Overview

The Little Prince is a novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in which a little prince meets a pilot stranded in the desert. The prince tells the pilot that he was born on an asteroid and he recounts many strange encounters from his travels.

  • The little prince tells the pilot about the people he met on other asteroids during his travels.

  • The two nearly die of dehydration, but, after walking all night, they finally find a well.

  • Having decided to return home, the little prince allows himself to be bitten by a snake. He promises the pilot that they will always be connected.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5066

Antoine de Saint Exupéry was born in France but wrote and illustrated The Little Prince during a self-imposed exile in America. This children’s book was published in 1943; a year later, the author was presumably shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean for his French air squadron.

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Summary

When he was six, the narrator read a book about jungles and was fascinated with the fact that a boa constructor swallows its prey whole and then sleeps for six months while the meal digests. He drew a picture of the boa in this state; it looked kind of like a lumpy hat. When he showed it to adults, they all thought it was a lumpy hat and told him to study the important subjects in school, like geography. So he became a pilot and flew all over the world (a job in which his geography studies were helpful). Later, as an adult, he used the drawing to decide what kind of adults people were. If they looked at the picture and saw a lumpy hat, he talked about golf and bridge and politics; he never mentioned jungles or boa constrictors or stars. He lived without anyone to really talk to for a long time—until six years ago, when he was forced to make a crash landing in the Sahara Desert. He was a thousand miles from nowhere with a broken plane and eight days worth of water. That night, he hears a voice asking him to draw a sheep.

Startled, he wakes up to see a little boy, dressed handsomely and not looking in the least lost or abandoned a thousand miles from nowhere. The boy asks him again to draw him a sheep. The pilot starts to draw but then remembers he does not know how to draw very well because he was told to concentrate on other things while in school. The boy says that does not matter, and the pilot draws the only thing he knows how to draw—an elephant inside a boa constrictor, which looks kind of like a lumpy hat. When the boy sees the drawing, he says he does not want a drawing of a boa constrictor with an elephant inside; he wants a SHEEP. This young boy sees what the pilot sees—he understands. The pilot makes several drawings of a sheep, but each of them is somehow wrong: one is too old, one is a ram, one is sick. The boy wants a small sheep because where he lives everything is small. The pilot finally draws a small crate and tells the boy the small sheep is inside the crate, and the boy says it is perfect. He can even see the small sheep inside the crate.

That is how the pilot meets the little prince. He does not know much about him at first because the prince is much better at asking questions than answering them. One of the first things he discovers is that the little boy is from another planet. When the pilot offers to draw a rope to tie up the little sheep, the prince laughs because everything is so small where he lives that the sheep cannot wander far at all. The pilot knows (but forgot) that there are hundreds of small, unnamed planets that have been numbered instead of named. Over time, the pilot comes to believe that the little prince comes from a place identified as Asteroid B-612 by a Turkish astronomer. The pilot apologizes for his drawings, for it has been a long time since he tried to draw—and he is, after all, a grown-up who cannot see a sheep through the sides of a drawing of a crate.

The next thing the pilot discovers about the prince’s planet has to do with baobabs, pesky bushes that start small but eventually grow and take over all the ground around it. On his very small planet, the ground is infested with baobab seeds; if they grow too big, their roots can cause a tiny planet to “burst into pieces.” The young boy says he must be disciplined to pull all the baobabs regularly or they will soon take over the entire planet. Children must be warned not to put off their necessary chores or it may be too late.

On the morning of the fourth day, the pilot learns a little more about the prince’s life. One of the only pleasures on his tiny planet is watching sunsets. On earth, it is usually possible to see only one sunset per day; on his planet, the prince only has to move his chair a few feet to see many in one day. One day the prince saw forty-four sunsets and it made him happy, for everyone knows sunsets are wonderful, especially when one is feeling sad.

Five days after the crash, the pilot is beginning to get nervous about his lack of water and his broken plane. The prince asks him if sheep eat flowers as well as bushes, and the pilot tells him sheep eat everything. He asks if they even eat flowers with thorns. The answer is yes, and the prince wants to know what thorns are good for if they do not protect the flowers. The distracted pilot is annoyed and tells the prince that thorns are simply a flower’s way of being mean. This outrages the prince, who shakes his golden curls and accuses the pilot of being like a grown-up. Flowers have been producing thorns for millions of years, he says, and it is worth considering why they create thorns. He has a unique flower of which there is only one on his planet, a flower he loves a great deal. If a sheep comes along and eats it, all happiness will be gone. The boy tells the adult that is important and can say nothing more and bursts into tears. The hapless pilot drops his tools and tries to comfort the sobbing prince. He offers to draw a muzzle for the sheep or a fence for the flower.

As time passes, the pilot learns more about flowers on the prince’s planet. Until the arrival of this flower, simple flowers bloomed every morning and faded away every night. This one flower is exceptionally vain and grooms herself carefully before finally blossoming one morning. She expects the prince to serve her, and he does. She demands water and a screen because she has a horror of drafts. Her next request is for a glass box with which he can enclose her every night. The prince listens to her too much and comes to distrust her; what he should have done, he knows now, is judge her by her actions rather than her words. Then he would have loved her for perfuming his planet and lighting up his life; but he was “too young to know how to love her.”

On the day the little prince leaves his planet, he puts everything in order. He rakes two of his volcanoes (which come in quite handy for cooking), uproots the last baobab plant, and waters the flower for the last time. As he places the glass over her, she apologizes for being so silly and never telling him she loved him. She tells him she does not need the glass covering, for if she ever wants to meet some butterflies she must get acquainted with a few caterpillars. Then she tells him to go, for she does not want him to see her crying. He is able to leave the planet, the pilot surmises, by taking advantage of some migrating birds.

The little prince’s first stop after leaving his own tiny planet is an asteroid on which lives a king. When the purple-robed king sees his visitor, he commands the little prince to step forward (to a king, everyone is a subject). The little prince tries to step forward, but he cannot because the entire planet is covered with the king’s ermine robe. This king is an absolute monarch, so what he says must happen; however, he changes his commands at will. When the prince yawns, the king commands him to stop; when the prince says he cannot stop, the king commands him to yawn. The king explains that he is in control of the universe, and if his command is not obeyed it is because he, the king, expected too much. The prince asks the king to produce a sunset, which the king promises to do—when the conditions are right, at about 7:40 that evening. The little prince has seen all there is on this planet (having looked first at one side, then the other) and prepares to leave. The king, proud of finally having a subject over whom to reign, commands him to stay and makes him a minister of justice. When the boy points out there is no one over whom to pronounce justice, the king offers to make him an ambassador. The little prince leaves anyway, thinking that grown-ups are strange.

On the second planet, the prince meets a vain man who greets him as an admirer (to a vain man, everyone is an admirer). The man is wearing an odd hat and orders the boy to clap. When he does, the man doffs his hat. The prince wonders what would happen if he continues clapping, so he does, and the vain man keeps doffing his hat. When the clapping and doffing stop, the man asks the prince if he really does admire him as the most handsome, richest, best-dressed, and most intelligent man on the planet. The prince is puzzled, for he is the only man on the planet, but the man asks for his admiration all the same. Again the prince leaves the planet thinking that grown-ups are very strange.

The next planet is inhabited by a drunkard. Though the prince’s visit is short, it causes him to be depressed. He meets the drunkard sitting in front of an assortment of both full and empty bottles and asks what the man is doing. The man answers that he is drinking. When the prince asks why, he says he is drinking to forget he is ashamed. When asked what he is ashamed of, the man answers he is ashamed of drinking and lapses into silence. The prince leaves this planet thinking grown-ups are very, very strange.

On the fourth planet he finds a businessman too busy even to look up when his visitor arrives. He is very serious, he says, and does not appreciate being interrupted when he is counting. He is at

five-hundred-and-one-million, six-hundred-twenty-two thousand, seven hundred thirty-one.

When the prince finally asks enough times, the serious businessman tells him he is counting the little gold things in the sky that cause lazy people to daydream. The prince is bewildered at the man’s thinking he owns the stars, but the man insists he thought of it first so he owns them. He writes the number down and places it in a locked drawer, and that is enough for him. The prince explains that he owns three volcanoes he rakes and a flower he cares for, so he is useful to the things he owns. He asks the man how useful he is to the stars he owns. The man looks at him but has nothing to say. The prince once more leaves a planet thinking that grown-ups are very, very, very strange.

Even more strange is the fifth and smallest planet, which is big enough only for a lamplight and a lamplighter. At first it seems absurd to the prince to have a lamp and a lamplighter where there is no one who needs the light, but at least adding light to the universe is useful. The man lights his lamp according to orders: he lights it every night and turns it off every morning. Unfortunately, the planet is turning faster and faster, and the orders have not changed even though the planet now revolves once a minute. The poor lamplighter is exhausted, but the prince is impressed with the man’s faithful obedience to orders. The boy offers to show the lamplighter how to get a little rest, and the man is eager to hear it because he is both lazy and faithful. The prince tells him if he walks slowly around the planet, he will always be in the sun and will not have to light his lamp. The man scoffs at this plan, for he wants to sleep, not walk. There is nothing more to be done on this planet, but the little prince is reluctant to leave because the planet is blessed with 1,440 sunsets every twenty-four hours.

The sixth planet is much bigger than the fifth—ten times bigger—and is inhabited by an older man who writes gigantic books. The gentleman greets the prince as an explorer, and the boy sits down on the desk, for he is weary from his travels. The man tells him he is a geographer, and the prince is pleased to at last meet someone with a real profession. When he asks the man if his beautiful planet contains any mountains, the man says he does not know. He does not know about oceans, cities, rivers, or deserts, either. He does not have time to actually leave his desk to see anything; he is a geographer, not an explorer. Instead, he spends his days questioning explorers and writing down what they tell him—after checking their moral character, of course; if an explorer lies, the books will not be accurate. Explorers must furnish proof of their claims; for instance, if an explorer claims to have discovered a mountain, he must bring a large rock as proof. The prince suggests the geographer can simply go look for himself, but the man dismisses the idea as being too complicated. The geographer suddenly realizes he should be asking the prince about his planet, but the boy says there is not much to see: three volcanoes (one extinct) and a flower. Geographers record only the eternal, and he promptly dismisses the flower as being ephemeral. The prince argues that even an extinct volcano can come back to life and asks what ephemeral means. When he is finally told that it means “threatened by imminent disappearance,” the prince realizes he left his flower in some danger because she only has four small thorns to defend her against the entire world. Although he experiences a moment of regret, he is determined to continue his journey and asks the geographer for his advice on a place to visit. The man recommends the planet Earth, for it has a good reputation, so the seventh planet on the prince’s journey is Earth.

Earth is a wonderful planet, full of kings, businessmen, drunkards, geographers, and vain men—all grown-ups. The most glorious, though, are the 462,511 lamplighters who, before the invention of electricity, created a moving ball of fire every day, starting with New Zealand and moving around the planet. (Two lamplighters have the easiest jobs of all, for those stationed at the North and South Poles only have to work twice a year.) The pilot says he is only joking about the lamplighters, for even if all the people on the Earth—all two billion of them—gathered together in one place they would only fill a space the size of twenty square blocks. Grown-ups never believe that, for they are convinced they take up more room.

When the prince lands on earth, he is dismayed to see no one else there. He is greeted only by a snake who tells him he is in an African desert and asks why he has come to Earth. The prince tells him he is “having difficulties with a flower,” and the snake sagely nods his head. After a silence, the prince asks where the people are, for it is lonely in the desert. The snake replies that it is also lonely with people; the prince comments that the snake is a funny little creature and quite small. The snake coils around the boy’s ankle and tells him he is powerful enough to send a person back to the land from which he came. The boy is innocent and comes from a star, so the creature cannot do anything to him; but he says he feels sorry for the weak boy who has come to this hard planet and says one day, "If he gets too homesick, he can—." The boy interrupts and asks why he always speaks in riddles. The snake says he solves them all, and then they are silent.

As the little prince begins his journey through the desert, he sees only one inconsequential flower, which has only three petals. When the boy asks where the people are, he is told there are only seven or eight of them but they have no roots and blow as the wind does. He has no idea where the boy might find people, so the prince continues his walk through the desert. Soon he climbs a rocky mountain, thinking he will surely see some people from this great height. He is disappointed to see no people and hollers out a “hello” in case anyone is there. An echo answers “hello” back to him many times. The boy asks where he is and tells him he is lonely. All he hears in return is “I’m lonely” repeated over and over, which makes the prince wish for his own planet. Here things are hard and there is no imagination, he thinks, for people simply repeat what you say to them. On his planet he has a flower, and she always speaks first.

The boy continues walking a long way, though rocks and sand and snow, until he finds a road and follows it until he sees a garden full of blossoming flowers that look just like his flower! He asks in astonishment who they are, and they tell him they are roses. The little prince feels quite unhappy, for his flower told him she was the only one of her kind in the entire universe, and here there are thousands of them in this one garden. She would be so annoyed to know that she is not as special as she thought, and the prince thinks the same for himself. He thought he was rich because he had one precious flower, but now he knows he only owns an ordinary rose. And his volcanoes only come up to his knees—and one of them is probably permanently extinct. He realizes he is not much of a prince, and he lies down in the grass and weeps.

Soon a fox appears, and the boy asks him to come play with him. The fox says he must hide, for he is not tame, but he asks what the boy is looking to find. When he learns the boy is looking for people, the fox says people are troublesome because they have guns and hunt, though they do have chickens. When the prince asks what tame means, the fox explains that right now he is one of many foxes and the boy is one of many boys, and they mean nothing to each other. If the boy were to tame him, then they would need one another forever. After reflecting, the boy thinks he has been tamed by a flower. The fox begs the boy to tame him, for everything is the same and he is bored; if he were tame he would be happy at the sound of the boy’s footsteps or the sight of his golden hair. When the prince says he would like to but he has much still to learn, the fox explains the only things to be learned are the things one tames. People no longer have time to learn anything, says the fox, since they buy everything ready-made at the store; since they cannot buy friends, they have no friends. So, says the fox, if the boy wants a friend he should tame him. It takes a complex series of rites and rituals, but eventually the fox is tamed. It is time for the prince to leave, and the fox is sad. He tells to boy to visit the roses again and he will share a secret with him when he returns.

The boy sees that these roses are nothing like his flower, for they are not tamed. The fox, who was just one of a hundred thousand others, is now his friend; the same is true of his flower. She is the most important flower—more important than all of these put together—for she is the one he cares for in every way. When he returns to the fox, the creature shares this secret:

One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

It is the time a person spends on things that makes them important, and he is forever responsible for what he has tamed—including his rose. As he continues his journey, the prince meets a railroad switchman who explains that people are coming and going, and no one really knows why. Only the children have their noses pressed against the windows to see what they are missing. The prince observes that only the children must know what they are looking for, and he is sad for them. Next he encounters a salesclerk who sells pills that are guaranteed to quench thirst. The prince wonders why he sells such pills, and the man tells him it has been calculated that these pills save a person fifty-three minutes a week in which to do whatever he would like. The little prince says if he had fifty-three minutes of leisure he would spend it walking very slowly toward a water fountain.

The pilot listened to the prince’s story about the salesclerk on the eighth day after crashing his plane and while drinking the last drop of his water supply. He tells the boy it has been very fine to listen to his tales, but he has not repaired his plane and there is no water fountain in sight. The prince starts to mention the fox but is interrupted by the comment that the fox has nothing to do with any of this. Well, says the prince, it seems very good to have had a friend, even if he is going to die. The pilot thinks this is all very well for a boy who does not suffer the effects of too little water or hunger, but the boy hears his thought and suggests they go find a well. The pilot knows it is absurd to look for a well in the desert in such a random manner, but they begin walking.

Several hours later, after nightfall, the boy is tired and they sit to rest. The prince stares at the stars and explains that the stars are beautiful because of a flower no one can see. The desert, too, is beautiful because it hides a well somewhere in its vastness. The pilot remembers a story about buried treasure from his past, and he says what makes things beautiful is their being invisible. As the little prince is falling asleep, the pilot picks him up and continues walking. He looks at the beautiful boy and thinks that what he sees is just a shell and what is most important about the boy is invisible. He is moved by the small boy’s big loyalty to a flower; he knows the boy is fragile and must be protected.

At daybreak the pilot finds the well, a brick structure complete with rope and pulley with nothing else anywhere near it. This is an unusual sight in the Sahara. The pulley makes a creaking sound (which the boy calls a song) as the pilot pulls, and the sun glistens on the water as it reaches the surface. The prince asks to drink, and the pilot understands this is what the boy has been looking for all along. The sights and sounds and effort allow him to enjoy his drink completely—like Christmas, the pilot thinks. People on earth, says the prince, grow five thousand roses in one garden but never find what they are looking for, yet it could be found in one single rose or in one sip of water. The pilot understands.

The prince reminds him to keep his promise. At the puzzled look on the man’s face, the boy reminds him he promised to draw a muzzle for the sheep—to protect his flower. The pilot keeps his promise but is hesitant to give the drawing to the boy, for he senses the prince will be leaving soon. Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the prince’s arrival on Earth. The prince landed very near here, but he is reluctant to say much more. The pilot understands that the boy had been wandering through a thousand miles of wilderness in order to return to the place where he fell to Earth, and he feels grief at the thought of the boy’s leaving. That is what happens when a pilot allows himself to be tamed. He spends the day working on his plane and then returns to find the boy perched on a piece of rock wall. He appears to be having a conversation with someone, though the pilot sees no one around him. The boy is assuring whoever-it-is that this is the right day but not the right place; the prince asks if he is sure the poison is good and will not make him suffer too long. He then insists that whoever-it-is go away, for he wants to get down off the wall. The pilot approaches and looks over the wall; there he sees a poisonous yellow snake coiled below the boy. Before the man can grab his gun and shoot it, the snake slithers into a hole in the rocks. The prince is pale and shaken, and he grabs the man around the neck and holds on tight; his little heart is racing like a dying bird’s after it has been shot. After looking into the pilot’s eyes, the boy says he is glad the pilot will be able to fly again. The stunned pilot wonders how this small boy knows that is what he was coming to tell him, but the boy is sad and says his journey is much longer and much more difficult. Something awful is about to happen to the little prince. The pilot is holding the little prince, but it feels as if the boy is dropping into an abyss. The sad boy reminds the sad man that it is the invisible things that matter, like a flower on a distant star and a drink of water that feels like music. The boy says he will be frightened tonight, and the pilot says he wishes to hear him laugh one more time.

The prince offers the man a present. For him, now, all the stars will be important, for he will not know on which of them resides the prince. Some people see the stars as guides, others as lights, and some see them as puzzles or problems to be solved. The businessman even saw them as gold. For all of them, though, the stars are silent—but not now for the pilot. He will know that the little prince is laughing on one of those stars; when he looks up at night, all stars will be laughing stars. It is a final gift the boy leaves for the man.

Then the prince grows serious and says the pilot should leave him so he will not have to see what is going to happen. He says there will be suffering and it will even look like he is dying, but the pilot is not dissuaded and vows he will not leave him alone. The boy seems a bit relieved and says the snake may bite a second time, but he only has poison for one bite. That night the prince walks away without the pilot’s hearing him, but the man catches up to the boy, who places his hand confidently in the pilot’s strong hand. He says again the man will suffer, for it will look as if he is dead, though it will not be true. The pilot is silent and the boy continues. He says his body is too heavy and cannot go with him, and he reminds the grown-up that his body is nothing more than an empty shell anyway, then he fades into weeping.

He arrives at the proper place and sits because he is frightened. He reminds the man he must return to protect his flower, a rose with only four ridiculous little thorns to protect her against the entire world. The pilot sits, too, because he can no longer stand. The boy stands and takes a step; the man cannot move. There is a yellow flash close to the boy’s ankle. He does not cry out; he simply falls gently and soundlessly into the sand.

Now it has been six years, and the pilot has never before told this story. He arrived home safely, though he was sad. He told his friends it was fatigue. He is somewhat consoled, though not entirely. The little body was gone at daybreak, so he knows the prince arrived safely. But now something extraordinary has happened. The pilot remembers he did not draw a leather strap, so there is no way the prince would be able to put the muzzle on his sheep. Sometimes the pilot thinks the flower is okay because the prince guards his flower so well, and the stars all laugh sweetly. Other times the pilot thinks the prince might get careless and forget the glass cover or not see the sheep sneak out of its crate at night, and the stars’ laughter turns to tears. For the pilot, as for all of us, the universe can never be the same if one does not know if somewhere a sheep one has not seen has or has not eaten a rose one also has never seen. It is all a great mystery.

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