Lessons from "The Little Prince"


There comes a heartrending twilight zone somewhere between childhood and adulthood, when adolescents are expected to put aside the books of their formative years and allow them to gather dust on a shelf, never to be revisited again.

I've never seen the function of this. Why should adolescents be forced to outgrow the books that shaped them into who they are? What's there to suggest that we ever outgrow such books at all? Everything I know about life, love and the wonder of imagination, I learned from "The Little Prince," and I'm not about to excise it from my bookshelf anytime soon.

French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved novella is the most widely read and widely translated work of literature in the French language, and with good reason. When the pilot narrating the tale crashes in the Sahara and stumbles across a boy claiming to be a prince from the distant Asteroid-B612, the prince teaches him a tender tale of loneliness, friendship, curiosity, love and loss.

"The Little Prince" is also a chilling illustration of how life imitates art — a year after its publication, Saint-Exupéry disappeared over the ocean in his airplane. In the latter portion of the novel, the narrator and the prince, dying of thirst after being marooned in the desert for days, search for a well. The circumstances are emblematic of the novel's most famous truth: "What is essential is invisible to the eye. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly."

"The Little Prince" teaches that we must discover the meaning of things for ourselves. We need to learn lessons through experience, not through what we are told.

But the book's greatest lesson leaves me teary-eyed every time: the nature of real love. When the prince meets the fox in a field, the fox begs to be tamed. The fox explains that to be tamed means to establish ties, to need one another, to become unique to one another.

After the prince tames the fox and makes to leave, the fox claims, "You become responsible forever for what you have tamed." "The Little Prince" teaches that love is more than a feeling. It makes us accountable for one another.

Similarly, the prince's love for his rose is the driving force behind the novella. He leaves his planet for the rose, allows the rose to permeate his discussions with the narrator and returns to his planet because of the rose. The rose is vain, proud and standoffish, but because the prince has invested so much time in watering her, the fox is correct when he claims, "It's the time that you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important."

Children's literature tends to offer an unrealistic depiction of love in which the lovers ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after, but "The Little Prince" teaches that love requires investment, time and responsibility. What one gives to another is more important than what one gets in return.

In the dedication of "The Little Prince" Saint-Exupéry claims, "All grown-ups were once children — although few of them remember it."

We live in a culture where adolescents have Facebook pages, where 10-year-old girls shop at Victoria's Secret and where childhood is perceived as a developmental stage to be briskly rushed through and gotten out of the way. In this world, is it so wrong to pull children's books down from the shelves in order to remember that elusive and ever-shorter time?

Is it so wrong to hold onto the last dregs of our childhood with everything that we have? I am what I am because of "The Little Prince," and I'm not about to let that slip away anytime soon.

— Westenfeld is a freshman Media Fellow from Fort Wayne, Ind., planning to major in English literature and creative writing.