It is such a secret place, the land of tears • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Breaking With Tradition • 1900–1945
Writers in exile
1932 The Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth writes The Radetzky March, which details Austria—Hungary’s decline, a year before he leaves Germany for Paris. He remains in exile for the rest of his life.
1939 Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war play Mother Courage and Her Children is written a few years after he flees Nazi persecution.
1941 Published just before his suicide in Brazilian exile, Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s novella The Royal Game criticizes the brutality of the Third Reich’s Nazi regime.
1952 Holocaust survivor Paul Celan produces a collection of poems, Poppy and Memory, after settling in Paris following horrific wartime experiences in his native central Europe.
Many writers were forced to flee their homelands before and during World War II, and a sombre, wistful, and elegiac tone is often evident in the literature produced in exile by such writers, who include Joseph Roth, Bertolt Brecht, Stefan Zweig, and Paul Celan. Also among this exodus was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote The Little Prince in New York after he had left France, following its occupation by the Nazis.
Like many of the great literary works from this era, The Little Prince is not strictly a “war” novel but it is shaped by the political and social context that the war brought about. Saint-Exupéry’s book has been read in numerous ways: as a general moral and philosophical fable; as a children’s fairy tale; as an autobiographical story that has been re-imagined as fantasy; and as a direct reflection of its times. These interpretations have all been made of other works of exile literature, which commonly lament a lost way of life.
"Here is my secret, very simply: you can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye."
The Little Prince
State of dislocation
Given its genesis in a time of displacement, it is not surprising that the title character of Saint-Exupéry’s novel is an alien boy who falls to Earth in the eerie landscape of the Sahara Desert. The narrator, a pilot who has crash-landed, encounters the boy there.
Abandonment, wandering, escape, and instability characterize the narrative of The Little Prince, which presents us with a seemingly simple children’s story. But like all good examples of such fiction, it is a tale for both old and young. Saint-Exupéry takes from classic children’s literature the idea that the state of childhood is one of transition, where difference predominates. The prince is literally and metaphorically an alien wandering the Earth — a child lost in an adult world. But as a character, his alienness is infused with a moral philosophy that celebrates dissimilarity and questions the world of adults which has led to war — and, in Saint-Exupéry’s case, exile from home. Like a child’s painful maturation into the unknowable realm of adulthood, the state of exile is a process of losing and relearning one’s place in the world.
This strangeness of the adult world coupled with the novel’s celebration of the little prince’s alienness, has also been read as a political critique. The baobab trees, which infest the home planet of the little prince, have been interpreted as a reference to the contemporary “sickness” of Nazism and its equally grasping nature as it moved across Europe destroying all in its path, including Saint-Exupéry’s beloved France.
The narrator warns about “some terrible seeds on the little prince’s planet. … And a baobab, if you tackle it too late … will bore right through a planet with its roots.” In contrast, the novel positions the humanist philosophy of rationality, compassion, and respect for difference against this spreading disaster. The alien boy advises us all that “eyes are blind. One must look with the heart”.
The Little Prince is a timeless yet timely exploration of the value of human life. Like other writers in exile, Saint-Exupéry explores loss and change against a backdrop of upheaval and alienation, which fosters kindness towards others and a toleration of difference.
The rise of the Nazis saw the emergence of writer-refugees whose homelands became hostile environments due to politics (Marxist Brecht left for Denmark), antisemitism (Jews Roth and Zweig went to Paris and London, respectively), and war (Saint-Exupéry fled occupation, while wartime internee Celan chose post-war exile).
ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY
Born to a French aristocratic family in 1900, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had a strict upbringing in a château near Lyon. During his national service, he became an aviator.
Before World War II, he was a commercial pilot who pioneered airmail routes in Europe, South America, and Africa. When war broke out, he joined the French Air Force and flew reconnaissance missions until 1940. During these years he produced many well-known works, but The Little Prince was not written until he and his wife, Consuelo Suncin, fled heartbroken into exile after France’s defeat and its armistice with Germany.
Vilified by his government and depressed by his stormy marriage, Saint-Exupéry flew his last flight in 1944, over the Mediterranean, where it is believed he was shot down. His posthumous reputation has recovered him as one of France’s literary heroes.
Other key works
1926 The Aviator
1931 Night Flight
1944 Letter to a Hostage
See also: Mother Courage and Her Children • Poppy and Memory • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch