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A 'Children's Book' With Valuable Lessons
In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery seems to be trying to teach us the secret to what is important in life and suggests that grown-ups are unable to see it. The secret, in the words of the wise fox who wishes to be tamed by the little prince, is this: "One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes." The pages between the covers of The Little Prince gracefully illuminate the gap between children and grown-ups—and imply that it is not so much based on age as it is based on losing interest in what is really important in life.
One reason that this book might appeal to younger and older generations alike is that the author seemed to implement important adult issues throughout the book in a decidedly childlike way. For instance, consider the theme of the flower. The little prince tends to a rose on his planet and he loves the flower, but she drives him to leave her with her selfishness, vanity, and lies. The Little Prince was undoubtedly labeled a children's book due to its large print, cartoonish illustrations, and imaginative fairy-tale quality, but the relationship of the little prince and the flower clearly illustrates the complications of romantic love. She drives him away, and while on Earth he visits an entire garden full of roses, (symbolic of infidelity, perhaps), and realizes there are a million others just like her. It again takes the words of the wise fox: "It's the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important," to bring the little prince to the realization that real love for someone is not based on their uniqueness or perfection, but on your decision to love them and responsibility to care for them.
With feelings of remorse after leaving his rose, the little prince confides in the pilot, saying "I should have judged her according to her actions, not her words. She perfumed my planet and lit up my life. I should never have run away! I ought to have realized the tenderness underlying her silly pretensions...But I was too young to know how to love her." Such words, resonant of many adult relationships, hint at the reason for The Little Prince's ability to charm all ages.
It seems that The Little Prince is written two ways, for two different generations. At face value, it can be taken as a charming but simple story about a pilot's encounter with a little boy from a different planet, but underneath is a wealth of insight. It seems to have been written literally for the children, who might overlook many of the more illustrative themes, and metaphorically for the adult readers who might value both aspects of the multifaceted story. These adults have a special reason to appreciate the underlying charms within the book's pages which comes from the self-satisfaction gained by reasoning that they are not, in fact, one of the unimaginative grown-ups referred to with such scorn by the pilot and the little prince. Those adult readers who understand the book and the fox's secret, and who see the elephant inside of the boa constrictor rather than a picture of a hat, can reason to themselves that they, although grown, are not a "grown-up." They are not like the businessman, the king, or the very vain man whom the little prince met on his travels to different planets, all devoting their lives to pointless or self-centered ambitions. A great satisfaction belongs to those who believe they would meet with the little prince's approval.
An example of the difference between children and scorned grown-ups can be seen in the example of the little prince's talk with the switchman. They are watching the trains come and go, making exchanges. "No one is ever satisfied where he is," the switchman explains.
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The little prince remarks, "Only the children know what they're looking for. They spend their time on a rag doll and it becomes very important, and if it's taken away from them, they cry..."
To which the switchman replies: "They're lucky."
The switchman and the little prince are referring to a sense of life's meaning, and the same principle of love that the fox made clear to the little prince in regards to his flower. A grown-up would not know what they were looking for while on the trains because they have lost their sense of what is truly important. The children, in learning to love something by taking it with them wherever they go and devoting their time to it, have gained a sense of responsibility and importance that life becomes very shallow and meaningless without. The perspectives of the grown-ups have been skewed, more and more so, until they must go back and forth searching for something they will never find because they have not cared enough to make it matter and there is no longer anything for them to consider worth finding.
At the end of The Little Prince, the pilot poses a question that could be considered the culmination of the entire story, and yet, to a grown-up, would seem very unimportant. "Look up at the sky," he entreats. "Ask yourself, 'Has the sheep eaten the flower or not?'" For a grown-up, not only would this question be ridiculous, but it simply wouldn't make sense. Therefore, it is the perfect example of the gap between childhood and those who grew into a distorted sense of what is and what isn't important.
Any adult who believes that they must put away childish thinking in order to become truly mature may do well to follow the example of the little prince. The daily tasks of adult life—household chores, bills, a full-time job, etc.—could be compared to the Baobab trees that the little prince daily had to find and uproot. If he did not, they would grow larger and larger, take over his entire planet, and tear it apart. Even though the businessman that the little prince met was working hard and ceaselessly, there was no true reward for his efforts and he was only doing it for himself. The lantern lighter's job was more admirable because he was following orders and his job had a useful function. The little prince spent each day uprooting Baobab plants because he had to, but his real purpose was looking after the well-being of his very own flower and he took time out of every day to watch at least one sunset. Because of this, his life was meaningful and worthwhile.
The differences in perspective between a child and a grown-up are similar to the perspectives that the little prince experienced in his first days on Earth. He climbed a high mountain expecting to see the entire world, but saw nothing and heard only echoes. He is told by a plant, who saw a caravan passing through once, that there are only six or seven humans and that the wind blows them around, which is a result of the plant's skewed perspective from being rooted in one place. If the little prince had traveled farther, he would have known that a large mountain in the desert could not possibly have shown him the whole world. If the flower could have moved, it would have seen that there were more than a handful of people on Earth.
Although children are different from adults in many ways, all adults started out as children and all changes in their perspectives were wrought through a process of growth and increasing maturity over time. What was important to a child, such as a ragdoll, will not be as important to a grown-up, but it is the sense of importance itself that Antoine de Saint-Exupery seems to be trying to express. He is not desperately trying to convince all adults that ragdolls are the most important things in life. He is trying to explain that dedication to something worthwhile is what establishes its worth, and love, although invisible to the eyes, is the most important force of life. One should not disregard something because they do not understand it, but look at the motives behind it and judge it accordingly, as the little prince wished he had judged his flower.
There is much to be gained by reading The Little Prince, and still more to be gained by reading children's literature in general. In a world with an answer for everything, books written for children are what contain the most wildly imaginative adventures, the most realistic fantasies, and the most impossible possibilities. For a "grown-up," (in The Little Prince's negative sense of the term), delving into a child's book would seem an impractical waste in comparison to grown-up business. But for those who share the little prince's priorities, it would be a most sensible use of time, as long as you finished in time to watch the sun set.