I recently wrote about re-reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beautiful classic, The Little Prince for Slate. I really enjoyed going back to this book, which I remembered from childhood readings as being primarily about space travel and animals. As you'll see if you read the piece, I found a completely new interpretation of the story this time around.
Please take a look at the piece, which is excitingly titled "The Sordid Love Story Behind The Little Prince".
[Update: The link to the piece is now dead, so I'm reposting it here]
The Sordid Love Story Behind "The Little Prince"
I’d just come off a divorce-memoir bender when I decided to re-read The Little Prince. In the aftermath of a relationship that ended, instead of beginning, with a wedding, I’d craved accounts of other people’s loves-gone-wrong. I devoured Eat, Pray, Love and its ilk, swallowed the Modern Love archives whole, and binged on personal essay collections. None of it was enough. In my desire to see all the facts of someone else’s relationship laid bare, I must have hoped to figure out who’d been to blame in my own failed love. But these writers were frustratingly tight-lipped when it came to specifics. Come on, I whined, dish. I wanted the reality TV version. I wanted the dirt.
The Little Prince was meant to be a diversion from this exhausting quest—a quick dose of what Jeff Jenson, writing about an episode of Lost named after the novella, lovingly describes as the book’s “profound, soul-stirring whimsy.” By returning to those iconic ink and watercolor drawings, I was returning to an innocence that predated not just divorce but romance, too. So, I was surprised to find in those 83 pages exactly what I’d been looking for elsewhere – the story of a wrecked marriage, of ruined love.
Since its publication in 1943, The Little Prince has sold more than 80 million copies, placing it firmly in the ranks of all-time best-sellers. It has spawned plays, an opera, comic books and manga, films, a television series, a Japanese museum, and countless toys, t-shirts, lunchboxes and pencil sharpeners. Fans have included the likes of Orson Welles, James Dean and Morrissey. Embraced by pop culture, the book also holds its own in the literary canon. Its author was, after all, a man of letters, who won, in the course of his career, several of France’s most prestigious literary prizes, and the National Book Award in the U.S.
As the little prince explains to an aviator, who has crashed in the Sahara, he’s left his planet because he’s “having difficulties with a flower.” What I’d forgotten from my childhood readings was that the prince’s troubled love for this flower, a rose, is the axis of the story. When I heard that this relationship was based on Saint-Exupéry’s own marriage, I sensed dirt. I started digging.
Consuelo Gómez Carillo was an El Salvadoran beauty, twice widowed when she met Saint-Exupéry at the age of 26. In The Tale of the Rose: The Love Story Behind The Little Prince, a memoir of their marriage that she wrote after her husband’s death, but did not try to publish, Consuelo has no qualms about detailing Saint-Exupéry’s bad behavior. Consuelo’s account, which is poorly-written and heartbreaking in equal parts, recounts the early passion of her marriage, and then its unraveling. She tells of Saint-Exupéry’s frequent departures from their home, and of his many affairs, particularly a long-term one with the wealthy Nelly de Vogüé. A story-teller and a sculptor in her own right, Consuelo followed Saint-Exupéry from Buenos Aires to Casablanca, from Paris to New York, forever going along with his changes of plan, and subordinating her own concerns to the imperatives of his work.
Meanwhile, the intelligentsia’s gossip about Consuelo was overwhelmingly negative. André Gide didn’t like her, and Lewis Galantière called her “Surrealism made flesh”—and didn’t mean it as a compliment. Just about everyone else who had anything to do with the couple – most emphatically including Saint-Exupery’s 1994 biographer Stacy Schiff, who joins in the Consuelo hate-fest with gusto – considered her beneath him in both class and intelligence.
Naturally, I took Consuelo’s side. I returned to The Little Prince ready to condemn both Saint-Ex, as he was affectionately known, and the prince for calling the rose “weak” and “naïve”, for taking her for granted, for abandoning her. As I read, though, I found a story of love and heartbreak that went much deeper than the trading of reproaches.
Things start “timidly at first” between the prince and the rose. All is “charming, harmless,” until the rose emerges in her full glory, and love strikes. The rose, who stands both for the beloved and for love itself, appears as “some sort of miraculous apparition.” She is, in the prince’s inexperienced eyes, uniquely “radiant”, “mysterious”, “dazzling”. But it isn’t long before this first glow wears off. The rose “had soon begun tormenting him,” making demands the prince could never quite satisfy. Petulant and passive-aggressive, the rose does her best to “inflict a twinge of remorse on him” whenever she can. Predictably, the prince grows resentful and unhappy, calls the rose “complicated”, and starts to distrust her.
In a break-up scene that reads like personal history to anyone who’s ever said goodbye to a lover, the prince leaves. Strongly resembling his aviator author, he “took advantage of a migration of wild birds” for his departure. But leaving is never quite as easy as you think it will be, and “all these familiar tasks seemed very sweet to him on this last morning.” Tears, pleas for forgiveness, and admonishments to “try to be happy” follow.
There is no happy ending to this love story, though. Throughout his journey, the prince returns over and over to the relationship, questioning his decision to leave, asking himself how it could have gone differently, and grieving its loss. When he finally leaves Earth, in an act that has been interpreted as both suicide and Christ-like resurrection , he doesn’t know that he’ll see the rose again. He just knows that he’s been changed by his love for her. From an insightful fox, he’s learned that it wasn’t that first startling uniqueness of the rose, but the time they spent together that bound them together.
As I read The Little Prince, I came to realize that the question I’d been trying to answer in my mad dash through essays and memoirs was not really who was to blame, but, more simply, how could a love that had been so miraculous have turned so sad? How could it have ended? And Saint-Exupéry had an answer for me. “You risk tears if you let yourself be tamed,” says the fox. It’s as simple as that. Risking pain is the nature of the game.
By all accounts, Saint-Exupéry and Consuelo remained locked in a tormented push and pull until his death, a year after The Little Prince’s publication. But if there was no resolution to difficult love in Saint-Ex’s life, there was, at least, acceptance of that difficulty in his most enduring work.
“Look up at the sky,” says the narrator at the end of the book. “Ask yourselves: is it yes or no? Has the sheep eaten the flower? And you will see how everything changes…”
Love is ephemeral, as the prince learns, and whether it is there or not changes the way we see the world. The rose may be petty, the prince may be cruel, but the love that they had makes the wheat golden, the wind sing, and the stars laugh.
The simplicity of this conclusion was, finally, far more satisfying than the chattering voices of the memoirists and essayists I’d been reading. There’s no need to take sides, Saint-Exupéry seems to be saying. We all make mistakes, we’re all to blame, but love was worthwhile, however it ended. After all, “the stars are beautiful because of a flower you don’t see.”