The Little Prince (French: Le Petit Prince), published in 1943, is French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s most famous novella. Saint-Exupéry wrote it while living in the United States. It has been translated into more than 180 languages and sold more than 80 million copies making it one of the best selling books ever.
An earlier memoir by the author recounts his aviation experiences in the Saharan desert. He is thought to have drawn on these same experiences for use as plot elements in The Little Prince. Saint-Exupéry’s novella has been adapted to various media over the decades, including stage, screen and operatic works.
In the first eight days of the narrator being stranded in the desert, the prince has been telling these stories to the narrator:
The prince asks the narrator to draw a sheep. Not knowing how to draw a sheep, the narrator shows the prince a picture that he had previously drawn; a boa with an elephant in its stomach, a drawing which previous viewers mistook for a hat. “No! No!”, exclaims the prince. “I don’t want a boa constrictor from the inside or outside. I want a sheep!…”. He tries a few sheep drawings, which the prince rejects. Finally he draws a box, which he explains has the sheep inside. The prince, who can see the sheep inside the box just as well as he can see the elephant in the boa, says “That’s perfect”.
The home asteroid or “planet” of the little prince is introduced. His asteroid (planet) is house-sized and named B612, which has three volcanoes (two active, and one dormant) and a rose among various other objects. The actual naming of the asteroid B612 is an important concept in the book that illustrates the fact that adults will only believe a scientist who is dressed or acts the same way as they do. According to the book, the asteroid was sighted by a Turkish astronomer in 1909 who had then made a formal demonstration of asteroid B612 to the International Astronomical Congress. “No one had believed him on account of the way he was dressed.” Then, he and his people dressed like Europeans and went again to present asteroid B612 to the International Astronomical Congress and they fully believed him and this time credited him with the work.
The prince spends his days caring for his “planet”, pulling out the baobab trees that are constantly trying to take root there. The trees will make his little planet turn to dust if they are not removed. Throughout the book he is taught to be patient and to do hard work to keep his “planet” in order. The prince falls in love with a rose that takes root in his planet, who returns his love but is unable to express it due to her own pettiness. He leaves to see what the rest of the universe is like, and visits six other asteroids (numbered from 325 to 330) each of which is inhabited by an adult who is foolish in his own way:
The King who can apparently “control” the stars but only by ordering them to do what they would do anyway. He then relates this to his human subjects; it is the citizens’ duty to obey, but only if the king’s demands are reasonable. He orders the prince to leave as his ambassador.
The Conceited Man who wants to be admired by everyone, but lives alone on his planet. He cannot hear anything that is not a compliment.
The Drunkard/Tippler who drinks to forget that he is ashamed of drinking.
The Businessman who is constantly busy counting the stars he thinks he owns. He wishes to use them to buy more stars. The prince then goes on to define property. The prince owns the flower and volcanoes on his planet because he cares for them and they care for him, but because one cannot maintain the stars or be of use to them, he argues, the Businessman cannot own them.
The Lamplighter who lives on an asteroid which rotates once a minute. Long ago, he was charged with the task of lighting the lamp at night and extinguishing it in the morning. At that point, the asteroid revolved at a reasonable rate, and he had time to rest. As time went on, the rotation sped up. Refusing to turn his back on his work, he now lights and extinguishes the lamp once a minute, getting no rest. The prince empathizes with the Lamplighter, the only adult he has met who cares about something other than himself.
The Geographer who spends all of his time making maps, but never leaves his desk to examine anywhere (even his own planet), considering that is the job of an explorer. The Geographer is in any case very doubting of any explorer’s character and would most likely disregard the report. He does not trust things he has not seen with his own eyes, yet will not leave his desk. Out of professional interest, the geographer asks the prince to describe his asteroid. The prince describes the volcanoes and the rose. “We don’t record flowers”, says the geographer, “because they are only ephemeral”. The prince is shocked and hurt to learn that his flower will someday be gone. The geographer then recommends that he visit the Earth.
On the Earth, he starts out in the desert and meets a snake that claims to have the power to return him to his home planet (A clever way to say that he can kill people, thus “Sending anyone he wishes back to the land from whence he came.”) The prince meets a desert-flower, who, having seen a caravan pass by, tells him that there are only a handful of men on Earth and that they have no roots, which lets the wind blow them around making life hard on them. The little prince climbs the highest mountain he has ever seen. From the top of the mountain, he hopes he will see the whole planet and find people, but he sees only a desolate, craggy landscape. When the prince calls out, his echo answers him, and he mistakes it for the voices of humans. He thinks Earth is unnecessarily sharp and hard, and he finds it odd that the people of Earth only repeat what he says to them.
Eventually, the prince comes upon a whole row of rosebushes, and is downcast because he thought that his rose was the only one in the whole universe. He begins to feel that he is not a great prince at all, as his planet contains only three tiny volcanoes and a flower he now thinks of as common. He lies down in the grass and weeps.
Chapter 21: is the author’s statement about human love in that the prince then meets and tames a fox, who explains to the prince that his rose is unique and special, because she is the one that he loves. He also explains that in a way he has tamed the flower, as she has tamed him, and that this is why he now feels responsible for her.
The prince then meets a railway switchman and a merchant who provide further comments on the ridiculousness and absurdity of much of the human condition. The switchman tells the prince how passengers constantly rush from one place to another aboard trains, never satisfied with where they are and not knowing what they are after, only the children amongst them bothering to look out of the windows. The merchant tells the prince about his product, a pill which eliminates thirst and is therefore very popular, saving people fifty-three minutes a week; the prince replies that he would use the time to walk and find fresh water.
The narrator is dying of thirst, but then he and the prince find a well. After some thought, the prince bids an emotional farewell to the narrator, explaining to him that while it will look as though he has died, he has not, but rather that his body is too heavy to take with him to his planet. He tells the narrator that it was wrong of the narrator to come and watch, as it will make him sad. The prince allows the snake to bite him and the next morning, when the narrator looks for the prince, he finds the boy’s body has disappeared.
The story ends with a portrait of the landscape where the meeting of the prince and the narrator took place and where the snake took the prince’s life. The picture is deliberately vague but the narrator also makes a plea that anyone encountering a strange child in that area who refuses to answer questions should contact the narrator immediately.
The little prince is represented as having been on Earth for one year, and the narrator ends the story six years after he is rescued from the desert.