The Little Prince Is Absolutely Terrifying


Because we are friends on Facebook, I can tell you with authority that today is Antoine de Saint‐Exupéry‘s birthday. And at the risk of his unfriending me, I can also admit to how much I’ve always feared Le Petit Prince.

As we know, Le Petit Prince is beloved: translated into more than 180 languages, the novella is one of the bestselling books of all time, prized both by those who’ve studied the author’s philosophy and others who just carry the lunchbox. The mysterious circumstances of the author’s death have only burnished the book’s legend. Scholars have compared the author’s philosophy to that of Plato and Aristotle, Heidegger’s phenomenology, Candide and Gulliver’s Travels, to say nothing of the Christian symbolism.

It’s also something that, like, say, Harold and Maude, is really hard to admit you don’t like, because people can just look at you knowingly and say you can’t see its magic, and thereby represent the narrow-minded ignorance that the book is fighting. I know this because before I learned to keep my mouth shut, this is the sort of emotional argument in which I found myself embroiled several times in the hall of my college dorm.

And it’s not like I have a strong argument against it; I just…don’t like it. It scares me. This could come off as sheer contrarian perversity, but I can assure you it dates back to babyhood, when I cried, screamed and threw the book across the room when it was proferred as a bedtime story because I didn’t like the Prince’s hollow eyes. (This would be the French version, although I disliked the translation even more.) It’s an arbitrary dislike, but visceral. His jumpsuit reminded me of my least-favorite snowsuit. The cartoon show creeped me. For several months, it was the subject of my nightmares. The Prince’s life on B612 was scary and lonely and sad; he had no parents; the boy-flower love story made me uncomfortable; and his Christ-like resurrection terrified and baffled me, just as did Aslan’s a few years later. Of course, it’s not a children’s book. But then, even during the tedious period where I self-described as a “humanist,” I read it in French class and disliked it just as much. And later, as an adult, the aversion was constant, even as I learned to love the author’s luminous other work, like Wind, Sand and Stars or Night Flight.

When you think about it, The Little Prince tugs at some of childhood’s deepest fears: abandonment, loneliness, an arbitrary universe ruled by adult whims and mysterious convention. Snowsuits. What can be intended as redemptive can read instead as punishment and cruelty. And as a fable, the moral, to a child, can seem obscure at best.

A well-intentioned friend (who had a shirt that read, “It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye”) sent me a book a few years ago. It’s called A Guide for Grown-ups: Essential Wisdom from the Collected Works of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. “To get in touch with that inner child,” he wrote – half-jokingly. Inner child? I’m infantile – what did I have to do, drink from a bottle? Besides, my inner child had thrown the wisdom of Saint-Ex across the room. I did not read it. Recently, I ran across this book, and did read it. Then I had a nightmare from which I apparently woke up screaming about baobobs. It doesn’t get much more childish than that. Which is, presumably, a testament to the author’s skill.

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