The Little Prince at Seventy

On my first trip to France, in my early twenties, I found myself overcome with nostalgia upon the discovery of a fountain pen embossed with a golden-haired, moon-eyed child in slouchy bell-bottom trousers and a dashing aviator ascot. My companion at the time, a native Manhattanite who’d had Tin Tin in the nursery and trips to Paris since elementary school, found my discovery about as riveting as an Eiffel Tower keychain. To me, as well as many other suburban-born American would-be Francophiles, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince was my first French chapter book, encountered as a teenager around the same time as cigarettes, crêpe pans, and Camus’s The Stranger (alas, in English). To him, and any actual French person, the lovestruck space child is embroidered into the fabric of French childhood kitsch every bit as firmly as Mickey Mouse is to American children: as thoroughly Gallic in its philosophical posturing as the Disney empire is indebted to American capitalism, Le Petit Prince (or The Little Prince, as it’s known to Anglophone readers) is an international blockbuster, each of its watercolor illustrations — the prince, his home on Asteroid B-612, his friend the fox, his troublesome love,  the rose — replicated on generations of coffee mugs, sheet sets, plush toys, wristwatches, music boxes, and bath towels with matching robe.

The seventieth anniversary of the American publication is nigh, and it has brought that kitsch Stateside. One can buy a Limited Edition gift set, with a hardcover copy of the book and a CD of the audiobook read by the actor Viggo Mortensen. Moleskine, in keeping with their well-known fetish for all things that might possibly invoke midcentury writers in Parisian cafés, offers a Le Petit Prince Limited Edition Day Planner, available in two sizes and two colors, dark gold and Prussian blue, and a gift box with notebooks, postcards, and stickers suitable for decoration (for nostalgia-comparison purposes, other pop cultural artifacts deemed worthy for embossing on Limited Edition Moleskine sets include Pac Man, Star Wars, Peanuts, and audiocassette tapes). There is an iPhone app and a something called the Little Prince 4D ride, the details of which I can’t quite parse from the publicity video, but apparently it may be enjoyed at a French theme park (not necessarily so) near you. 

All of which seems much merchandising about nothing when one considers that, while the exact boundaries that defines those singled out for the prince’s disdain can be murky, the vulgar villains of the novella — those who seek to own the stars, or judge the beauty of a house not by the doves on its roof or the geraniums in its windows but by its price tag — may all be fairly accurately described as capitalists, or, in Exupéry’s terms, “grown-ups.”

Those looking to explain the enduring appeal of a story about a pilot transformed by a wise child he encounters while marooned for eight days in the desert might hazard a few guesses: There is the midcentury romantic appeal of air travel (Beryl Markham’s midcentury aviation memoir West of the Night was also reissued this year). Exupéry himself was a globe-trotting aviator who was once stranded for four days in the Sahara Desert, and mysteriously disappeared and was presumed dead at age forty-four after flying a mission south of Marseille in 1944. The prince’s story borrows well-worn tropes from Christian parables: Besides the desert-exile motif, there is a garden filled with good seeds and bad seeds, which must be sorted and separated from one another; a flower of a female persuasion, which may or may not cause the prince to fall from innocence; and a snake. At the end of his time in the desert, the prince volunteers for his own death then, Christ-like, is risen. Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked, explains in his introduction to the seventieth anniversary edition, that once, after first knocking back a few glasses of rosé, he asked a native Frenchman to explain the novel’s “starry magic.” The Frenchman reacted with a Gallic shrug and the non-explanation,” ‘It is full of truth.’ He would not elaborate,” writes Maguire. “He is French.”

Fables, allegories, fairy tales, and world religions all take their beauty from the promise that universal truths lie in simply told stories. But the most plainly spoken belief to come from Exupéry’s novel is also its most dismal: he glorifies childhood innocence and pays the cost with a radical distrust of adulthood. Human maturity, if Exupéry is to be believed, is the process by which an entire race of creatures is transformed from golden-haired children tilling their soil, guarding their flowers, and waiting for sunsets (the latter a sure sign of beautiful dreamers when used by S. E. Hinton in to describe greasers in Oklahoma in The Outsiders two decades later) into a race comprising solely accountants who would turn the very stars into notes on a ledger. 

The dividing line between these two separate species is illustrated in a drawing that opens the novel: Children, he says, will know that it is a drawing of a boa constrictor who has swallowed an elephant. Grown-ups, he says, will see only a hat. Grown-ups are people who understand only “serious,” subjects such as “geography, history, grammar and arithmetic,” and to whom one may only speak of “reasonable things” such as “bridge and golf and politics and neckties” (as possible evidence that the grown-ups have since won, one may purchase a Le Petit Prince necktie in red, navy, or forest green silk from the official online boutique).

This elephant in the, ah, hat is the theme of the novel: the stark line that divides literature and math, art and science, body and soul, things that can be measured and things that must be imagined. The elephant is metaphor, the building block of art, and to speak of it to the grown-ups is, to invoke Mayakovsky (reprised by Billy Bragg), like “talking to the taxman about poetry.” (The exact opposite of Exupéry’s pastoral innocence may well be another midcentury children’s book for grown-ups, or “precocious adults,” written by an American woman. In Kay Thompson’s arch, hilarious Eloise, the joy and humor come directly out of seeing a six-year-old girl engage with all the worldly pleasures of urban adulthood — charge cards, room service, boxing matches, mother’s feathered mules — at her disposal).

This horror of the adult world seems cruel when inflicted upon children and teens just at the verge of crossing its threshold (not to mention generations of practicing artists, who, in Exupéry’s terms, encounter the dubious choice between remaining a lifelong child or switching to the MBA track). Like many others who romanticize the purity of childhood, the boundary for Exupéry seems to be adolescence.  

His “grown-ups,” especially in midcentury terms, seem to be of a single gender as well: The grown-up is the person who pays the bills, the put-upon patriarch who labors without any particular love to support a family to whom he feels little more than obligated. One wonders if it is unkind to point out that this preoccupation with materialism was required more of the French petite bourgeoisie, whereas those of Exupéry’s aristocratic class tended to be encouraged to pursue more enlightened pursuits. Those inclined towards psychoanalysis — another popular midcentury pastime — might also point out that while Exupéry, the child, was raised to believe in his enlightened future, Exupéry, the young adult, discovered that his family’s status was more material in name than in fortune, and thus was strongly encouraged to rustle up a few beans of his own to count.

There is no doubt whatsoever that love for a young lady is the thorn in our little boy’s side. He is driven off his home planet when made half mad over the love of a flower, a rose described as vain, weak, emotionally manipulative, “contradictory,” and given to “silly pretensions,” and who often coughs to hide her lies. “You must never listen to flowers,” confides the prince. “You must look at them and smell them.”

This unflattering portrayal of romantic love seems even less appealing when one considers that the prince’s rose is widely considered to be a stand-in for Exupéry’s wife, Consuelo Sunsin, a tempestuous beauty from El Salvador (like the prince’s planet, home to three volcanoes), whom he often left alone during his travels, while he engaged in frequent adultery — the sin so singular to adulthood it shares its name. Consuelo was no shy flower herself, but the portrait she created of their marriage in her posthumous memoir The Tale of the Rose: The Love Story Behind the Little Prince, published days before the centennial celebration of Exupéry’s birth in 2000, was damning enough to put quite a damper on the festivities.

Despite the devout love it has inspired in generations of impressionable teenagers about to cross over into courtships of their own, Le Petit Prince is not a particularly convincing love story. It is better at describing the platonic friendship between equals that sustain men wandering away from their women: the prince and the fox; the pilot and the prince. The prince protects his rose, shields her behind glass, but never understands her. In a grisly twist, the souvenir he brings back to his planet to commemorate his travels — the sheep in the box — may or may not kill her. Even the book itself was never dedicated to the rose. Instead, it was dedicated to Exupéry’s friend, the art critic and anarchist Leon Werth. Even that veered too close to the grown-ups for the prince of boyhood, so it was revised: “To Leon Werth, when he was a little boy.”  But those of us who are not — or have never been — little boys can still buy our place at the table. The “Little Prince T-shirt for Grown-ups,” in black and Prussian blue, is available now at the online boutique for men up to XL. Women, too.