Every now and then, you come across a writer that changes everything for you. They are rare moments, when an author sheds light upon issues you’ve never considered or understood. Their prose is sheer poetry and their books are like proud badges you hold by your side. I’ve always loved The Little Prince, but never really knew much about the man behind it until a school assignment prompted me to research Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s life. What I found increased my appreciation for Antoine exponentially, since his life story added such richness to his works. Today, I try to live my life by much of the wisdom in Antoine’s works (Click beneath to continue reading).
To understand why Antoine’s work was so important, we have to get a brief background of his life because his work was heavily based on personal experiences. Antoine de Saint-Exupery was born on the 29th of June 1900 in Lyon, France. His personal life and career added a whole new dimension to his writing. Before WWII, Antoine was a successful commercial pilot, delivering airmail all around the world. When the war broke out, he flew reconnaissance missions for the French, mainly over the Middle East. Before his military service, however, there was one particularly important event in his life that affected his future writing. On the 30th of December 1935, Antoine and his friend were attempting to break the speed record for the Paris-to-Saigon race. Unfortunately, their plane crashed in the middle of the Saharan desert. The pair survived, but quickly felt the effects of dehydration and hallucinations. On the fourth day of their struggle in the Saharan Desert, they were rescued by a local Bedouin. This experience greatly affected Antoine, and along with his wartime experiences, we see the desert crash reappearing constantly in his work. Antoine wrote the bulk of his works while on a 27 month hiatus in America, doing diplomatic duties in the middle of the war. When we look at what he wrote during this period, we’ll be able to see just how much the war impacted him. Another interesting aspect of Antoine’s life which is arguably one of the reasons he is still remembered is that Antoine actually disappeared in quite mysterious circumstances during the war. On the 31st of July 1944, he went on a reconnaissance mission in an unarmed plane from Corsica, but disappeared without a trace on the journey. An unidentifiable body dressed in a French uniform was found several days after his disappearance, which could possibly have been Antoine. Over the years, two German pilots have claimed that they were the ones who shot down Antoine. This mystery is something that adds more intrigue to his writings and makes his anti-war and philosophical writings that much more striking and personal, considering that he ended up being a casualty of all the things he was against.
Clearly, Antoine’s life experiences ended up influencing his work hugely since the themes of war and piloting, and also his horrible experience in the Saharan Desert, are so prominent in his works. Considering that he wrote most of his work in the middle of the war and that there are so many references to war and the pursuit of happiness in his writings indicates that he longed for peace and safety. The first example of Antoine’s writing, which I believe to be his most important work, is the novella The Little Prince. This book is a philosophical children’s story, which means it can be appreciated by kids and adults alike. Antoine’s experiences as a pilot become evident in the story, through the fact that the protagonist in the story is a pilot who crashes in the Saharan desert. There he meets a little prince who is exploring the universe for answers to life. The story is largely philosophical and allegorical, attempting to answer the big questions in a simple way through the little prince’s eyes. We can also see Antoine’s nostalgia for childhood and desire for peace in the novel, and we can also see how he draws upon his own experiences of crashing in the Sahara. Through the little boy that the protagonist meets, the protagonist learns how absurd the adult world is in the eyes of children and what he should really be focusing on in life.
Out of the many passages from The Little Prince, I have chosen just a few that I feel demonstrate Antoine’s abilities.
The first quote to the left explores the idea of friendship. Through this, we can see that Antoine felt that a lot of people never made true friends because they were so used to buying things immediately and conveniently, and disposing those things whenever they got bored. Antoine seems to say that we should all have genuine friends and not make friends just for a temporary convenience or purpose. We can also see how Antoine can get his message across in incredibly simple terms, which allows his work to be so universal, and we can also see that Antoine holds friendship as if it is something sacred.
The next quote demonstrates Antoine’s unique view of the world:
“Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
– Chapter 21
This quote suggests that a lot of the things that are important in life are often metaphysical, intangible things like love, friendship, spirituality and things along those lines. The way that this quote is phrased also makes you think that somehow, this knowledge is something that not everyone appreciates, which is why it starts with “Here is my secret.” Antoine discloses to his audience a mindset that he believes to be important, almost as if he actually wants us to follow through on this. I also find that another strength of Antoine’s is that he can write things in a way that brings a smile to your face straight away, which is what the next quote does:
“What makes the desert beautiful”, says the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well.”
– Chapter 26
It describes the joy of knowing that there’s something beautiful at the end of the tunnel. We can clearly see how this quote came about as a result of Antoine’s struggle in the Saharan Desert, when possibly the only thing that kept him going was knowing that somewhere, there would be a well or some sort of help or relief. When Antoine himself was stranded in the Saharan Desert, he suffered extreme hallucinations, so we can imagine that he would have experienced disappointment after disappointment as he hallucinated of wells or an oasis, only to discover that it was his mind playing tricks on him. I find this quote especially powerful because we know that Antoine experienced it himself, and you can imagine him using this mindset to keep up his morale, believing that eventually, some sort of relief will come. With these simple words, Antoine captures the joy of knowing that there’s something better waiting for you once you overcome all the difficulties. The simplicity and beauty of these quotes from the book, particularly the last quote, are what makes it so understandable and straightforward. We can also assume that Antoine would have been writing all of this with the war in mind, while he was having a break in America. He would be wondering about friendship, the smaller things in life and also receiving a well-earned award at the end of a trial. From this, we can see what a profound effect fighting in the war must have had on him for him to address philosophical questions like this, in a format designed for children, which could maybe indicate his desire for future generations to avoid wars.
The main significance behind The Little Prince is its universal philosophy. It’s not trying to push a certain political message or way of life upon the reader, but rather, gives you small little morsels of wisdom that’s still presented like a story, and that you can fit into your own life however you want. In the three quotes presented, we can see clear messages of making genuine friends instead of ‘store bought’ ones, appreciating the smaller things, and also knowing that at the end of hardship there will be a worthwhile reward. We can also see that the stress from war made Antoine write this message of compassion and innocence in the utmost urgency. The book is clearly a universal and timeless message for peace and returning back to the simplicity of childhood. It’s now one of the most translated books in French literary history, which is an indication of its importance. Its message has clearly lasted, as humanitarian institutions, schools and organisations have been named after our little prince. This character of the little prince himself has almost become a symbol of happiness and innocence and could be argued to be an anti-war ambassador, seeing as Antoine was writing this in the middle of the war.
The second work of Antoine’s that greatly impacted me I felt was important to mention is Letter to a Hostage, which embodies much of the same themes but is presented towards a completely different audience. Letter to a Hostage was written just before The Little Prince, while Antoine was in neutral Portugal waiting for a transfer to America. This work was written to a friend of Antoine’s, a Jewish intellectual who was hiding in occupied France. This is an instance where we can clearly see the effect of the war on Antoine and his work. In this letter, he expresses a desire for peace and is clearly suffering when he sees how his friend is being treated simply because of his religion. In the letter, Antoine observes people who are taking a break from the war, so to speak, in neutral Portugal. He realises that these people often do nothing but party and gamble, seemingly trying to block out what is happening all around them. Antoine then reaches the same sorts of conclusions that he did in The Little Prince. Antoine preaches the same philosophy and ideas about humanity and war in a lot of his works, but clearly, The Little Prince is aimed at children, and Letter to a Hostage is aimed at an intellectual friend of his. The fact that Antoine can write for such different audiences and in different tones proves the diversity of his talent. I’ve chosen quite a few passages from this letter that I see as summarising the message that Antoine has about humanity, and how he attempts to lift his friend’s spirits and tries to give them both hope for the future. The first quote immediately reminded me of things that Antoine had written in the Little Prince:
“The smile of the rescuers, when I was a castaway; the smile of the castaways, when I was a rescuer – I remember this as a homeland in which I found all happiness.”
– Chapter 4, Page 114
This quote is clearly inspired by Antoine’s Saharan crash yet again, as he describes the immense joy that a castaway feels when he is rescued, and how great it feels to rescue someone. Once again, we see Antoine’s personal life creeping back into his work. I find this quote especially beautiful because Antoine seems to say that making others feel good is really his own source of happiness. The second quote I wish to share is a general saying that can be applied to many instances in life:
“The real miracles make no noise. The crucial events in life are unobtrusive.”
– Chapter 3, Page 107
It can also be seen as a source of inspiration directed towards his friend, a gentle reminder that incredible things can happen when you don’t expect it or don’t realise it. This is an important message of hope, made even more poignant when you consider the circumstances it was written in. We can see how Antoine’s friend could easily have felt as if there was simply no hope left, but Antoine gently reminds him that all is not lost. Yet another passage I wish to share focuses around the importance of simple pleasures and happiness, which was a theme we saw constantly throughout The Little Prince.
“It was then that the miracle happened. Oh, a modest enough miracle… to my stupefaction, (he) smiled faintly back. It was like the break of day.”
– Chapter 4, Page 112
The background story behind this quote was that Antoine had actually just been arrested by Portuguese guerrilla fighters and was unable to communicate with them since he could not speak Portuguese. The men were very cold towards him, but eventually, Antoine mustered up the courage to gesture for a cigarette from one of the young captors. He then describes what happened: the young man smiled at Antoine, and from this quote, it’s obvious what a huge impact this little gesture of kindness meant to him. Once again, we can see the themes of small pleasures and human kindness coming through, which is especially important considering that the Nazis were doing the complete opposite at the time, and Antoine was still trying to keep his friend’s spirits high by telling him the story of a supposedly cruel man sharing a smile with him. The way this quote is phrased is yet again another piece of evidence for Antoine’s simple yet vivid writing skills. Describing a smile as being “like the break of day” is an especially beautiful simile which immediately puts a very particular image in your head, and more importantly, musters up a certain feeling. The next quote is a little bit longer, but I find it to be an important link between Antoine’s work: the theme of journeys and the stars come through again, like we saw constantly in the little prince’s journey across the universe:
“If the traveller following his star across the mountain becomes too absorbed in pondering ways of reaching the top, he risks forgetting which star it is that guides him. If we act merely for the sake of action, we will get nowhere.”
– Chapter 5, Page 115
This emphasises how important it is important to have a goal, rather than stress about the ways to reach that goal or acting on impulse just because we want to do something just for the sake of doing something. Antoine linked this to Nazi ideology, and provided the example that the Nazis sought to pull Germany out of a depression, but for the sake of wanting to do something, ended up blaming the Jews as a way of trying to identify a cause. The fact that Antoine referred to the Nazis in a letter to his Jewish friend demonstrates how affected he was by the fact that such a hateful group of people could possibly gain so much control. This adds a new sense of urgency to his writing. The final quote that I have which I feel summarises a lot of Antoine’s work, is this really touching line to his friend:
“If I differ from you, far from wronging you, I add to you.”
– Chapter 6, Page 117
In this line, which is towards the end of the letter, Antoine wonders how people could possibly hate someone for their differences. This quote really draws on the idea that it takes all-sorts to make a world. Antoine had seen what could happen if people began to feel repulsed by others’ differences, namely through seeing what the Nazis were doing to his friend and millions of others. Diversity and acceptance are concepts that keep popping up in Antoine’s work, which is really important when it comes to Antoine’s overall significance.
The importance of Letter to a Hostage lies in its ability to educate. War is something that continues to happen, despite how enlightened we believe ourselves to be. The way to reduce, or even stop, war is to educate people and broaden everyone’s horizons, and I feel that a huge part of that is through literature and art. Antoine clearly felt that too, otherwise he would not have bothered to publish Letter to a Hostage for the whole world to see. In this, Antoine writes a letter of compassion and understanding to a great friend, and also juggles with the idea of being a Frenchman and a fighter. Through these quotes, we can see that it is a powerful call to put down arms, increase acceptance and find joys in the simple things in life, like smiling. The letter is also incredibly well-written and intelligent, but still in plain language so that everyone can understand it. It’s timeless and despite references to Nazis and French occupation, it is a message that applies in all situations and time periods.
Antoine is still commemorated today, demonstrating his importance. Antoine’s work is regularly used for anti-war movements and exhibitions, proving that his message is still as strong today as it was back in 40’s. He has also had many tributes dedicated to him, like being on the 50 Franc note before the Euro was introduced, and having countless humanitarian organisations, institutions and schools named after him due to his peace efforts. His name has been inscribed in the Pantheon, signifying what an important national treasure he is to the French. His worldwide impact is clear by the fact that there is a school in Rwanda named after him, a Uruguayan airline named in honour of him, a museum in Morocco dedicated to him and also a humanitarian organisation in Switzerland named after one of his works. An asteroid has even been given the same name as the Little Prince’s home planet, which is an especially sweet gesture.
In my opinion, Antoine de Saint-Exupery is one of the most important writers of modern times. His novella The Little Prince is one of the most translated French literary pieces ever, and it’s allegorical lessons are still relevant and inspirational. Letter to a Hostage is a work of a completely different tone, but it still represents the same themes of acceptance and an anti-war message. All of Antoine’s works spark thoughts, debate and change, and they are all still relevant in 2013 and to anyone from any demographic. His work has ignited many an epiphany for myself, and it continues to be something I recommend to people at the first opportunity. To me, that’s one of the major qualities of a good writer. If they make you want to get into a helicopter and throw copies of your favourite book down to everyone, then there’s definitely something special to cherish about that writer. Maybe, some of you might be interested in reading some of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s work now.