What do the sheep, rose, snake, and adults symbolize in The Little Prince?

Quick answer:

In The Little Prince, the sheep could symbolize imagination, the adults might symbolize a lack of imagination, and the rose and the snake arguably symbolize a disruption of traditional norms.

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The sheep is a complex symbol in the story. The little prince is not satisfied with the pictures the pilot draws of the sheep until the pilot makes a picture of a box with airholes. The prince is then satisfied, symbolizing that overtelling or over-describing interferes with the imagination and the ability of observers to fill in the experience they need. However, the sheep also symbolizes concrete material need—the need that convinces the pilot the little prince is real:

If anybody wants a sheep, that is a proof that he exists.

The little prince needs the sheep to eat the Baobabs that threaten his rose, so the sheep also becomes a symbol of the prince's desire to protect the one he loves. The sheep becomes the equivalent of wearing a sword.

The rose symbolizes love. The little prince learns that even though there are millions of roses that look just like his, his is of supreme value because of the relationship he has with it.

Adults symbolize lack of imagination and vision. Their childlike imaginations are ruined as they become fixated on the parts of life that are, ultimately, less important, such as making money, being in charge, or owning things.

The snake represents the devil. As in the biblical story, the work of the devil kills Christ, but this seemingly evil deed allows for his resurrection. The little prince hopes for a similar rebirth, in his case on his tiny home planet, when he allows the snake to bite him. In this context, the snake/devil is not evil but just following the dictates of his nature.

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In The Little Prince, the adults (grownups) could symbolize an absence of imagination. When the narrator shows his boa-constrictor pictures to grownups, the adults are confused by the narrator’s artistic ingenuity. They advise him to give up art and take up a concrete subject, like geography or arithmetic. These subjects have clear criteria and don’t require much imagination. One doesn’t need an imagination to tabulate 2+2, nor does one need an imagination to, say, identify the capital of France.

Alas, when the narrator meets the little prince, his imagination, perforce, returns. The little prince asks the narrator to draw him a sheep. The narrator has to make the little prince quite a few sheep drawings before he produces one the pleases the little prince. In the realm of the little prince, as opposed to the realm of adults, imagination is key. The narrator has to use his imagination to come up with a drawing of a sheep that will earn the little prince’s approval.

When it comes to the rose and the snake, think about how their symbolism upends assumptions and norms that have taken hold in the adult world. According to most conventions, snakes are inimical and roses are sources of beauty and pleasure. In the world of the little prince, the snake is helpful and the rose generates melancholy.

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It can be hard to attach specific meanings to the things you mention. Let's consider each one:

The sheep is not even a character, really, but a desire, or, at best, a drawing. It is important that the only satisfactory drawing of the sheep is not a drawing of a sheep at all, only of a crate containing the sheep. So we can understand the sheep as a symbol of unconscious desire, or of the imagination -- it something we want but can't really describe in a direct way. The sheep can also be understood as a religious symbol: for Christians, Christ is known as "the lamb of God." The picture of the crate with the sheep inside can be understood as representing faith -- like the sheep, faith is a belief in something you feel to be true, but can't see.

The rose represents love. Flowers often represent beauty, grace, and purity, but the Prince's rose also is vain and demanding. The Prince's problem in the book is his quest to understand the Rose, and to understand how to love it. 

The snake, like almost everything in the book, can have many meanings. In a Christian sense, the snake has a specific meaning as a form of the devil that tempts Eve and causes Adam and Eve to be cast out of Eden. The snake represents death. Yet in the book, the snake is the means for the Prince to return to his planet -- a means for a sort of ressurection. In this sense, it is another kind of savior.

The adults represent the everyday world in which no one has time for imagination and everyone is consumed with useless tasks. There is the geographer that can record no information because he is not an explorer, or the drunkard who drinks because he is sad and sad because he drinks. All the adults are stuck in similar ruts, and none of the things they care about have any bearing on the real issues in the book.

So you can see that it is not easy to attach specific symbolic meanings to elements in the story. I think part of the point of the book is to make it difficult to create those kinds of definitions, as a way of challenging the reader to engage his own imagination!

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