Antoine de Saint-Exupery
BORN: 1900, Lyons, France
DIED: 1944, France
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
Southern Mail (1929)
Night Flight (1931)
Wind, Sand, Stars (1939)
The Little Prince (1943)
Antoine de Saint Exupery. © Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy
While best known in the United States for what has become a classic in children’s literature, the fable The Little Prince (1943), Antoine de Saint-Exupery is recognized in his native country of France for the humanism and reflection shown in his adventurous tales of aviation. Largely autobiographical, his work depicts not only the freedom and dangers of flight but also the importance of comradeship and dedication to duty. With a distinctive lyrical, poetic prose style, Saint-Exupery shares his philosophy of life: individuals should always endeavor to reach their true potential.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Privileged Upbringing. Saint-Exupery was born in Lyons, France, on June 29, 1900, into an aristocratic family. After his father, an insurance salesman, died of a stroke in 1904, Saint-Exupery’s mother moved with her children to Le Mans in 1909. As a child, he attended a Jesuit school in Le Mans, followed by two private schools, one in France, the other in Switzerland. After failing his final exam at a university preparatory academy, he entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts to study architecture.
Seeking Flight. A turning point in Saint-Exupery’s life came in 1921, when he began military service in the second regiment of Chasseurs (a French military unit, usually light infantry) and began training as a pilot. Flying was not entirely new to him. He had flown for the first time when he was twelve. After making his first solo flight in July 1921 and receiving his pilot’s license in 1922, Saint-Exupery studied at the school for air cadets and at Avord Air Base. That same year he had a serious crash, the first of many.
During the time of his flight training, Saint-Exupery had become engaged to Louise de Vilmorin, later known as a writer in her own right for such novels as Madame de (1951). Because Vilmorin’s family objected to his career in the air force, Saint-Exupery took a position with a tile manufacturing company in Paris, a job his fiancee’s family procured for him. After Vilmorin ended their engagement in 1923, Saint-Exupery held various jobs over the next several years—bookkeeper, journalist, and truck salesman. In the meantime, his first work, ‘‘L’Aviateur,’’ was published in a small-press magazine in 1926. Already evident in this story are what would become recurring aviation themes in Saint-Exupery’s work: the connection between a pilot and his plane and his fellow aviators.
Flying Postal. Flying a postal route for the commercial airline Aeropostale, Saint-Exupery was instrumental in establishing mail routes across the African deserts and the Andes Mountains in South America. By 1928, Saint- Exupery became the director of the remote post at Cape Juby in the Spanish Sahara, surrounded by rebel tribes. This experience proved to be of utmost importance to his development as a writer, as the desert would become the background for The Little Prince and The Wisdom of the Sands (1948). During these years at Cape Juby, Saint-Exupery wrote his first novel, Southern Mail (1929), which celebrated the postal pilots who regularly flew dangerous missions as quickly as possible so as to win a commercial advantage over railway and steamship mail carriers.
On July 14, 1929, Saint-Exupery and a friend broke the transatlantic speed record. That same year, Saint-Exupery received a French Legion of Honor Award for peaceful negotiations with the Moors and Spaniards in Morocco. He assumed a post in South America, where he met his future wife, Consuelo Suncin, widow of an Argentine journalist whose literary friends included French playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio. In 1931, Saint-Exupery published Night Flight, a novel that praises the heroism of those pilots who pioneered flying at night on the South American postal routes.
Crashes. By 1934, Saint-Exupery was a publicity agent for Air France and, beginning in 1935, served as a foreign correspondent for an assortment of newspapers. Toward the end of 1935, the Air Ministry sponsored a contest to reward the pilot who could break the time record between Paris and Saigon. Saint-Exupery took to the air with his mechanic, Andre Prevot. On the leg from Benghazi to Cairo, the duo was disoriented by a head wind that slowed their progress, and they crashed in the Libyan desert. Near death, they were found by Bedouins five days later. One of the best-known sections of Saint-Exupery’s memoir Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939) recounts their struggle to survive without provisions. In 1937, Saint-Exupery and Prevot were seriously injured in yet another plane crash, this one in Guatemala, an additional experience captured in Wind, Sand, and Stars.
Wartime. By the time Wind, Sand, and Stars was published, Europe was being engulfed in what would become World War II. Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, expanded its military and expressed territorial ambitions beginning in the mid-1930s. While countries like France and Great Britain practiced a policy of appeasement when Germany annexed parts of Czechoslovakia and Austria in 1938, they declared war after Germany invaded Poland and took it over in 1939. Hitler and Germany’s imperial ambitions became clearer in 1940, when many other European countries were conquered by Germany. France was one of the countries that came under Nazi control, though free French forces fought on the side of the Allies (Great Britain, France, and, later, the United States and the Soviet Union).
After the fall of France in World War II, Saint-Exupery was decorated with the Croix de Guerre for his part in a reconnaissance mission over German-occupied territory. At the end of 1940, he lived in self-imposed exile in New York for two years, a time of productivity during which he worked on Flight to Arras (1942), The Little Prince (1943), Letter to a Hostage (1950), and The Wisdom of the Sands (1950). All four of these works reveal Saint-Exupery’s belief that moral values were necessary for the rebuilding of Europe. Saint-Exupery returned to active duty with the army in 1943. On July 31, 1944, he was reported missing in action, presumably shot down somewhere over the Mediterranean. In 2004, divers found the tailpiece of the plane Saint-Exupery was flying three miles off the French coast between the cities of Marseille and Cassis.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Saint-Exupery's famous contemporaries include:
Amelia Earhart (1897-1937): Earhart was the first woman to pilot a plane over the Atlantic Ocean. She disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to circumnavigate the earth in 1937.
George Orwell (1903-1950): Novelist Orwell exhibited a contempt for authority in his books. His most popular works are the political satires Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949).
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971): A gifted jazz trumpeter and singer, Armstrong pioneered the scat technique, a method of singing in which meaningless syllables are improvised, often in imitation of the sounds of a musical instrument.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986): Exploring time and reality, Borges wrote fiction of imagination, philosophy, and dream that changed Latin American literature. His publications include the short story collections Ficciones (1944) and The Aleph and Other Stories (1949).
Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974): American pilot who rose to international fame after making the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927.
Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989): Japan's longest-reigning emperor (1921-1989), Hirohito oversaw his country's military invasion of China and defeat in World War II as well as Japan's postwar transformation into an economic superpower.
Works in Literary Context
Diverse Influences. Influenced by Andre Gide, Henri Bergson, and Andre Breton, Saint-Exupery nevertheless is recognized as an innovator in literature due to a distinctive vision that transcends ordinary perception. The effect that reading Plato had on Saint-Exupery’s life and writing is also clear. He agreed with the philosopher that courage is the basest virtue, as it is composed of vanity, anger, and stubbornness. Saint-Exupery’s greatest inspiration, though, was his experience as a pilot. Multiple crashes, defying death in the desert, the exhilaration of flight, and connecting with other pilots all form the foundation for his work.
Universality. Characterized by a childlike altruism and a universal approach to the purpose of life, Saint-Exupery’s works surpass their immediate topics. Although much of his writing focuses on aviation, a deeper humanistic message is nonetheless recognizable. Saint-Exupery shuns psychological jargon, thereby avoiding an overly moralistic tone. Instead, truth subtly appears in his stories, almost as if it is there by accident, which is most likely what Saint-Exupery, believing that essential things are invisible to the eyes, intended.
Personal Enlightenment. In The Little Prince, Saint-Exupery presents his recurring theme of personal enlightenment through the exploration of both the outside world and one’s inner world. Saint-Exupery warns against being narrow-minded and judgmental, as these qualities can only result in ignorance. From the story’s onset, the narrator emphasizes the fact that adults are uninteresting, superficial, and self-righteous in their assumption that their limited perspective is the only one possible. Children are clearly more imaginative because they are open- minded and receptive to the beauty and mystery of the universe. As the little prince travels from planet to planet, the grown-ups he meets reveal characteristics that are contradictory and shallow, and it is the little prince who points out their shortcomings. Through the symbolic little prince, Saint-Exupery shows that a willingness to seek what is unknown and unseen in the world is the key to understanding life itself.
Introspection and spiritual growth, too, require honest exploration of not only the physical world but also one’s own feelings. A most important lesson to be learned from The Little Prince is at once simple and complex: recognizing one’s responsibilities to the world as a whole leads to one’s understanding of the responsibilities involved in maintaining a relationship with another person. When, for example, the fox asks to be tamed even though he knows how to tame himself, he explains to the little prince that being willing to give a part of oneself to another person makes the recipient, as well as everything associated with that person, more valuable to the world and to the self. The essence of man, Saint-Exupery writes in Flight to Arras, is a ‘‘knot of relationship with others.’’ Despite the emotional commitment involved, creating ties with another person enriches the meaning of the world.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
For Saint-Exupery, flight was more than a feeling of exhilaration. It provided spiritual enlightenment. Other works that feature aviators who find freedom and divinity in the air are:
I Was Amelia Earhart (1996), a novel by Jane Mendelsohn. In this book, Mendelsohn writes in the voice of Amelia Earhart, who tells what happened after Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared off the coast of New Guinea in 1937.
The Spirit of St. Louis (1953), a nonfiction book by Charles A. Lindbergh. Lindbergh won a Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for his account of his adventurous journey across the Atlantic in his single-engine plane.
West with the Night (1942), a memoir by Beryl Markham. British-born adventurer Markham was a horse trainer on her family's farm in Kenya before becoming the only female bush pilot in Africa. In 1936 she achieved fame for being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo from west to east.
Works in Critical Context
At the time of their publication, Saint-Exupery’s books were generally acclaimed by critics. Much of what he wrote, however, with the exception of The Little Prince fell out of favor with critics and scholars after his death. Since the 1950s, The Little Prince has been treated by critics and the general public alike as a work of children’s literature, while his novels and nonfiction have been relegated to the categories of ‘‘aviation history’’ or ‘‘World War II literature.’’ Thus, his works have generally been overlooked in the canon of twentieth-century literature. Since the 1980s, there has been a renewed, though still limited, interest among English-speaking critics in the author and his books. Since the mid-1980s, critics have gradually returned to the assessment made by the author’s own countrymen during his lifetime: that Saint- Exupery wrote in a style and voice both distinctive and impressive and that his observations and metaphors have an enduring relevance and power beyond their historical setting.
The Little Prince. When The Little Prince was published, Saint-Exupery’s fans were dismayed by what one critic described as ‘‘his sudden trajectory into absurdity.’’ Years later, however, even the harshest critics of The Little Prince began to consider it Saint-Exupery’s most insightful work due to the sophisticated philosophical concepts that are wrapped in a seemingly simple package.
Evaluating the story’s autobiographical components and Saint-Exupery’s concern for the fate of Europe under fascist control, scholars have commented on his motives for writing the fable. While some critics have argued that such political elements place The Little Prince in a category other than children’s literature, others generally recognize it as an allegory that can be enjoyed by children as well as adults. Maxwell A. Smith has commented:
Because of its poetic charm... its freshness of imagery, its whimsical fantasy, delicate irony and warm tenderness, it seems likely that The Little Prince will join that select company of books like La Fontaine’s Fables, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird, which have endeared themselves to children and grown-ups alike throughout the world.
Responses to Literature
1. Saint-Exupery wrote The Little Prince after France had been captured by the Nazis during World War II. What symbols of war and exile can you find in the fable? Research major occurrences that took place during World War II. Create a timeline showing events that were occurring in the United States during Saint-Exupery’s lifetime.
2. Investigate the disappearances of famous aviators during flight. What are some explanations you can think of that would account for their vanishing? Choose one of these individuals and write a newspaper article reporting his or her disappearance. Also, write a newspaper obituary for the person you chose. Because your purpose for each piece is different, make sure you use appropriate diction and style in both.
3. What distinguishes children from adults in The Little Prince? Do you think the difference is based on age or on something else? Why do you think the little prince wants to return home instead of remaining with the pilot, especially given their friendship? Create a presentation based on your findings and conclusions.
4. While some characters in The Little Prince see Drawing Number One as a hat, others think it illustrates an elephant inside a boa constrictor. What is the meaning and significance of these different perspectives? What view do you have? Write a paper that offers your interpretation.
Rumbold, Richard, and Lady Margaret Stewart. The Winged Life: A Portrait of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Poet and Airman. New York: McKay, 1953.
Schiff, Stacy. Saint-Exupery: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1994.
Smith, Maxwell A. Knight of the Air: The Life and Works of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. London: Pageant, 1956.
Schiff, Stacy. ‘‘Saint-Exupery Lands at Last.’’ New York Times, April 11, 2004.
Shattuck, Kathryn. ‘‘A Prince Eternal.’’ New York Times, April 3, 2005.
‘‘Antoine de Saint-Exupery.’’ Books and Writers. Retrieved April 14, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/exupery.htm.