(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Night Flight, Saint-Exupéry’s second novel, won the Prix Femina, a French literary prize awarded by a female jury, in 1931, the same year it was published. The award helped establish his fame in the literary world. The book is based on Saint-Exupéry’s experiences as a mail pilot and as the director of the Aeroposta Argentina Company. The book’s main character, Riviere, is based on Saint-Exupéry’s actual operational director in Argentina, Didier Daurat, to whom Saint-Exupéry dedicated the book.

The story is about the pilots who make night flights to deliver mail from Patagonia, Chile, and Paraguay to Argentina. During these early days of aviation, such journeys were extremely dangerous, and these courageous men risked their lives for their work. The two central characters are Fabien, one of the best pilots of the company, and Riviere, the director. One night, Fabien is lost in a storm, and when he does not return from his flight, Riviere is faced with the possibility of having lost his best pilot.

The narrative weaves back and forth between Fabien in flight, Riviere waiting back at the station, and Fabien’s wife, who waits in worry at home. The central conflict, however, takes place in the thoughts of Riviere, which make up most of the story. Torn between the devastation of Fabien’s disappearance and his duty as operational director, Riviere maintains a stern exterior, even while he grieves over the loss of his pilot internally. He is viewed as severe and even heartless by his men, whom he must continue to send out on night flights to deliver mail in order to keep the mail service running. Riviere also has the responsibility of informing Fabien’s wife of six weeks that he has been lost in flight.

This story displays the sort of philosophical rumination that Saint-Exupéry is known for, but it is more strongly rooted in narrative than his other works. Through the characters of Fabien, his wife, and Riviere, Saint-Exupéry portrays the ethical dilemma that Riviere faces between duty and compassion, while at the same time depicting the courage and devotion involved in the glory of flying.

Night Flight Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Fabien, along with his wireless operator, is flying at sunset, bringing the mail from Patagonia to Buenos Aires. Two other mail planes, one from Chile and one from Paraguay, are also headed for Buenos Aires, where another plane was to take off, at about two in the morning, with a cargo of South American mail intended for Europe. Fabien’s wireless operator, hearing reports of storms ahead, urges Fabien to land in San Julian for the night; but Fabien, looking at the clear sky and the first stars, refuses and heads for Buenos Aires.

At Buenos Aires, Rivière, the head of the mail service, is pacing the airport. Worried about the safety of his three planes, he is pleased when the plane from Chile lands safely early in the evening. Pellerin, the pilot of the plane from Chile, tells of flying through a great storm in the Andes. Although Pellerin had not experienced great difficulty, he is still shaken by his experience. Both men seem certain, at this point, that the storm would not cross the Andes. Robineau, the inspector at Buenos Aires, somewhat resentful of Rivière’s severity and unwillingness to relax discipline, reveals more pity for Pellerin’s experience than Rivière had shown. Robineau goes out to dinner with Pellerin, a meal over which they chat about women and domestic concerns, away from the tension of the airfield.

When Robineau returns to the field, Rivière criticizes him for making a friend of Pellerin. Rivière points out that supervisors, who had to order men to what might be their deaths, could not become friendly with the men under them; the supervisors had to maintain discipline and impersonality, because the success of the project, the conquest of space at night, depends on firm and immediate control. Rivière, although mastering the pain in his own side only with great difficulty, maintains severe discipline on the airfield at all times. He deprives pilots of bonuses if planes are not on time, no matter what the reason; he disciplines old Roblet severely for any minor infraction, even though Roblet had been the first man in Argentina to assemble a plane; he fires an electrician for some faulty wiring in a plane.

The wife of the pilot who was to fly from Buenos Aires to Europe receives a phone call. She awakens her husband, and he prepares for the flight. She is aware, as he is dressing, that he is already part of another world, that he has already lost interest in home, domesticity,...

(The entire section is 997 words.)