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)
In this paragraph, the traditional ideas of experience and innocence get turned upside down. Actually this book seems to do that a lot! The young characters are the ones with the most wisdom, and it’s the grown-ups who, over and over again, appear not to “understand anything.”
They [grown-ups] are like that. One must not hold it against them. Children should always show great forbearance toward grown-up people. (4.10)
Sound familiar? This is one of the ideas we hear again and again in this book—the idea that children know more and have a greater understanding than grown-ups do. In the narrator’s opinion, this means that children basically have a responsibility to “show great forbearance,” which is a fancy way of saying “be patient with the grown-ups” rather than getting upset when the grown-ups display their ignorance.
The Little Prince
“[…] And if I know—I, myself—one flower which is unique in the world, which grows nowhere but on my planet, but which one little sheep can destroy in a single bite some morning, without even noticing what he is doing—Oh! You think that is not important!” (7.28)
To believe that a single flower and sheep are so important, or so vital, takes a certain kind of purity. Most people wouldn’t get upset about such a thing. Their experience has taught them to worry about things that seem more “important,” like bills and timetables and even having the right color backpacks. The narrator, for example, doesn’t seem all that bothered about the sheep because he’s thinking about fixing his plane…and that’s what upsets the prince so much. To the prince, something like a plane getting fixed isn’t nearly as important as safeguarding his flower from his sheep.
The Little Prince
“I ought not to have listened to her,” he confided to me one day. “One never ought to listen to the flowers. One should simply look at them and breathe their fragrance. Mine perfumed all my planet. But I did not know how to take pleasure in all her grace. This tale of claws, which disturbed me so much, should only have filled my heart with tenderness and pity.” (8.13)
The prince looks back at his younger self and feels wiser in comparison. By traveling, he has learned how he should have behaved when reacting to the grandiose claims of his naïve flower.
But the flower was not satisfied to complete the preparations for her beauty in the shelter of her green chamber. She chose her colours with the greatest care. She dressed herself slowly. She adjusted her petals one by one. She did not wish to go out into the world all rumpled, like the field poppies. It was only in the full radiance of her beauty that she wished to appear. (8.2)
The flower is sweet and cute in her naiveté. She doesn’t realize that there are grander, more “adult” concerns out in the world. She doesn’t realize that there are so many other flowers just like her.
The Little Prince
And the little prince asked himself:
“How could he recognize me when he had never seen me before?”
He did not know how the world is simplified for kings. To them, all men are subjects. (10.4-6)
At first, when reading this passage, we might think that the prince is the more innocent one. He’s the one who hasn’t heard of how kings view the world or what kings do (even though he’s a prince). As the narrator explains, the prince “did not know how the world is simplified for kings.”
But, if we look closer, it starts to seem like maybe the kings are the innocent ones—even foolishly innocent, perhaps. The kings think “all men are subjects” and look at the world in a simplified way. Maybe they’re the ones who haven’t had enough exposure.
The Conceited Man
But the conceited man did not hear him. Conceited people never hear anything but praise.
“Do you really admire me very much?” he demanded of the little prince. (11.12-13)
Each of the men the prince meets while traveling is foolish in his own way. That’s because each of them sees the world narrowly, through his particular point of view. For example, the conceited man can’t imagine that the prince would say anything that isn’t complimentary because he can’t “hear anything but praise.” He has no concept of a conversation that doesn’t end with a compliment in his direction. Is this foolishness also a form of innocence? What do you think?
“Whomever I touch, I send back to the earth from whence they came,” the snake spoke again. “But you are innocent and true, and you come from a star…” (17.25)
Although they’ve only just met and are still in the middle of their first conversation, the snake can already read the prince’s true character and understand what’s special about him. And what he understands is that the prince is “innocent and true, and come[s] from a star.” Really, what else do you need to know about the prince? Those seem like his defining characteristics. The snake right away sees things as they really are.
The grown-ups, to be sure, will not believe you when you tell them that. They imagine that they fill a great deal of space. They fancy themselves as important as the baobabs. You should advise them, then, to make their own calculations. They adore figures, and that will please them. But do not waste your time on this extra task. It is unnecessary. You have, I know, confidence in me. (17.2)
Once again, the narrator compares grown-ups unfavorably to children. He describes adults in the same way that adults sometimes describe children, saying that they’re almost touchingly naïve in their mistaken belief systems.
The Little Prince
“And yet what they are looking for could be found in one single rose, or in a little water.”
“Yes, that is true,” I said.
And the little prince added:
“But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart…” (25.16-19)
Most people are foolish, it seems. They go through life searching for something. And what is that thing? Well, the prince explains that this something “could be found in one single rose, or in a little water.” And a rose or some water is available anywhere. They are too available, almost, and so don’t seem special enough.
So, when people do see those things with their eyes, they “are blind.” The prince explains further that if people could look at these things “with the[ir] heart[s],” then they would be content and would have found what they were looking for. A piece of innocent wisdom from the little prince!