Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Critical Essays

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

“The airplane,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Wind, Sand, and Stars, “has helped us to discover the true face of the earth; for centuries, the roads had kept us fooled.” Throughout his career, at first in fictionalized narrative, later in such extended lyric essays as Wind, Sand, and Stars and The Wisdom of the Sands, Saint-Exupéry would exploit the still rare perspective of the aviator for his memorable insights into life, death, and the human condition. Regardless of the original “packaging,” Saint-Exupéry’s work is, in fact, all of a piece, with little distinction visible between his mature essays and those earlier works initially conceived and marketed as novels. As scholar of French fiction Wilbur M. Frohock has observed, Saint-Exupéry’s novels are indeed quite alike in theme and content: “An aviator is aloft in his plane exposed to danger by the very fact of flight itself, while another man, familiar with all the dangers the first is exposed to, anxiously awaits the outcome of the ordeal.” Southern Mail, Saint-Exupéry’s first published book, is the most novelistic of the lot, with a strong and memorable romantic subplot; thereafter, the stuff of adventure itself sufficed for the telling of a tale.

Characterization in Saint-Exupéry’s fiction, although always plausible, depends primarily on basic human responses to the combined stimuli of discovery and danger, tending toward Ernest Hemingway’s proclaimed ideal of “grace under pressure.” Even more important, however, is the lucidity apparently made possible by flight; in Saint-Exupéry’s strongest passages, solitude and altitude combine to form an epiphanic wisdom. From several thousand feet in the air, people and their buildings appear small indeed, the differences among them likewise diminished. Perceptive observations abound in Saint-Exupéry’s work, both fictional and otherwise; the pilot’s lucidity, once obtained, serves him admirably on the ground as well as in the air. One of his best-realized and most memorable reflections occurs at the end of Wind, Sand, and Stars, as the author recalls a recent train trip across Eastern Europe. Wandering from one end of his train to the other, Saint-Exupéry found himself walking through a third-class car filled with recently displaced laborers on their way back from France. On their faces, he claims, he could plainly read the dehumanizing effects of brutal, mindless work. Fixing his eyes on one particularly brutalized couple, he tries to reconstruct in his mind a time when either man or wife might have been attractive or might have found each other so. Unfortunately, he muses, “there is no gardener for men,” who grow up and grow old as they must, without cultivation. As the author muses, his gaze falls at last upon a promising-looking little boy, asleep between his parents. For want of proper attention, the boy will doubtless soon become as dehumanized as they are, to society’s ultimate loss. Looking around the car, he concludes, “It is as if, in each of these people, Mozart had been assassinated.”

Southern Mail

In his earliest published works, Saint-Exupéry intersperses his reflections with enough plot and characterization that the books might reasonably be classified as novels. Southern Mail presents the career and eventual death of the airmail pilot Jacques Bernis against the background of his feelings for Geneviève Herlin, a married woman two years his senior with whom he has apparently been in love since adolescence. Narrated by a nameless friend and fellow pilot who has known Geneviève as long as Bernis has, Southern Mail derives considerable effect from descriptions of Geneviève’s troubled marriage and the death of her young son. The main function of such background, however, is to deepen the portrayal of Bernis as a man, not merely as a pilot; included also are brief glimpses of his and the narrator’s youth, together with mention of the books that both boys were obliged to read in school. The challenge of aviation is thus related through the lives of two exemplary individuals who have chosen to accept it; the narrator, meanwhile, is careful to reveal somewhat less about himself than he does about Bernis.

In Southern Mail, Saint-Exupéry experiments frequently with narrative voice, seeking and occasionally finding the singular viewpoint of his later efforts. Couched initially in the first-person plural “we,” suggesting the fraternity of fliers, the...

(The entire section is 1855 words.)