The Little Prince opens with the author’s test to differentiate an enlightened child-like imagination from that of a serious-minded adult. This assessment involves a picture of a snake which has recently swallowed an elephant. Boring old adults, glancing at the narrow head and tail of the snake with a big lump in the middle, see a hat.
For me, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella gave rise to concerns about passing the snake test. How should I react to an odd story of a pilot who crash lands in the Sahara and meets a boy from outer space? This extraterrestrial boy reaches Earth via tiny asteroids variously populated by a king with no subjects, a drinker who drinks because he is ashamed of drinking, a business man setting about owning the stars, a vain man with no one to praise him but himself, a geographer who doesn’t know where anything is, and a lamp lighter who has to light and extinguish his lamps every few seconds on his minuscule world. The description of these characters might set me thinking about all kinds of topics, from materialism to the nature of power. The problem is, given the book’s fanciful tone, such an earnest reading seems wrong. It’s like failing the snake test and seeing a boring old hat. Conversely, seeing the book as nothing more than the hallucinogenic whimsy of an exhausted pilot probably wouldn’t be right either, bearing in mind that The Little Prince has sold hundreds of millions of copies, and enjoyed extensive critical appreciation devoted to its deeper meanings.
So what to do? One answer might be to view The Little Prince not as a work of spiritual guidance, but as a story, which is what it is. An author setting himself up as some kind of guru is always vulnerable to the fact that changing circumstances eventually make a nonsense of any advice. “See with your heart and not your eyes” is a famous bit of advice from The Little Prince. Well, yes I get the point, until I see people making emotional decisions when they would be better served acting rationally. This is where a story has an advantage over something more factual. A story in its fictional nature has a naturally light touch, offering a quiet and humane acknowledgement that any guidance it provides may have no substance at all.
This makes it hard to give a star rating on Amazon or Goodreads. Do I rate for good advice, or bad advice, or for no advice at all? I don’t know. As a purely personal kind of response I will give 4 stars to an interesting, quirky, funny and moving story.