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Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Little Prince

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The Little Prince is a classic parable of life’s profound meaning by Antoine De Saint-Exupery. Book can be read in entirety here. Following is my review of the book written as part of the course project (not based on SparkNotes or MonkeyNotes).

The Little Prince is a book by a twelve year old boy recounting his experiences in dealing with world around him and meeting with a Prince from far away planet. Book is a parable of childhood innocence and attempts to deconstruct the world from eyes of six year old child. In the process we see insights which we, as grown ups, often miss or lose in track of time. Book emphasizes on holding on to really important things such as friendship, love and faith which are usually ignored to make room for “important” things such as reason and livelihood. While parable can be claimed to be an unrealistic story and is not free from errors of logic, book still hold lessons for living a happy and completely life when interpreted in correct context. Underlying theme of the book is to let go of your mind and enjoy what matters most from depths of heart. There are hidden gems in various sentences throughout the book which force us to pause and reassess our priorities in life.

To start with, author recounts how our pattern driven mind cannot take leap of imagination to distinguish a boa constrictor from hat. In world organized along strict social rules, creativity and imagination of childhood is quickly trampled to make way for ruthless reality. But does reality have to be ruthless and why can’t world of grown up be as simplified as world of children? In change of roles so impossible for adults to even comprehend, he lends sympathetic ear to limitations of grow ups and says that “it is tedious for little children to explain to grown ups time and again” and “children should show great understanding towards grown ups”. How the world of grown ups is so very different and busy in useless things is recurring theme in the book. Explaining the adulthood fascination with reason, logic and rationality, author states that grown up like to reduce everything to numbers even when it doesn’t matter.

There are numerous incidents which pose the question about “what is serious matter?” Is smelling a flower and basking in warmth of morning Sun less important than tallying those books of accounts? In our race of life we chase what we consider serious to find success in the world and still end up unhappy and lonely. Book forces us to rethink our priorities in life and define success to ourselves. Can success be measured only in terms of how much money one made? Answer to this question is undoubtedly no, for we know that there are many things more important that money in life and a life without money can well be fulfilling but life with lots of money can be as lonely. Then even after knowing this why do we pursue success measured by others’ standards? Why do I seek and chase what others expect to me. These are the questions that one always asks oneself but avoids answering for true answer requires courage to get out of rat race that world is.

Why is the world of grown ups in so much hurry? In humourous incident recounting circular logic of a drunkard and businessman, author asks us if we want to buy things to save our time so that we can make money to buy more things. In increasingly commercialized and consumption driven world, we have forgotten what we are running after. Two other incidents sarcastically ridicule this materialistic nature. One where merchant is unable to answer what will people do by saving 54 minutes of their week by not eating and another is where running trains signify ever unquenched thirst for more, even when we are not sure what we want. In greed of material possessions we often hoard a lot without really needing anything. After all, what fun is a garden of roses, when not a single rose is tamed?

Book is also filled with subtle ridicule and questions human nature through various incidents in the narrative. The novel rebukes adult tendencies to place value on external appearance and status (Turkish scientist), to seek false praise and ignore reality (“I admire you but why does that means so much to you?”), to ignore the world in selfish greed (cleaning up toilet of planet), to demand authority through force without deserving it (“authority is first and foremost based on reason”), and to pass judgment on others without looking at self in mirror (“It is far more difficult to judge oneself than judge others” and “If you succeeded in judging yourself rightly then you are very wise”).

Overall, The Little Prince is book about valuing what matters. In race of life, we often miss simple pleasures of living. Instead of living a life, we start to analyze the life, and that’s where problem really starts. What is meaningful has to be judged from parameters bigger than reason and expectations as the work of lamplighter in the book is described to be more useful than those of king and businessman. What should matter is that work has meaning to you, not to anyone but to you. In position I find myself, it becomes difficult to untangle myself from others’ expectations from me because of where I am.

In one incident, the snakes quotes that “it’s just as lonely among men” indicating lack of emotional depth in human transaction which are primarily based on distrust, dishonesty, self gain and opportunism. Even when living in society, one is alone and fights with the world every day. Where is that sought after peace for which people are running? Does anyone know if there is any anywhere?

Ultimately what matters is how we see the world around us. We can chose to be what we are, humans in rat race, isolated from people around us, chasing a mirage that doesn’t exist, or we can be a little boy, finding joys in wonders of life, self satisfied, full of imagination and open minded. Because as books points out in the end, “what is essential is invisible to eyes, and need to seen through heart”. There are many questions raised and understanding them in context of our current reality is the most useful learning of the book.

Apart from questioning the premise of grown ups world, book also provided few brilliant and profound quotes which glimpse into human psyche and made me smiles. Acknowledging man’s attraction to mystery, author states that “when mystery is too overpowering one dare not disobey”. Delving into heart of person suffering from pain is often difficult for there are many things which work together to make one happy or sad, and tears don’t just mean sadness in many cases. In parting of author and the Prince, author wonders that “land of tears is so mysterious”. Highlighting the objective of selfless efforts towards what you love, flower of Prince says to him that “I will have to put up with few caterpillars if I want to see butterflies.”

In the end, Prince might as well be imagination of little boy, but if it stops mattering to us then we are already half-way there!