The Little Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Is it possible to come across any snake in literature and not think of that snake? You know, the one in the Bible and Paradise Lost—the one that’s actually Satan.
From all of this, it’s hard to know when, in literature, you can or should trust a snake. In The Little Prince, the narrator certainly doesn’t trust the snake. He doesn’t want it anywhere near the prince.
But the prince sees the snake differently. He isn’t afraid of it, and converses with it as if it were just another one of the creatures he meets on his travels. And the snake, too, seems to treat the prince with respect. It’s the snake who tells the prince, “This is the Earth; this is Africa” (17.7) when the prince wants to know which planet he is on. And when the prince points to the sky, to his own planet, the snake remarks that it is “beautiful” (17.12). Nothing overtly evil about the snake as yet—in fact, he seems to be quite a chatty fellow, and wise, too. When the prince remarks, “It is a little lonely in the desert…” (17.16), the snake replies that it “is also lonely among men” (17.17).
A Tighter Breathing, and Zero at the Bone
Slowly, though, the snake does turn sinister. The prince tells him that he is “a funny animal, no thicker than a finger” (17.19), and the snake counters by saying, “But I am more powerful than the finger of a king” (17.20). And then:
…[h]e twined himself around the little prince’s ankle, like a golden bracelet.
‘Whomever I touch, I send back to the earth from whence he came,’ the snake spoke again. (17.24-25)
Yikes. A dangerous fellow, indeed. So why doesn’t he strike the prince? The snake explains that the prince moves him to pity because he is “so weak on this Earth made of granite” (17.27); but the snake offers to help the prince get to his planet if he someday grows too homesick. He says, “I can take you farther than any ship could take you” (17.23).
All this sounds very mysterious and puzzling, right? We think so, and so does the little prince. He asks the snake, “But why do you always speak in riddles?” (17.28), to which the snake responds with another indirect answer: “I solve them all” (17.29).
Ok, so it’s clear the snake can instantly kill whomever it bites. And somehow, if the little prince wants to go home to his planet, he can hitch a ride on the snake’s bite. Huh? Yeah.
This could, of course, be just a simple play on words. The snake bites people and sends them “whence they came” (17.25), remember? That means people die when he bites them. The whole “whence they came” relates to the “ashes to ashes” idea—that human beings are made of dust, and that they will return to dust when they die. But in this case, whence the little prince came is actually Asteroid B-612, so the bite will take him back there. Oh, very clever, Saint-Exupéry. Very clever.
When he decides to return home, the prince does take up the snake’s offer to provide him with a transportation service. At that point, it seems like the prince, too, doesn’t quite trust the snake. He is afraid and nervous when the time comes for the snake to bite him. However, we see that the snake turns out to be true to his word. The narrator initially thinks the prince has died after the snake bites him, but ends up changing his mind:
“But I know that he did go back to his planet, because I did not find his body at daybreak.” (27.2)
So, is the snake in this book meant to counter the common reaction to snakes in literature? Shmoop thinks this is possible; and yet, this snake is dangerous, too. He’s certainly nothing like our cuddly friend, the fox.