Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight achieved considerable critical praise when it was first published in 1931. The preface by André Gide gave Saint-Exupéry’s work the imprimatur of the Parisian literary establishment. Critical reviews of the work were overwhelmingly positive, and Saint-Exupéry was awarded one of France’s premier literary awards, the Fémina Prize, for this novel.
Night Flight is Saint-Exupéry’s second novel (Courrier sud was published in 1929; Southern Mail, 1933), and is the author’s most completely realized work of fiction, although, as with all of his writings, there are strong autobiographical elements. It is brief in scope, covering just a few hours in time, and brief in length, less than 150 pages in the original French edition. The author’s style and literary technique combine poetic elements, particularly Fabien’s struggles in the storm and in the starry skies above the clouds, with a lean, crisp narrative. The story is told in brief chapters that successfully move the narrative along by focusing on the protagonists one at a time and by including flashbacks, brief conversational dialogues, interior monologues, and the use of radio reports and telegrams. The Argentina locale is almost irrelevant; the events could have occurred anywhere.
What Gide admired in Night Flight was the heroism exhibited by Fabien and his fellow pilots in the line of duty. Flying was both dangerous and glamorous in the early twentieth century. America’s Charles Lindbergh captured the world’s attention in 1927 when he flew nonstop from New York to Paris. Saint-Exupéry himself was famous for his exploits in aviation in Africa and South America. The pilots in Night Flight rise to what Gide called “superhuman heights of valor.” The novel was highly praised in part because of its assertion that humanity could strive to overcome not only nature’s challenges in the form of mountains, seas, and storms, but also the weaknesses of human nature, not the least of which are fear and doubt. Fabien could have safely set down in advance of the worst of the storm, but he chose to continue his flight. Civilization in general, and France in particular, had succumbed to cynicism and apathy in the aftermath of the losses—physical, intellectual, and emotional—resulting from World War I. Saint-Exupéry’s novel was a reassertion of human nobility.
For all of the pilots’ bravery, however, at the center of Night Flight is Rivière, the chief operator. Modeled on Saint-Exupéry’s first airmail flight supervisor, Didier Daurat, Rivière is the will behind the act. It is he who sends Fabien and the others into the night skies and it is he who keeps them there. He is the one who brings out the superhuman qualities noted by Gide. Fifty years of age and worried about his health, Rivière is the opposite of the clichéd version of the young and handsome hero, but he dominates this novel of heroism.
In brief conversations and in extended internal musings, Rivière ruminates about himself, his power, his responsibilities, and his duty. “For him,” the novel relates, “a man was a mere lump of wax to be kneaded into shape. . . . Not that his aim was to make slaves of his men; his aim was to raise them above themselves.” He loves his men, both pilots and ground staff, but he dares not show that love, or even pity. He questions whether he is too demanding, too critical, but the harder he is, the fewer accidents they have. Rivière’s qualities of vision and leadership are brilliantly contrasted with the limitations and inadequacies of Robineau, the self-pitying inspector, who, Rivière claims, lacks even the capacity to think.
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Flight also poses philosophical questions, most notably why human beings like Fabien must die for a cause, such as proving that flying at night is not only feasible but necessary. The two women in the work, Fabien’s wife and the wife of the unnamed pilot who is supposed to continue to carry the mail to Europe, represent the reverse of superhuman striving. Intimate love, personal happiness, and comforting domestic life and values are placed in opposition to the qualities of duty, will, and challenge presented by night flying. Rivière finds it difficult even to meet with Fabien’s wife; the gulf between their two realities is too wide. He admits that the ideals she represents might be of equal value to the ones he does, but contends that love and domestic tranquillity are not enough, that there is something higher than individual human life, noting the Incas of Peru who left their monuments of stone as testimony to a vanished world.
It is not even the goal, however, that ultimately matters. It is the progress toward that end, the striving itself, that means the most. Fabien’s plane crashes, but the other two planes arrive safely and the European mail is dispatched on time. Because of Rivière’s will, death and defeat are overcome, the human spirit is victorious. A momentary transcendence has been achieved.
By the end of the 1930’s, Saint-Exupéry’s emphasis upon the power of will and the obligations of duty had been perversely achieved in fascism, and to some readers Night Flight prefigured those fascist qualities. Today, the antihero has become the norm, and traditional heroic qualities have become suspect. In the early 1930’s, however, during the height of the Great Depression and in the aftermath of the Great War, qualities of will and duty did not belong only to the fascists but also to democratic leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who claimed that the only thing to be feared was fear itself, that great deeds could be achieved through the combination of will and action.
Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight can be compared to other literary works. Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis (1953) concerns Lindbergh’s nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979) chronicles the early days of space flight. However, the most apt comparison to Night Flight might be with Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Both novels magnificently evoke natural elements, and, in both, the apparent defeat—the loss of the great fish, the death of Fabien—ends in humanity’s triumph.