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.