(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Le petit prince (The Little Prince)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The following entry presents criticism of Saint-Exupéry's Le petit prince (1943; The Little Prince).

Although renowned in his native country for his reflective, humanistic stories of the early days of aviation, Saint-Exupéry is best known in English-speaking countries for The Little Prince. Considered both a fantasy for children and a philosophically sophisticated allegory for adults, this story has attained the stature of a classic fairy tale, praised for its poignant story, poetic language, and whimsical illustrations.

Biographical Information

Saint-Exupéry was born into an aristocratic family in Lyons, France. From 1917 to 1919 he attended the Ecole Bossuet and the Lycee Saint-Louis, both naval preparatory schools, and later studied at a school for air cadets at Avord. He served in the French Army Air Force from 1921 to 1926 and became instrumental in the dangerous task of establishing mail routes across the African deserts and over the Andes mountains in South America, recounting his experiences during these treacherous flights in such works as Courriersud (Southern Mail), Vol de nuit (Night Flight), and Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand, and Stars). By 1934 he was serving as a publicity agent for Air France, and beginning in 1935 he served as a foreign correspondent for various newspapers. While flying for the French Air Force during World War II, Saint-Exupéry was shot down over enemy territory and escaped to the United States, where he became a lecturer and freelance writer as well as an important force in the French Resistance. It was also during this period that he wrote The Little Prince. Saint-Exupéry returned to active duty and flying in 1943; he was reported missing in action and presumed dead in July of the following year.

Plot and Major Characters

Written amidst the horror and confusion of the war, The Little Prince is widely viewed as a reaffirmation of Saint-Exupéry's belief in the importance of friendship, altruism, love, and imagination. The story is narrated by a pilot who has crashed in the desert and is attempting to repair his plane before his supplies run out. A child abruptly appears, and, as the two spend time together, the pilot learns the story of the boy, a prince who has come from an asteroid called B 612. Having left his asteroid to escape the tyrannical demands of his only companion there, an animate rose, the prince has visited six planets before coming to Earth, and the narrative of his experiences on those planets forms a catalog of human weaknesses and failings. During his travels, the prince discovers the true nature of his relationship with his rose: that it is his responsibility to the rose, rather than any intrinsic property of beauty or goodness, that makes her special to him. In order to return to his asteroid to be reunited with her, he allows himself to be bitten by a serpent, which will kill his body but free his spirit.

Critical Reception

Commentators have noted that The Little Prince contains sophisticated philosophical concepts that differentiate the work from most children's literature. In emphasizing the responsibility of the individual for the well-being of others, for example, Saint-Exupéry created a compelling argument for many of the altruistic activities in which he was involved, while the prince's experiences on other planets are widely viewed as an indictment of the types of behavior that cause society to require such remedies. Critics often focus on Saint-Exupéry's motive for writing the story, analyzing its autobiographical elements and its expression of the author's fears for the fate of Europe under fascism. Although some see such elements as detrimental to its role as children's fiction, The Little Prince is generally acknowledged as a successful allegory which can be enjoyed by children and adults. Maxwell A. Smith has written: "Because of its poetic charm,… its freshness of imagery, its whimsical fantasy, delicate irony and warm tenderness, it seems likely that The Little Prince will join that select company of books like La Fontaine's Fables, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Maeterlinck's Blue Bird, which have endeared themselves to children and grown-ups alike throughout the world."

Katherine S. White (essay date 1943)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Little Prince in The New Yorker, Vol. 19, May 29, 1943, p. 52.

[In the following review, the reviewer describes Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince as overelaborate and confusing.]

The critics of children's books have a tendency to greet with joyous cries of welcome any juvenile written by an author who has a name in a wider field of writing. This is natural enough, considering the number of books they must read in a year by writers without talent, and often there is real cause for rejoicing over a great name on the title page. Not always, though. This spring, for example, the cries of welcome have been for The Little Prince, written and illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Whatever the merits of the book, it seems to be news: it has had a rush of publicity, it is on the best-seller lists, some reviewers announce that it has already taken its place among the children's classics, others call it a book only for subtle-minded adults, and all unite in praise and in rather solemn analysis of its overtones of meaning. I therefore feel strangely alone, since, to my mind, The Little Prince is not a book for children and is not even a good book. It can be described as a philosophical fairy tale, or, if you prefer the word so often used of Saint-Exupéry, a metaphysical one. The only youthful appraisal I can offer is that of a twelve-year-old boy, who likes almost all kinds of books and usually reads at top speed. After dragging through this one, he said, "He seems to be writing about grownup things in a childish way." Possibly this judgment has some merit because, when you come to think of it, the best children's books are those which treat childlike things in an adult way. The Little Prince unquestionably has its moments of charm and point and its naive drawings have occasional humor and grace, but as a fairy tale, whether for adults or children, it seems to me to lack the simplicity and clarity all fairy tales must have in order to create their magic, and too often its charm turns into coyness and its point is lost in cloudy and boring elaboration.

Anne Carol Moore (essay date 1943)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Little Prince in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. XIX, No. 3, May-June 1943, pp. 164-65.

[Moore was an American librarian and author of children's story books who often wrote on the topic of children's literature. In the excerpt below, she characterizes The Little Prince as a work as applicable to adults as to children.]

By one of the happy chances of advance publication, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince came to me on the eve of Hans Christian Andersen's birthday. I read it at once, not as a reviewer, but as a gift for a day which grows more significant every year that I live.

All life—its poetry and philosophy, its humor and pathos, its poverty and riches, as seen by Andersen from the earth over which he wandered more than a century ago—was the theme of those dramas in miniature: The Snow Queen, The Nightingale, The Garden of Paradise, Thumbelina, The Rose-Elf. If I were to be cast away, not on the proverbial desert island—there are no more desert islands—but in the dreariest of all places during this World War (which might be a schoolroom), I have always felt my one book would be Andersen's Fairy Tales. No; I should beg for a companion volume and its title is The Little Prince.

From its magical frontispiece, picturing the escape of the Little Prince from his tiny planet, with the aid of a migrating flock of wild birds, to his flowers and his volcanoes, I am held, as I believe many children will be, by the pictures—pictures which are an integral part of the dramatic and philosophic story; pictures so childlike and free, yet as suggestive of the ageless Primitives as the text, which, with all its fresh imagery and originality, is a...

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Maxwell A. Smith (essay date 1956)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knight of the Air: The Life and Works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Pageant Press, Inc., 1956, pp. 189-200.

[Smith was an American educator and critic who specialized in French literature. In the following essay, he provides a highly favorable assessment of The Little Prince.]

The Little Prince was published in New York in the spring of 1943 in both English and French editions but was not well known to French readers until the Gallimard edition of 1946. Unique among all of his writings, it is a delicate and ethereal fairy tale apparently addressed to children although its wide philosophical overtones as a parable will be understood only by adults. There...

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André Maurois (essay date 1966)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Antoine de Saint-Exupéry," in From Proust to Camus: Profiles of Modern French Writers, by Andre Maurois, translated by Carl Morse and Renaud Bruce, Doubleday & Company, 1966, pp. 201-23.

[An extremely versatile French writer, Maurois made his most significant contribution to literature as a biographer. In the following excerpt from an overview of Saint-Exupéry's career, he commends The Little Prince for its enigmatic blend of lucid and obscure symbolism.]

I shall certainly not try to "explain" Le Petit Prince. That children's book for grownups is alive with symbols which are beautiful because they seem, at the same time, both lucid and...

(The entire section is 297 words.)

Robert H. Price (essay date 1967)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pantagruel and Le petit prince." Symposium Vol. XXI, No. 3, Fall, 1967, pp. 264-70.

[In the essay below, Price compares The Little Prince in style and theme to François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel.]

Any attempt to determine whether one writer has influenced another when the only proof that can be adduced is similarity of thought and expression is risky business at best. One must refrain from yielding to the ever-present temptation to see literary influences at work when, in all likelihood, discoverable parallels are simply coincidental or, as is often the case, one is dealing with kindred souls thinking alike but independently of each...

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Brian Masters (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Le petit prince, "in A Student's Guide to Saint-Exupéry, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1972, pp. 84-91.

[Masters is an English educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses themes of love, maturity, and responsibility in The Little Prince.]

Le Petit Prince was published in New York in 1943, only a few months after Lettre i un Otage. It purports to be a story for children (and can be read as such), but the story illustrates the eternal truths which Saint-Exupéry had been at pains to convey in his other books, and which the 'grown-ups' who read them had been too stupid to understand.

In addressing his book to...

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Joseph Andrew Casper (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "I Never Met a Rose: Stanley Donen and The Little Prince," in Children's Novels and the Movies, edited by Douglas Street, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1983, pp. 141-50.

[Casper is an English educator and critic. In the excerpt below, originally published in his Stanley Donen in 1983, he compares the mixed critical reaction surrounding Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince to the similar reception of the 1974 film adaptation by Hollywood musical director Stanley Donen.]

In the literary season of 1943, one of the warmest critical welcomes was accorded Antoine de Saint Exupéry's The Little Prince, a "parable for grown people in the guise of...

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Joy D. Marie Robinson (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Twayne Publishers, 1984, pp. 120-42.

[In the following excerpt, Robinson provides an analysis of The Little Prince.]

[Le Petit Prince], so often mistaken for "only" a children's book, is in fact a delicate crystallization of Saint-Exupéry's philosophy of life, in allegorical form. The success of this book has been so great that Saint-Exupéry is often thought of simply as "the author of the Little Prince," and the book itself has become a beginning French reader in America. It is, indeed, sad that such sensitive, exquisitely wrought writing should be subjected to the impatient deciphering of beginning students, as a...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Cate, Curtis. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: His Life and Time. New York: Putnam, 1970, 608 p.

Detailed overview of Saint-Exupéry's life.

Rumbold, Richard, and Stewart, Lady Margaret. The Winged Life: A Portrait of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Poet and Airman. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 224 P.

Biographical study emphasizing Saint-Exupéry's aviation experiences.


Arnold, James W. "Musical Fantasy: The Little Prince." In Shadows of the Magic Lamp: Fantasy and Science Fiction in Film, edited by George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin, pp. 122-40....

(The entire section is 268 words.)