The Absurdity of the Modern World

The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Richard Howard

Personally I had never heard of this book until the book club that I had joined put it onto their reading list (it was the book for November). This is something that I like about book clubs (not that I have been a member of one before, and this will only be the third time that I have attended), namely that you discover, and get to talk about, books that you may never encounter otherwise. This particular book club is called 'the Cult Bookclub' which sort of suits me quite well because I like the idea of reading cult books, particularly if these books are anything like cult movies.


The Little Prince is one of these strange books that has been written for children, but is written in such a way as to also appeal to adults. At first I thought is was going to be a bit like A Breakfast of Champions (not that I would consider A Breakfast of Champions a children's book) because it was written using simple language, and appealed to the pictures in the text. However, this only occurred a couple of times at the beginning and in the end the pictures simply existed to illustrate what was happening.


It is difficult to see what the plot is in this book. It seems to be about coming to understand and embrace the child within us. The Little Prince lives on a small asteroid and one day decides to go on a journey to see what lies beyond his own world. On his journey he visits a number of other planets, all inhabited by a single person, and then arrives at Earth where he ends up meeting only a single person, namely the narrator of the tale.


There is a very modernist, and absurdist, tone to this book and it seems to poke fun at a number of things that are real about the modern world. It has been suggested that this book was written during a time of flux in Western Society, as it moved away from the older world into a new world embracing technology. Saint-Exupery was on the forefront of this change, being a pilot for aeroposte, where he would open up flight routes to a number of remote locations in Africa and South America. However, this book was written while he was in exile in New York (he was a Frenchman and had fled France after the Nazi Occupation) though I do not feel that it is evident in the book.


The main action of the story takes place in a desert where the Narrator's plane has crashed (which mimics an event during the life of Saint-Exupery), and while he is trying to fix the plane he meets up with the Prince. The Prince and the Narrator are both looking for friends and because of this understand each other. The Prince is alone on his little world, with only a flower as a friend (he can talk to flowers). He has had other plants, such as the Baobab tree, but they must be destroyed pretty quickly because they will end up taking over his planet.


This book satirizes the absurdity of the modern adult world. The narrator condemns the adult's seriousness and how they expect everybody around them to be serious. What this seriousness does is that it destroys our sense of fun, joy, and even wonder at the world. We see this in the adult characters that the Prince meets on his journey, such as the king, who holds absolute power over everything, but cannot exercise that power for fear of a rebellion. Therefore the king simply lives in a world where he believes that he is all powerful and denying the fact that he is not. He even tries to bring the Prince into that world by making him the minister of justice, however the Prince, in his childlike innocence, sees the absurdity in the fact that while he is a minister of justice, he has nobody to judge.


We also see that absurdity in the businessman who owns all of the stars, and the only claim that he has on the stars is that nobody else has claimed ownership (and in a way this is the case with modern nations, who set up flags on islands because nobody else had done so, and those that claimed the island as their home were denied a voice to challenge that claim). Then there is also the absurdity of wealth, particularly if it is defined by bits of paper with numbers on them and squirreled away in a bank. I see this absurdity myself on the Magic Nights I go to when people open a pack and get a card and claim that they have made their money back and are taken aback when I point out to them that until they actually sell that card the card actually has no value. In fact, the face value of the Magic Card is never actually the actual value of the magic card, because the only value that that card holds is the value that people attach to it.


If this book is about something it is about the absurdity of the modern world and of the adult life. Unless we let go of our serious side the world in which we live is simply going to be dull, depressing, and full of stress, sorrow, and misery.