These days, it often feels like everything I read or watch exhausts me. Unsurprisingly, the news, both local and international, is generally negative. But even the things I consume for entertainment seem to largely be of the dark and depressing variety.
For instance, a sampling of the TV shows I’m currently watching: there’s the brooding and violent The Punisher; there’s Riverdale, the gritty adaptation of the much sunnier Archie comics; there’s the moody Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel; and, I just finished the second season of Stranger Things.
Meanwhile, I’m reading Bernice Chauly’s novel Once We Were There, which is currently making me infuriated at local politics, and Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches, which examines race and identity in Singapore. Let’s just say neither are particularly uplifting reads.
At times like these, there are some books I return to again and again, as a way of reminding myself to feel something other than frustration or hopelessness. One of them is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
I was first introduced to the novella by a friend when I was 18 and had just begun college. Its themes of friendships both found and lost, and the importance of working to build relationships, resonated with me deeply at that time.
Over the years, each subsequent reading has unveiled new layers to the story, bringing up a different way in which the deeply allegorical tale aligns with life.
In the book, a pilot is stranded in the Sahara Desert when his aircraft breaks down. There, he meets a mysterious boy who calls himself a prince and claims to originally be from a small asteroid. The pilot, who has hitherto led a rather lonely life, becomes good friends with the little prince over the course of the next eight days.
During this time, we learn more about the prince’s life. Back home on his planet, there is a rose that he loves. Self-absorbed and temperamental, the rose’s bad behaviour is what caused the prince to leave his planet.
On his way to Earth, the prince visits several other planets, each of which are inhabited by selfish, unimaginative people like The King, The Geographer, and The Lamplighter. They only manage to make the prince sceptical about adults in general.
Upon reaching Earth, however, the prince meets a fox, who teaches him some of the most important lessons of the book – lessons which he later shares with the pilot. Among these, is the line that has become the most quoted from the book, the one most associated with The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Eventually, the prince realises that he loves his rose despite its flaws, and that he must return to it. And so the book ends on an extremely bittersweet note, with the prince disappearing, ostensibly returning to his planet. Meanwhile, the pilot, while saved from the desert, still misses and continues searching for the prince.
First written in French in 1943, The Little Prince has become so popular for its whimsical drawings (done by the author himself) and quotations that it is easy to overlook how much it has going on beneath the surface. It isn’t a particularly happy tale – in fact, if anything, much of the book is about the ephemerality of relationships and dealing with loss.
But perhaps what makes the book such a captivating read, is the way it proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. This is a book totally lacking in cynicism, which believes strongly in the power of imagination and friendship and love.
This might seem corny to the jaded reader. But what takes the book far beyond just feel-good platitudes is that, for all its seeming simplicity, the story is fully aware that the most important things in life – relationships – don’t come easy. For this is the other lesson the fox imparts to the prince: that relationships take time, and effort, and commitment.
The fox calls this “taming” someone, “to establish ties … to need each other … to be unique (to each other) in all the world”.
This then begets the other quote that is most often associated with the book: “You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”
The Little Prince is one of the most translated books in the world, and one of the bestselling books of all time, with countless adaptations and tributes. So it is easy to forget that when it was first published, it was met largely with lukewarm reactions, and not a small amount of confusion. Readers and reviewers weren’t sure if it was a book for adults or children – it seemed too fanciful for the former, but too complex for the latter.
It was perhaps only Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, herself writing in that liminal space, who understood what de Saint-Exupery had done. In her review of The Little Prince, she said: “The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.”
I’d like to think that her words apply not just to children, but to all readers of the book. Because certainly, the reason I keep returning to The Little Prince is exactly that glow she describes – that not only continues to pulsate in that “some place”, but is reignited and renewed every time I read the book again.