narrator tells us at the beginning of the story that as a child he wanted to be an artist but, because his parents never understood his drawings and discouraged him from his passion, he turned to airplanes instead. The narrator complains about this in an Eyoreish kind of way. Then when the narrator meets the Little Prince, he is so taken with him that he wants to write about him and draw as much of the encounter as he can. Through his relationship with the Little Prince the narrator begins to draw again, and the pictures are, of course, thoroughly charming. As the narrator comes to care more and more for the Little Prince, his values change. He becomes less and less concerned about his air plane and the practical concerns of life and more and more attuned to the Little Prince’s perspective. We, his readers, are equally charmed and, the narrator hopes, also trans formed.
The author of this little book shares your appreciation and love of children and I think there are plenty of philosophical ideas to write about, if you wanted to.
I love you! Sarah
Sarah, I might add, has often in the past recommended philosophically interesting books to me, which I have then read and written about in this column. This time, since she has herself written so eloquently about The Little Prince, I have asked for, and received, her permission to use her letter as my column.