Everybody loves The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Except me. Every time the name comes up, there is a universal “Oh, I love the Little Prince,” accompanied by a wistful, faraway look. I’m never sure if they mean the book or the character. I quite like the little guy myself, especially from his pictures: the blond curls, the simple tunic, the flare-legged pants, the jaunty yellow aviator’s scarf. Adorable.
But by the third paragraph of The Little Prince, I knew I wasn’t going to like the story. Here’s why.
The narrator, as a child, had decided to dismiss all adults as unworthy of his attention because they were unable to figure out that his two drawings are of an elephant inside a boa constrictor, one from the outside of the snake and one from the inside.
When I read this, I was about 14, not yet an adult. Even then, though, it seemed unjust to write off a huge swath of the population on such a flimsy basis. Sister St. Remi, my high school French teacher, assigned The Little Prince to pique our interest in things French. We were moony teenagers and it sure didn’t hurt that the author had this oh-so-Frenchy name and had been a pilot killed on a reconnaissance mission in WWII.
In the real world of a Catholic girls high school, I couldn’t decipher how or why the other girls coalesced in their shifting permutations throughout the day. I found gaggles of them fogging up the lavatory with hair spray. They, seemingly spontaneously, knew where and when to gather at lunch. Everyone knew just how far to roll up the waists of their uniform skirts to the exact same hemline length. Even on the school bus, everyone but me had her place.
No one was mean to me. No one was nasty. I was invisible. Maybe that’s why the narrator’s exclusion of people for not being able to figure things out hit too close to home.
A lot of people only remember the pictures and have forgotten the story. So, a short recap. The narrator becomes a pilot and crashes in the African desert. There he meets the little prince, who had fallen to earth from his planet, Asteroid B-612. They bond over the fact that the little prince immediately recognizes that the pilot’s pictures were of an elephant inside a boa constrictor.
On his tiny planet, the little prince rakes out his three volcanoes, uproots baobab shoots so they don’t over run the planet and takes care of his rose. His rose is a bit vain and a bit temperamental. She is proud of her four thorns and coughs to make the little prince put up a screen to block the wind. She is never quite satisfied with what he does. The little prince felt put upon by the rose and decides to leave. He explores several other planets on his way to earth and meets a series of adults, who all seem foolish to him. So, the little prince, like our narrator, also decides that adults are unworthy of his concern.
In my late 30s, I thought I should give The Little Prince another shot. Maybe it was because by then I had a little boy of my own. I was divorced from his dad. I had graduated from medical school and residency and was struggling to make it in the business of medicine. I was also struggling to find a new man in my life. Few men were interested in dating an “older” woman with a child and who had to take phone calls, or even leave for the hospital, any time of the day and night. The Little Prince made me feel even less hopeful of a lasting relationship.
Back to our story. The little prince meets a fox. The fox tells the prince that he must tame the fox if he wants to have a relationship. The fox says, “If you want a friend, tame me!”
“ ‘What do I have to do?’ asked the little prince.
“ ‘You have to be very patient,’ the fox answered.
‘First you’ll sit down a little ways away from me, over there, in the grass. I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye, and you won’t say anything. But day by day, you’ll be able to sit a little closer….’”
“The next day the little prince returned. ‘It would be better to return at the same time each day,’ said the fox.”
Reading this scene with all of the fox’s relationship proscriptions, I felt my frustration with my so-called love life boil over. Why do people play games and have such elaborate and opaque rituals? Who makes up these rules? And why didn’t I get the memo? Again, this book made me feel isolated and lacking.
I thought it was only fair to reread The Little Prince before writing this piece. Right before meeting the fox, the little prince walks into a garden full of hundreds of roses. His rose had told him that she was the only flower like that in the universe. And here were hundreds of them. The little prince was distraught about this betrayal until the fox explained to the prince that his rose will always be above those common roses because of the care he has lavished on her. The little prince wonders if his rose has tamed him. The fox also tells the little prince, “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
The narrator, the crashed pilot, finds out bits and pieces of the little prince’s story during their time together. He is charmed by the little prince. They share an adventure looking for desperately needed drinking water. During the search, the little prince tires and falls asleep. The aviator picks him up and carries him. They find the well and take pleasure in the squeal of the rusty pulley and the effort of pulling up the bucket. When the little prince drinks the water, it is delicious because of the shared adventure and the shared effort.
When it was time for the little prince to return to his planet, the little prince consoled the aviator by telling him that, because he knows that the little prince is on his planet in the sky, all the stars will be special to him. And the little prince will be looking at the sky as well, and it will remind him of the delicious water.
On my dining room wall is a Chinese landscape painting in the blue-green style. The theme is fairly conventional, a scholar and his acolyte, enjoying nature. This painting belonged to my dad, who died in 2011. He lived with my husband and me for three years before his death. He had suffered a devastating stroke. We moved him from room to room in a wheelchair. His speech was garbled. During those three years, it was my routine to show dad one or two Chinese paintings from his collection because he got such pleasure from them. One day, as we were looking at this particular painting, he pointed to the scholar in flowing white robes dancing on a mountain overlook and then put his finger on his own chest. Then, with a huge effort, he croaked out, “That’s me.”
Like the stars to the pilot and like the water to the little prince, there is a special meaning in that painting that is mine alone. When I see the scholar in the painting, I see with my heart, and it’s like a part of my dad is still with me. The little prince is right in this respect. But unlike the little prince, I don’t think we should ignore or reject people who are pre-occupied with worldly things. They need our compassion and patience. I think in time, the little prince will come to share my view. He is still so young….
Tell me: Is there a book, TV show or movie that everybody loved except you? And why?