Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"The Essential Is Invisible to the Eyes:" A Review of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince

Title: Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)
Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company (1970)
Pages: 111
How I Came by This Book: I've seen the film The Little Prince (with Steve Warner, Richard Kiley, Gene Wilder, and Bob Fosse) and I went to several readings of it in French in college, but I had never actually read the book myself. Paris in July gave me the perfect excuse to read it and I managed to find, miracle of miracles, an edition at my library that had a glossary in the back. C'est parfait!
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge

Synopsis: A pilot crashes his plane into the desert and, while attempting to fix the damage, he meets a young boy who claims to be from another planet. The boy tells the pilot about all of the people he met on the way from his corner of the universe to Earth, forming a bond between the two. A simple, sweet story, Le Petit Prince is as heartwarming, funny, and unforgettable as it is sad.

Review: I was terrified to read this novel. Not because I didn't think I would enjoy it. I knew I would, having been exposed to it on multiple occasions. No, my fear sprang from the fact that this was the first book I would ever read entirely in a foreign language, a language that I know well enough but about which I have little confidence. I'm happy to report that I had no trouble at all reading it, especially with the added help of the aforementioned glossary that accompanied it. Regardless of what language you read it in, however, Le Petit Prince is one you'll want to revisit again and again.

The story is relatively simple. There's an unnamed pilot in the desert who meets an unnamed boy from another planet. The boy tells the pilot about where he came from, why he left, and what has happened to him since. Reading it in French, the verb tenses can be a little confusing, as much of the story is told in the past, but as long as you keep that in mind, it shouldn't be too hard to figure out what's being said. Those reading it in English, will obviously not have the same problem. The bits that are told in the present tense are about the boy and the pilot and the friendship that develops between them in the short time they spend together in the desert, a friendship that is touching and sad at the same time.

Saint-Exupéry's novel is an absolute joy to read. The humor that is present throughout the book is established in the first few pages when our narrator, the pilot, recounts his childhood dream of being an artist and the crushing blow he received from les grands personnes, or "the grown-ups." He draws a picture of an elephant inside of a boa constrictor and asks them if they think it's scary. They say:

<<Pourquoi un chapeau ferait-il peur?>> "Why would a hat be scary?"

Dessin Numéro 1 (Drawing #1)

The narrator, disheartened, asserts:

<<Mon dessin ne représentait pas un chapeau. Il représentait un serpent boa qui digérait un éléphant.>> "My drawing didn't represent a hat. It represented a boa constrictor digesting an elephant."

After his second drawing (which depicts the inside of the snake as well as the outside) fails to impress the grown-ups, he makes a very important decision:

<<C'est ainsi que j'ai abandonné, à l'âge de six ans, une magnifique carrière de peintre.>> "It was thus that I abandoned, at the age of six, a magnificent career in painting."

Dessin numéro 2 (Drawing #2)

This cheeky humor continues throughout the novel and is what drives the narrative. Both the pilot and the little prince share a healthy disdain for grown-ups and a pouty, sarcastic wit that is as endearing as it is funny.

The prince's journey from Asteroid B-612 to Earth takes up most of the short book's narrative. After an argument with a flower he has grown to care for and vowed to protect, the little prince leaves to find a new friend and travels to seven different planets where he meets a small cast of absurd grown-ups, all of whom disappoint him. There's the king who rules over no one; the conceited man who believes that the little prince should laud him; the drunk man who drinks to forget the shame he feels about drinking; the business man who thinks he owns the stars; the lamp-lighter who spends all day lighting and snuffing out his lamp; and the geographer who has never seen the geography on his planet. When the prince finally comes to Earth, he has about given up hope of finding another soul in the universe that he can connect with.

There are many things that he learns along the way, among them that roses aren't unique, people can disappoint you, no one really knows what they're searching for, and snakes are not to be trusted. The reader, too, learns lessons, the most important of which is that sometimes a friend can be found in the strangest of places. The boy and the pilot are both alone in the world and both have something they'd like to get back to--the pilot wants to return to civilization, the boy to his rose. How they achieve their separate goals is both uplifting and heartbreaking.

For those of you who haven't read the novel or who don't know the story, I don't want to give too much away. I will say that the end, for me, wasn't quite as tear-jerking as it was when I saw the film because I spent quite a bit of time looking in the glossary for words I didn't know and the switching back and forth sort of broke up the flow of what is a truly beautiful and tragic scene. There were huge chunks of text that I understood perfectly well, but there were others where I needed a bit of extra help. Having the vocabulary at my fingertips was immensely helpful and I only wish that the other book I'm going to be reading in French this month, Bonjour Tristesse, had a similar glossary included in it as well.

There is so much to love about this novel and I highly recommend reading it. Although it is, primarily, a book for children, les grands personnes can enjoy it as well. From its humor to its satirical nature to the powerful message it sends about friendship, Le Petit Prince is a must-read. I encourage anyone who has taken French and wants to attempt to read it in its original language to do so, especially if you can track down the Hougton Mifflin Educational Edition that I was lucky enough to find. Anyone who hasn't can find just as much enjoyment out of it in a translation. There is also the film that I mentioned earlier, which is rather good, although Bob Fosse's creepy portrayal of the snake often inched too close to pedophilia for comfort (though you do discover Michael Jackson's inspiration for the moonwalk...not that that makes it any less creepy).

I adored everything about this book and am giving it 5 out of 5 Gabriels.

Favorite Quote:
Voici mon secret. Il est très simple : on ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. (pg. 64)
Here's my secret. It's very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see well. The essential is invisible to the eyes.


  1. This is the second book that ever made me cry. The first was The Once and Future King by T H White. I read them both when I was a teenager. For his birthday last year I gave my son Le Petit Prince and a study guide to use the text to teach French. He's teaching himself so I thought he might like that. He loved it.

    And now you make me want to watch the musical which I have on dvd and first saw at Radio City Music Hall.

    Just another random comment from yours truly. :)

  2. I didn't realize there was a musical. I might have to check them out.

    I remember bawling at the end of the film when I watched it with a group of friends freshman year of college. It was me and the only other person in the group who was least likely to cry just sitting there with tears streaming down our faces as the rest of them looked at us like we were nuts.

    I've never read The Once and Future King, although I've heard great things about it.

    I love that your son is teaching himself French. As a language nerd, I'm always heartened when I see others being just as geeky as I am. I was shocked at how simple this book was to read, so it's definitely a great choice for someone learning the language.

    I love random comments. There's never enough of those in the world. :)