Events and characters
In The Little Prince, its narrator, the pilot, talks of being stranded in the desert beside his crashed aircraft. This account clearly drew on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's own experience in the Sahara, an ordeal described in detail in his 1939 memoir Wind, Sand and Stars (original French: Terre des hommes).
On December 30, 1935, at 02:45 am, after 19 hours and 44 minutes in the air, Saint-Exupéry, along with his copilot-navigator André Prévot, crashed in the Sahara desert. They were attempting to break the speed record for a Paris-to-Saigon flight in a then-popular type of air race, called a raid, and win a prize of 150,000 francs. Their plane was a Caudron C-630 Simoun,[Note 6] and the crash site is thought to have been near to the Wadi Natrun valley, close to the Nile Delta.
Both miraculously survived the crash, only to face rapid dehydration in the intense desert heat. Their maps were primitive and ambiguous. Lost among the sand dunes with a few grapes, a thermos of coffee, a single orange, and some wine, the pair had only one day's worth of liquid. They both began to see mirages, which were quickly followed by more vivid hallucinations. By the second and third days, they were so dehydrated that they stopped sweating altogether. Finally, on the fourth day, a Bedouin on a camel discovered them and administered a native rehydration treatment that saved Saint-Exupéry and Prévot's lives.
The prince's home, "Asteroid B-612", was likely derived as a progression of one of the planes Saint-Exupéry flew as an airmail pilot, which bore the serial number "A-612". During his service as a mail pilot in the North African Sahara desert, Saint-Exupéry had viewed a fennec (desert sand fox), which most likely inspired him to create the fox character in the book. In a letter written to his sister Didi from the Western Sahara's Cape Juby, where he was the manager of an airmail stopover station in 1928, he tells of raising a fennec which he adored.
In the novella the Wise Fox, believed to be modelled after the author's intimate New York City friend Silvia Hamilton Reinhardt, tells the prince that his rose is unique and special, because she is the one that he loves. The novella's iconic phrase, "One sees clearly only with the heart", is believed to have been suggested by Silvia Hamilton.
The fearsome, grasping baobab trees, researchers have contended, were meant to represent Nazism attempting to destroy the planet. The little prince's reassurance to the pilot that his dying body is only an empty shell resembles the last words of Antoine's dying younger brother François, who told the author, from his deathbed: "Don't worry. I'm all right. I can't help it. It's my body".
The literary device of presenting philosophical and social commentaries in the form of the impressions gained by a fictional extraterrestrial visitor to Earth had already been used by the philosopher and satirist Voltaire in his story Micromégas of 1752 — a classic work of French literature with which Saint-Exupéry was likely familiar.
Many researchers believe that the prince's petulant, vain rose was inspired by Saint-Exupéry's Salvadoran wife Consuelo, with the small home planet being inspired by her small home country El Salvador, also known as "The Land of Volcanoes". Despite a raucous marriage, Saint-Exupéry kept Consuelo close to his heart and portrayed her as the prince's Rose whom he tenderly protects with a wind screen and under a glass dome on his tiny planet. Saint-Exupéry's infidelity and the doubts of his marriage are symbolized by the vast field of roses the prince encounters during his visit to Earth.
This view of Consuelo was described by biographer Paul Webster who stated she was "the muse to whom Saint-Exupéry poured out his soul in copious letters..... Consuelo was the rose in The Little Prince. "I should have judged her by her acts and not by her words," says the prince. "She wrapped herself around me and enlightened me. I should never have fled. I should have guessed at the tenderness behind her poor ruses."
Saint-Exupéry may have drawn inspiration for the prince's character and appearance from his own self as a youth, as during his early years friends and family called him le Roi-Soleil (the Sun King) due to his golden curly hair. The author had also met a precocious eight-year-old with curly blond hair while residing with a family in Quebec City, Canada in 1942, Thomas De Koninck, the son of philosopher Charles De Koninck. Another possible inspiration for the little prince has been suggested as Land Morrow Lindbergh, the young, golden-haired son of the pioneering American aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow all of whom met him during an overnight stay at their Long Island home in 1939.[Note 7]
Some have seen the prince as a Christ figure, as the child is sin-free and "believes in a life after death", subsequently returning to his personal heaven. Life photojournalist John Phillips provided a direct answer to the question of the character's origin when he questioned the author-aviator on his inspiration for the child character. After Phillips posed the question, Saint-Exupéry replied that "...one day he looked down on what he thought was a blank sheet and saw a small childlike figure." When Phillips asked who the figure was, the author replied "I'm the Little Prince".
One of Saint-Exupéry's earliest literary references to a small prince is to be found in his second news dispatch from Moscow, dated May 14, 1935. In his writings as a special correspondent for Paris-Soir the author described his transit from France to the U.S.S.R. by train. Late at night during the train trip he ventured from his first class accommodation into the third class carriages, where he came upon large groups of Polish families huddled together, returning to their homeland. His commentary not only described a diminutive prince, but also touched on several other themes Saint-Exupéry incorporated into various philosophical writings:
|“||I sat down [facing a sleeping] couple. Between the man and the woman a child had hollowed himself out a place and fallen asleep. He turned in his slumber, and in the dim lamplight I saw his face. What an adorable face! A golden fruit had been born of these two peasants..... This is a musician's face, I told myself. This is the child Mozart. This is a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends are not different from this. Protected, sheltered, cultivated, what could not this child become? When by mutation a new rose is born in a garden, all gardeners rejoice. They isolate the rose, tend it, foster it. But there is no gardener for men. This little Mozart will be shaped like the rest by the common stamping machine.... This little Mozart is condemned.||”|
—A Sense of Life: En Route to the U.S.S.R.