Matters of Consequence in “The Little Prince”: Comparing Childhood and Adulthood
In Antoine de Saint Exupery’s short narrative “The Little Prince”, the division between adults and children is clearly defined through their use of imagination. The typical adult perspective is irrational and close minded. Adults fail to recognize the importance of relationships and imagination because they are obsessed with what they perceive to be “matters of consequence” (Exupery 135) and are incapable of change. As children grow into adults they mature along the way. With maturity typically comes responsibility. “The Little Prince” explores different aspects of responsibility. Exupery does this through the perspectives of the adults and children. Adults believe responsibility to be about overseeing and caring for possessions, whereas children believe responsibility to be about nurturing relationships.
Through the little prince and the narrator, readers learn that we have a responsibility to nurture, and value our relationships with others, and to not lose sight of what is truly important. The narrator of the story is an adult, but he is not categorized with the rest of the grown-ups because he still has an imagination and understands that money and “figures are a matter of indifference” (Exupery 142). To adults, numbers are essential. It is the only way in which they can understand things. As an example of this, the narrator explains that if you were to describe the beauty of a house to an adult, they would not understand you, but if you said to them “‘I saw a house that cost $20,000’” (Exupery 142), they would understand that it is a beautiful house. Numbers are a way of sharing information that is not open to interpretation. Numbers are factual and impersonal. Exupery therefore is suggesting to readers that the reason adults are only interested in figures is because they have no imagination or original thought.
Along with the adults’ interest in figures, Exupery uses the picaresque narrative of the little prince’s journey from his planet to Earth, to reveal to us the other negative traits which adults possess. The first adult that the little prince meets on his journey is the king. The negative personality trait which the king represents is a need for authority. They need to feel as if they are in control, even if this is a false sense of control. The king has no subjects to rule over, yet he claims that he reigns over everything. Adults wish to feel, like the king does, that their “rule [is] not only absolute: it [is] universal” (Exupery 154). Exupery explains to readers that the king is trapped by his own need for control and he does not realize that he has no meaningful relationships with other people.
Following his meeting with the king the little prince visits a second adult, the conceited man. Readers learn from this encounter that “to conceited men, all other men are admirers” (Exupery 157). Exupery explains to us that the irony in being conceited is that it makes a person lonely however, they need other people to confirm that they are “the best dressed, the richest, and most intelligent” (Exupery 158). The only way for a vain person to be sure that they are the best, is for them to have nobody around for them to compare themselves to, yet to confirm that they are the best, they require praise from another person. After this second encounter with an adult, readers begin to notice the contradictions adults live with along with their repulsive character traits.
Readers gain more awareness of the flawed character traits of adults when the little prince meets the tippler. The little prince and readers are confused by this character because of his flawed logic. The prince discovers that the man drinks in order to forget he is “ashamed of drinking” (Exupery 159). This character teaches us that adults are likely to ignore important underlying problems, and instead search for quick solutions. They want a quick fix so that they do not need to think about troublesome things. Due to his lack of imagination, the tippler is not able to realize that there is a deeper underlying problem to his drinking habit. The tippler uses drinking as a way to fill a void in his life, similar to the way in which some adults use work to fill a void.
The adult which the prince encounters on the fourth planet is the businessman. This man represents many adults and has a trait which they all possess; preoccupation with work and matters of consequence. He barely has time for interaction with another human being. The businessman represents a phenomenon of modern society where it is common for an adult’s only concern to be money and work. The businessman explains to the prince that he has only been distracted from his work three times “during the fifty-four years that [he has] inhabited this planet” (Exupery 160). Fifty-four years is over half a lifetime, and during this time the businessman has done nothing useful. He has formed no important human relationships or accomplished anything other than accurately counting all his possessions and writing down that number on to a piece of paper. Although this man believes that his work is important, it truly has no significance and by looking at this situation through the eyes of the little prince, the reader can understand how empty life is without human interaction. On the fifth planet the prince visits, he has a brief interaction with the lamplighter. This is the only adult he meets who thinks “of something else besides himself” (Exupery 164). The lamplighter has a devotion to keeping the planet lit, even though his planet now turns so quickly that he must light the lamp every minute. He blindly follows obsolete orders, which in a way is admirable because of his faithfulness, yet this faithfulness also represents adults’ inability to change.
Another man who exemplifies an inability to change is the geographer, who is the last man the prince meets before traveling to Earth. The prince finally believes he has met a man with a “real profession”, however the geographer appears to follow rules which are equally as obsolete as the rules the other adults adhere to. According to this man, “‘the geographer is much too important to go loafing about’” (Exupery 166). The geographer’s rigid belief that he is too important to explore his planet for himself has led to his lack of knowledge about his planet. The geographer does teach the prince one important lesson however, and that is that the flower which the prince left behind on his home planet is ephemeral. To the geographer this means that the flower is unimportant because it will not be around forever, but to the prince this means that his flower is important, and he needs to nurture and appreciate it while he can. From this encounter readers can understand that the flower is symbolic of human relationships, and it is important to spend time caring for other people. The geographer frustrates readers because he follows insignificant rules and is not willing to change.
The reader’s take-away from the prince’s encounters with these adults is that their beliefs are all absurd, irrational, and contradictory. Their lack of imaginations causes them to become obsessed with arbitrary tasks and they have no time to form meaningful relationships. They believe they only have time for things which are important, yet they do not understand that there is more to life than how many things they own, control, or oversee. Some of the adults such as the lamplighter, or the drunk are somewhat capable of seeing the absurdity in their actions however, they are incapable of change. The adults’ main problem is that they are only capable of attaching value to objects which they deem to be commodifiable. Human relationships, knowledge, and imagination are not important to them because they have no obvious extrinsic value.
Exupery, Antoine de Saint. “The Little Prince”. Rpt. in Eng 191. Comp. Maria Mikolchak. St. Cloud, MN: St. Cloud State University, 2015. P. 132-192.
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