Let me start by saying that this is one of my favorite books. I read it before at least twice, once when a young girl --or an adolescent, another time in my twenties, and possibly a decade later. Lately, I was asked to place chapter 26 in its context. The occasion was a sad but moving one. That chapter had been read during a funeral, and now we were a group of women celebrating the interrupted life of a sixteen year old young man.
Because I was given that task --a lovely one at that-- I went on to find my old edition of Le Petit Prince and read it once more. It was a masterpiece before; it is a masterpiece now. After all these years, it has remained wrinkle free. Vivid. Vibrant. Witty. Filled with wisdom.
What struck me this time was the structure --the box motif. First, when the narrator humorously declares that he had to give up a career as a brilliant artist because the adults couldn't tell that he had drawn a boa swallowing an elephant. Instead, they saw a hat. Incidentally, a hat boxes a head. They refused to see beneath the surface, or were too lazy to try. So here we have a creator who renounces creating, simply because his audience lacks imagination. Although, in exchange, he becomes an aviator, thus getting closer to the stars. Amusing in appearance. Tragic in content. The boa is the box. The elephant is the content.
If you take these two animals for what they stand for, you can say that intelligence (for which the elephant is known) is being constricted. Absurdly suffocated.
Isn't that the essence of the whole story?
It's all in these first pages. All the satire and the spirituality. The rest is poetic elaboration. But what poetic elaboration!
Let's meet le petit prince who asks the narrator, whose plane breaks down in the desert, to draw him a sheep. Although the plane accident is based on a real Saint Exupéry's experience, the desert itself is a marvelous metaphysical metaphor for the white page / canvas / creativity / possibility.) When the narrator humors him, none of the sheep drawn by the aviator pleases the little prince. One looks sick, one looks old. Eager to repair his plane and starting to lack patience, the aviator sketches a crate and tells the little prince that his sheep is inside. That's exactly what I was looking for, says the young boy. The imagination of the child completes the work of the artist. In the world of childhood, creator and creation are one. There is a sense of unity that adulthood eventually breaks apart. Classifies. Categorizes. Boxes in.
For Saint Exupéry's motif of box has a double entendre. The first entendre is liberating. Open the box with your imagination, and you will see infinite possibilities. The little prince knows that. The other entendre is more familiar to us. A box implies something limited, locked, conventional. To oppose this notion comes the expression, "Thinking outside the box." So when our petit prince visits the Conceited Man, or the King, or the Businessman, or the Drunkard, each lives in his own sphere, basically unaware of his surroundings and victim of the isolation he has himself created. In other words, instead of giving and expanding his spirit toward the universe, each one of these men builds a box around himself. No wonder le petit prince thinks these are strange creatures and tries to get away from them as fast as he can. Only the lamplighter starts to get it when he seeks the contemplation of sunrises happening every minute on his planet. But only after listening to his oneiric visitor.
The desert, of course, is the opposite of a box. And if basically devoid of humans, it is not devoid of animals. The most important lesson le petit prince learns there comes from a fox in what is perhaps the most moving chapter of the book. The fox, who holds the wisdom of the heart, sends him back to his planet and to his rose.
But we're not over with the box theme just yet. There is the little prince's body now, abandoned by the prince's soul with the help of a snake bite, so that he can reach his planet more quickly. There is the box drawn by the narrator that contains the sheep that the prince takes with him to live on his planet with his rose. There are the intrinsic motives of life and death, that Saint Exupéry un-boxes. Not with answers, but with more questions. For ultimately, if Le Petit Prince mocks, satirizes, poeticizes, it is not a work that gives affirmations, but a work that wonders. It is a work that explores. The work of a writer / aviator.
A work where innocence and wisdom go hand in hand.
A work that opens our head --which should never --ever-- be a box.
P.S. I read Le Petit Prince in its original language (which is also my native tongue). But I have been told, and also read that the English translation to rely upon is the one by Katherine Woods. A reviewer here called Allie Jones makes a very good case of this. So I would urge any new reader of The Little Prince who is not familiar with the French language to follow Allie Jones' advice and obtain a copy of Katherine Woods' version of Saint Exupéry's masterpiece. It is unfortunate that Ms Woods' work is out of print, but used copies of her (more accurate) vision of The Little Prince are available.