The Little Prince
Analysis: Writing Style
Unique and Bittersweet + Simple and Poetic + Illustrated
Unique and Bittersweet
The Little Prince’s style is unique. Just as the prince explains that the fox has become “unique in all the world” (21.52) after the two become friends, The Little Prince is unique among all other stories in the world. It’s got humans, flowers, animals, and aliens who can all talk to each other.
Yet, it doesn’t feel fantastical—the characters all act as though this is perfectly normal. The prince can cross the cosmos and never even worry about breathing. (Most of us would be asking, “Where’s my oxygen?” Or we might wonder how the prince gets from one planet to another, or what made him think he could get back to his own planet once he left.)
Even the book’s structure is unusual. We go back and forth in time between the encounter with the prince (which itself is six years earlier), the “present” in which the narrator is writing the story, the narrator’s childhood, and the prince’s adventures. In between we pop in and out of the long conversation the narrator and the prince are having. We begin at the end, after the narrator has already lost the prince. We also always know what the outcome is going to be: the narrator and the prince will be separated. This knowledge makes our entire reading bittersweet.
Simple and Poetic
The language of the story is simple, and at the same time, is poetic. Check out this passage, in which the narrator explains drinking from the well in the desert:
I raised the bucket to his [the prince’s] lips. He drank, his eyes closed. It was as sweet as some special festival treat. This water was indeed a different thing from ordinary nourishment. Its sweetness was born of the walk under the stars, the song of the pulley, the effort of my arms. It was good for the heart, like a present. (25.13)
Is this like any other book you’ve ever read? How can water’s sweetness taste like “effort,” “song,” and “walk[ing] under the stars”? How can water be good for the heart? The closer we look at these ideas, the more complicated and bewildering they have the potential to become. And yet, if we put our minds at rest and “see with our hearts,” these words become resonant and meaningful.
The illustrations in this book, which are also by Saint-Exupéry, are an integral part of the story and the narrator calls our attention to them often. They help readers to actually “see” the characters and places the book mentions.
These drawings are not artistically perfect: sometimes, the little prince’s planet looks too tiny for him to even lie down on and the prince’s outfit looks different from image to image. The narrator is the first to admit this:
I am not at all sure of success. One drawing goes along all right, and another has no resemblance to its subject. I make some errors, too, in the little prince’s height: in one place he is too tall and in another too short. And I feel some doubts about the colour of his costume. So I fumble along as best I can, now good, now bad, and I hope generally fair-to-middling. (4.14)
And yet, these illustrations are creative and memorable. That’s why we (and the millions who have The Little Prince tattoos) love them so much!
The Little Prince was originally written in French. Since it was published, though, it’s appeared in more than 200 other languages. In some of these languages, there’s more than one translated version.
Let’s take a look at an excerpt from the French version:
Les grandes personnes m'ont conseillé de laisser de côté les dessins de serpents boas ouverts ou fermés, et de m'intéresser plutôt à la géographie, à l'histoire, au calcul et à la grammaire. C'est ainsi que j'ai abandonné, à l'âge de six ans, une magnifique carrière de peintre. J'avais été découragé par l'insuccès de mon dessin numéro 1 et de mon dessin numéro 2. Les grandes personnes ne comprennent jamais rien toutes seules, et c'est fatigant, pour les enfants, de toujours leur donner des explications (1.7). (source)
Here’s the translated version, from Shmoop’s copy of the book:
The grown-ups’ response, this time, was to advise me to lay aside my drawings of boa constrictors, whether from the inside or the outside, and devote myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic and grammar. That is why, at the age of six, I gave up what might have been a magnificent career as a painter. I had been disheartened by the failure of my Drawing Number One and my Drawing Number Two. Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them. (1.7)
Even if we don’t know French very well, we can see similarities between the word choices and sentence structure. “Grown-ups” get called “grandes personnes”; the “magnificent career as a painter” is actually “une magnifique carrière de peintre.” The narrator’s “Drawing Number One and [his] Drawing Number Two” become “mon dessin numéro 1 et de mon dessin numéro 2.”
Because of all this translating and popularity, it’s hard to figure out which version of The Little Prince is definitive in any language besides French. To keep it simple, let’s just focus on English. The translation used most often, and the one Shmoop’s using on the site, is the one by Katherine Woods from 1943. For decades, people have referred to and used this edition.
In recent years, though, several other people have re-translated The Little Prince into English. Some of the translators are pretty nasty to each other and about each other’s versions. In “A Labour of Love,” for example, translator Alan Wakeman explains he had to translate The Little Prince himself because he felt Woods’ language didn’t do the book justice (source). Pretty scathing, right?
More importantly, what do you think of Woods’ translation and how it stacks up against other versions? To see how a line like the fox’s, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye” (21.36), appears in different translations, check out these sites:
What do you think? Which version of the language do you prefer? Do we need to learn French and read the original version in order to really get the book?