Interpretation of “The Little Prince” using Jungian Theory: The Unconscious and Archetype
Written by: Sai Ling, 2012
“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” – the fox (Saint-Exupery, 1944).
Do you think it is true? Is that bring you to think ponder? Or you just see it as a common sentence?
However, this is one of the phases in “The Little Prince” touched millions people and this is one of the most important messages in “The Little Prince”. During the little prince’s journey on the earth, he met a fox which teach he what is tame and the fox asked the little prince to tamed it. After that, the fox told the little prince its secret that is the sentence above which so many people sees it is a motto.
Also, it is a significant event in which the little prince made up his mind to return to his rose. It foreshadows, there will be a separation of the author (Saint-Exupery) and the little prince at the end. It led to the sadness and loneliness of Saint-Exupery and as bystanders (readers), we cannot do anything to comfort Saint-Exupery, and it brings us a sense of loss and helplessness toward the author.
Since the publication of “The Little Prince”, it has been already translated into more than 250 languages and more than 200 million sales that being one of the best-selling book. It awarded the prize of National Book Award of U.S. and France’s highest Literary Awards. Also, “The Little Prince” inspired our popular culture in the aspects of films, music, literature, theater and exhibitions (Y-Jean, 2011).
“The Little Prince” seems like a childish story that uses simple words, simple phases, simple characters and simple plot. However, it has touched hundreds of millions people and made millions of people cried, including me, a grown-up. It seems that the little prince’s words, questions, appearances, gestures, and even silence, have reached a secret place of us, (is that place – soul? Or maybe using an academic term suggested by Jung, “The Unconscious”) that make us stop and think, silence, and even cry.
Who would write such a story?
Antoine de Saint-Exupery is the author of “The Little Prince” and he is a France that born in 1900 and died in 1944, at his age of 44, during his last assigned reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean. He was not only a writer and poet, but also a pioneering aviator. He had experienced the two world wars – the largest scale wars in human time – during his lifetime. It is believed that his inspiration of writing “The Little Prince” was quite complex. The background of the story was from his experience of a dessert crash in 1935 and the little prince was said to be the reflection of him and his younger brother who died when he was 15 and the rose is a representation of his wife. Von Franz suggested, Saint-Exupery was a typical example of puer aeternus and he was profoundly affected by his mother complex and the temptation of death (2000).
Then, how come we have such emotions reactions? Is that strange? Or just normal? There are many commentaries tried to explore and analyze why and how “The Little Prince” is so touching while some studies tried to explain the meanings of the symbols in “The Little Prince”. As a reader and a psychology student, I would like to analyze “The Little Prince” from a theoretical point of view based on Jung’s Theory – archetype and unconscious. If you have read this book, I guess you know that there are many symbols in “The Little Prince”. In this paper, I will extract some of the symbols which touched me deeply and make me to think for analysis. The followings topics will be the highlights in my analysis:
“The relationship of the little prince and his rose” and “author’s loneliness before he met the little prince and after the little prince’s left”.
Here seems a “very odd” grown-up giving a “very strange” introduction to this paper analyzing “The Little Prince” as I have quoted many figures to prove how famous, powerful and important is this book. Yet, as a common grown-up, I think this is a quite communicable start for the “strange” grown-ups – this is what the little prince concluded during his journey after he left his planet B-612 – to understand what I am trying to express.
Now, before going further to the interpretation of “The Little Prince”, let’s have a look of what concepts and theories Jung had suggested which will be highlight in the present paper. The major concepts of Jung will be employed for analysis including: the unconscious, archetype, ego, persona, shadow, self and individualization.
Similar to Freud, Jung suggested unconscious cannot be known and have to be expressed from the consciousness which is the current awareness stage, or said, the Ego stage. Jung further divided unconscious into two types: first of all, personal unconscious, which is referring to the repressed memories of the individual’s past painful experience and unimportant experiences; Secondly, collective unconscious, which can be regarded as “transpersonal unconscious” refers to the shared part of all people, mankind, of all times and cultures and it cannot be gained from the personal experience (1951). According to Jung (1951), “although we develop differently and become unique individuals, the collective unconscious is common to all people and is therefore one”. It can be interpreted as the source of our most powerful ideas and experiences as well.
Von Franz (2000) also called it “soul image”. It is because it has the capacity to bring us in touch with the unconscious forces and it is often the key to unlock our creativity. Archetypes are the primordial images and representations of the instinctual energies of the collective unconscious. They are inherited predispositions that respond to the world in certain ways and they cannot be traced back to the individual's past experience. Jung found that there were some remarkable ideas and images in his patients’ dreams and fantasies corresponded to the mythical and religious across different cultures, and it led him to the conclusion that there should be a level of imagery in the unconscious that is common to everyone.
Still, Jung’s concept of ego is similar to Freud’s. The ego is the centre of the consciousness and cannot reach the unconscious part. The ego provides a sense of consistency in our current awareness and persuades us to think, analyze and plan consciously about our life. Therefore, it is an important archetype in shaping our personality and identity.
Persona is referring to “mask” (in Latin meaning) which implies our pretended appearance that expressing ourselves. Therefore it is called “conformity archetype” as well. It includes our living styles and social roles which essentially affect how we express ourselves and relate to other people. Persona is interacting with the ego so as to influence the development of our personalities – the more identifying of ego toward persona, the stronger sense to conform to persona. Of course there can be positive and negative development through this process which then leads to the further development of “self” through the process of “individualization” (that will be described later) so as to attain a successful and balance life.
Shadow is referring to those materials, which are denied, unrecognized and undeveloped positive and negative qualities, repressed from the consciousness. It is highly related to the persona. According to Frager and Fadiman (2005), the stronger the persona, the more we deny other parts of ourselves (the denied part is our shadow). At the same time, the unaware shadow is a threat to our personality development as well as our relationship with others. It is not only difficult to recognize, but also we tend to project the shadows – those we regarded as inferior and bad – onto others. That is, we are dominated by something we do not know. However, von Franz (2000) pointed out “just when we think we understand it, the shadow will appear in another form. Dealing with the shadow is a lifelong process of looking within and honestly reflecting on what we see there”.
As Jung suggested self is the “central archetype”, self is the most important archetype referring to the totality of the personality and it has the function to unite the conscious and the unconscious to achieve the balance, or equilibrium, of different opposing psyche elements. According to Jung, "Conscious and unconscious are not necessarily in opposition to one another, but complement one another to form a totality, which is the self" (1928). At the same, it is the most complicated concept of archetypes and the most difficult to understand and for one trying to express and analyze (like me, at the moment).
Individualization is similar to the concept of “self-actualization” of Maslow. Jung suggested everyone has the inner urge toward the “wholeness” and individualization is the process of psychological growth. In order to achieve the balance of conscious and unconscious, we have psyche struggle which in the purpose to develop into an intact and healthy “self”.
The relationship of the little prince and his rose
Obviously the relationship of the little prince and his rose is love relationship. Rose has long been a symbol of love, virgin and beauty. For example, we can still see people giving roses as Valentine’s gift nowadays.
From the aspect of Saint-Exupery, it is a reflection of his relationship with his wife. His wife was a quite difficult woman that Saint-Exupery felt uncomfortable to stay with her and he rather requesting for joining the France Air Force instead of being at home. In the book, the little prince went on to the journey because he tried to escape from his rose which he claimed that it is a “complex creature”. Since the rose seeded on the little prince’s planet, there are significant changes of the little prince’s life – he had to take care of the rose like providing screen and glass globe, listening to her boastful autobiography because she is a proud flower, comfort her even when she was wrong, and he had a significant emotion and feeling of sadness which made him want to leave his planet as well as his rose. He had revealed he had seen forty-four times sunset one day that indicating he is really sad.
The little prince’s journey, to some extent, was to search for the meaning of the relationship with his rose. From the dialogue of Saint-Exupery and the little prince on the thorns of roses, the little prince showed very strong emotional reaction to object to what Saint-Exupery said –
“I don’t believe you! Flowers are weak creature. They are naive. They reassure themselves as the best they can. They believe that their thorns are terrible weapons…
… Is the warfare between the sheep and the flowers not important? Is that not of more consequence than a fat red-faced gentleman’s sum? And if I know – I, myself – one flower which is unique in the world, which grows nowhere but on my planet, but which one little sheep can destroy in a single bite some morning, without even noticing what he is doing – oh! You think that is not important!
If someone loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just look at the stars. He can say to himself, somewhere, my flower is there… But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened… And you think that is not important!”
It is a typical statement of the love relationship. Saint-Exupery loved his wife but at the same time, he had conflicts with her and wanted to escape from her. Love relationship is, surely, a universal issue of mankind. And this is an important reason why the readers would be easier to be moved and I believe most of us, we were touched or at least have some kind of emotional reactions when reading the little prince’s “love story”. In the public’s viewpoint, we may have some common experience of love that can be found in “The Little Prince”. Here is a common struggle:
During the visit on the earth, the little prince found that there is a garden and there were 5000 roses all alike, at the same time and in the single garden. He remembered that his rose had told him she was the only one of her kind in all around the universe. The little prince overcome with sadness that he thought of what he was actually owned, he said that:
“I thought that I was rich, with a flower that was unique in all around the world; and all I had was a common rose. A common rose, and three volcanoes that perhaps extinct forever… that doesn’t make me a very great prince…”
And he lay down in the grass and cried.
It is seemingly a reflection of narcissism. He believed he should be a unique and special prince who should own a rose which is very special. Therefore it is cruel for the little prince (which is actually the projection of Saint-Exupery) to face the reality that he is just as original and common as any other people, and of course he deserved something original but not the so called “unique” which can only be defined by oneself.
This is one of the important plots reflecting the sadness and disappointment of Saint-Exupery toward his love relationship with his wife. For the readers, we have our own imagination to project onto the relationship of the little prince and his rose and further engage the story into our experience and feeling. Therefore, when Saint-Exupery reached the conclusion of “It is such a secret place, the land of tears”, we would feel “a queer sense of sorrow, without understanding why” (which is also the feeling of Saint-Exupery towards the little prince). It is because we all believe ourselves, to some extent, is different, there should not be a person understand our thinking and feeling and we even do not know how to clarify it.
Author’s loneliness before he met the little prince and after the little prince’s left
How come Saint-Exupery felt so lonely? We can have some hints from his writing. After the visit to Planet 325, 326, 327, 328, 329 and 330, the little prince reached a conclusion that – the grown-ups are odd and strange. When describing his journey on the earth, he simplified the world of grown-ups into only six categories. Also, among those he met on the trip, he would only want to make friend with the lamplighters because of their faith to order that they are “thinking of something else beside themselves”. Yet, still through the way of ridiculous because the lamplighter was too committing to the rule and lost the flexibility.
From what Jung’s concept of shadow suggested, Saint-Exupery projected part of his shadow onto the character of the little prince. Looking at the little prince, we can see a very childish Saint-Exupery. In the book, Saint-Exupery tried to make fun of every behavior and dialogue of the grown-ups and presented them in a ridiculous and contempt manner. It is obvious that Saint-Exupery neither wanted to accept the value of the adult’s world, nor made any compromise with them. He did not want to fulfill the social expectation as well. As referring to von Franz’s study, Saint-Exupery cannot come across his puer aeternus, which means eternal youth that indicates a type of people, usually have mother complex, having the youth characteristics like too dependent on others prolonged to their later life, or the whole life (2000).
Before encountered the little prince, Saint-Exupery had no friend (as in his definition). In his writing, he mentioned that after giving up his dream of being a painter at his six, he still tried to show his “Drawing Number One” to those seemed to be “all clear-sighted” to see whether he/ she would be “a person of true understanding”. However, he was disappointed every time and said “I would bring myself down to his level”. He did not regard anybody as his friend and looked down on all of them. Even his persona was trying to fulfill the social expectations, his ego rejecting to commit to the persona. This is a struggle between the outer persona (pretended personality) and the inner ego (conscious control and awareness toward what he wanted to be).
To seek stronger ego strength (to support his belief of “strange grown-ups”), Saint-Exupery still tried to search for friends who have “true understanding”. Unfortunately, he cannot find anybody who can read the meaning of his “Drawing Number One” until he met his little man in the dessert. He found his “true friend”, the only one true friend. We can easily imagine that how important the little prince is to Saint-Exupery. However, when Saint-Exupery knew that the little prince would leave the earth and come back to his planet B-612 through a way very similar to “death”, he could not do anything and had no reason to stop the departure of the little prince. What Saint-Exupery can do is just sitting beside the little prince and seeing him falling down on the sand and finally left only his “shell”.
On the other hand, the little prince tried to comfort Saint-Exupery. He said that although he seemed died, it is not true. He would go back to his planet in which there is his rose. He would leave his “abandoned old shell” on the earth. Therefore “there is nothing sad about old shells”.
“All men have the stars, but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they are wealth. But all these stars are silent. You – you alone – will have the stars as no one else has them –
In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… you – only you – will have stars that can laugh!
And when your sorrow is comforted (time sooths all sorrow) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometime open your window, so, for that pleasure…”
Even the little prince is going to die, he still had the reason, or said excuse, to comfort Saint-Exupery. We can interpret it as part of Saint-Exupery’s fantasy world – his shadow. It reflects that Saint-Exupery is really lonely, disappointed, sad and helpless. Tracking to his past experience, his younger brother died in his aged 17, in which Saint-Exupery should already had the sense of death, yet he could not do anything but seeing his brother passed away. Death had a profound influence on Saint-Exupery’s life. As the little prince was also a self representation of Saint-Exupery, he might be essentially affected by the temptation of death. The little prince once said “I wonder, whether the stars are set alright in heaven so that on day each one of us find his own again…” Saint-Exupery wanted to go back to his own fantasy world – the place where is no anybody else and he is alone.
After the little prince left, for six years, Saint-Exupery still cannot let go and he always looked up at the stars at night to memorize his little man and wondered whether the rose had been eaten by the sheep. Suggested by von Franz, it is a torture to him (2000). If the little prince lost his rose, Saint-Exupery would lose his little man’s laugher and happiness – Saint-Exupery’s stars would lose light and the sky would be suddenly darkened. Saint-Exupery kept his story secretly and still showed a socially-accepted image before others – when he returned from the desert crash, he just told his companions: “I am tired.” In fact, he was sad. His sorrow of the little prince’s left was still with him after six years (even he said that time sooths all sorrow). Therefore he tried to draw the landscape where the little prince landed on the earth and disappeared. And he asked if the readers, who would travel to the African dessert and meet a little man laughs and refuses to answer questions, could send him words about the return of the little prince to comfort his sorrow.
For us, the readers, some of us would feel the same or have sympathy on Saint-Exupery’s story. According to Jung, all of us should have the struggle between our ego and shadow, conscious and unconscious (1951). We can also refer to the conflict of the reality and the fantasy. When facing the reality, people may try to pretend to be certain type of people or make compromise with the society in order to gain rewards and acceptance of other people. However at the same time, people do think that there are some ridiculous things and something that they don’t want to face up in the world of grown-ups. To a certain extent, we agree with what the little prince said: the grown-ups are really odd. Also, we might believe ourselves, our beliefs or behaviors, are quite odd sometimes. That should be one of the reasons why we could feel Saint-Exupery’s loneliness.
The dilemma and paradox in life
Suggested by Jung, we are struggling between conscious and unconscious (1951). Or we can say that our thinking, decisions, feeling, emotions and behaviors are always affected by our (varying) ego (which is our conscious control) and shadow (referring to the unconscious implication). Moving toward the “wholeness” of life, we have to go through the process of individualization – the process striking for a balance between ego and shadow so as to attain an “intact” self which is the most important part of our whole psyche including both conscious and unconscious.
As suggested by von Franz, all of us live with two sides – statistic reality and mental fantasy (2000). These two sides seem on the opposite sites, yet, it is not incompatible. We should have a balance of them and cannot live only on one side but ignore another. Saint-Exupery was a typical example of puer aeternus and he failed to live with both sides – he engaged too much in his fantasy world which is romanticized too much and finally led to a tragedy life.
Most of us, if not everyone, want to be different, everyone want to be a unique person. However, inevitably, all of us share something in common, like we have to go through the socialization process, we have to relate to other people, we need friends, we have to work to earn money (although there are some very few exceptional cases), we have common emotions including sadness, happiness, angry, surprise and disgust. In this perspective, we are all common. Yet, at the same time, all of us have our unique past experience. We have our own thinking, value and feeling that would be different from other people even toward the same situation. Undoubtedly, there is no one having exactly same experience, feeling and personality as other person. In this sense, we are all special. The struggle between originality and uniqueness is one of the most common and essential dilemmas in life. This struggle can be referred to the process of individualization. During this process, we have to come across the influence (mostly negative) of shadow which is very difficult to be discovered. Once the shadow is being found out, it may change into another format. Therefore, we can see that how not easy to live as an “intact” or “perfect” people.
Here are some remainders from von Franz (2000):
“If you touch that unconscious shadow problem, you get a complex – an emotional reaction.”
“In general, where there is sentimentality there is also a certain amount of brutality.”
Jung pointed out that – one has more sense and awareness of their shadow, one will have stronger ego and self (1951). Although Saint-Exupery failed to fight his shadow, we, as the readers, should still look forward to our lives but not engaging too much in the little prince’s fantasy world.
Franz, M. L. V. (2000). The Problem of the Puer Aeternus. Guernsey, GY, United Kingdom: Inner City Books.
Frager, R. & Fadiman, J. (2005). Personality and Personal Growth,(6). Boston: Prentice-Hall.
Jung, C. G., Baynes, H. G., & Baynes, C. F. (1928). Contributions to Analytical Psychology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Jung, C. G. (1951). Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self (Collected Works,9). Princeton, N.J.: Bollingen.
Saint-Exupéry, A. D. (1944). The Little Prince. U.S.A.: Reynal & Hitchcock.
Y-Jean, M. D. (2011). Guardians of the Future. The Peak Magazine. 63.