The Past Is a Planet You Can’t Return To

How “The Little Prince” helped me let my childhood die

Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What’s a book you misunderstood?

In my twenties, I spent a handful of months living in Granada, Spain as a study abroad student. Granada was a lovely, history-rich city with sweeping Moorish architecture and winding, labyrinthine alleyways; it could cast a spell over any traveler, and while I was no exception, my enjoyment was threaded with loneliness. For the first time in my life, I was living thousands of miles from home, with no real connections or community, and above all, submerged in a language that was confoundingly opaque. In those first weeks, I’d attempt interaction and the words would wash over me like white noise. As someone who lives on language and had overestimated what seventh-grade Spanish lessons could accomplish, it was maddening. For that and other reasons, I felt alienated and deeply alone.

Wanting badly to acquire fluency and also needing to fill my downtime, I ended up joining a book club provided by the university. First on the docket: Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, or rather, El Principito. The Little Prince is a children’s novel about a pilot (the narrator) whose plane crashes in the Sahara — in which, incidentally, I had recently spent some nights camping. While attempting to repair said plane and search for water, he encounters a little boy wandering the sand. The boy reveals that he’s a traveler from the stars and prince of his own small planet. Man and child become friends as the little prince shares fantastic tales of his journey, tales that awaken something long-asleep in our narrator.

Each session, we’d read a few chapters out loud before a group discussion. Having read this book many times as a child, I was able to pair the Spanish with the English buried in memory, which proved to be a great learning tool. There was one thing, however, that I hadn’t remembered. When we reached the book’s final chapter, I was astonished to notice — for the first time — that the hero of the story, our little prince, appears to die at the end. In fact, he ostensibly submits to that death at the prospect of being exiled from his home and separated from his beloved. At no point in my previous readings, over a decade earlier, had I intuited this.

Since my earliest days as a reader, my dad and I have kept a small tradition: he surprises me with books he thinks I’ll like and inscribes a brief dedication on the inside of every cover. In turn, I safeguard them and plan to do the same for my own children (though I’ve never told him so). My first copy of The Little Prince has this written in the upper right hand corner of the front leaf, in his stern, blocky print: Nov. ’95 / To Melanie / Love, Dad.

I adored the book. It was a paean to the splendor and endless possibility of childhood — an entire universe that could be traversed with a flock of birds and a little courage. At that age, I was devouring books by the truckload, but my favorites were fantasies, and especially the fantasies that lingered on lost or secret worlds. Books like A Wrinkle in Time, The Last Unicorn, and the lesser-known Spellkey Trilogy. Books about the power of time and the mystery of magic. The Little Prince was about believing in magic; it exalted childhood as an era of wonder, intrigue, and openness of spirit.

I was astonished to notice — for the first time — that the hero of the story, our little prince, appears to die at the end.

As a young reader, I took the ending at face value. After learning that he may well be trapped forever on Earth, the prince meets a serpent in the desert, who has promised that the magic venom in his bite will return the prince home at once. With no other options and an urgent desire to reunite with his love (a single red rose), the prince assents and appears to drop dead. His body goes missing the next day and, I assumed, rematerializes on his home planet. Only our narrator, an unimaginative adult, feels a measure of sorrow and uncertainty, along with hope. I didn’t have to hope because I had the confidence of knowing.

What I didn’t realize then was how this interpretation had mirrored my unconscious preconceptions. I was a sensitive, moony child, prone to daydreaming and bouts of existential angst. On some level, I was aware that this chapter of my life was charmed and all too fleeting, and I was already nursing a fear of losing things precious to me. The Little Prince’s conclusion, as I had received it, had the unintended effect of rendering the prince’s world — along with the enchantment and potential it represents — out of reach. It’s a happy ending, but it’s also a closed door. The prince gets a one-in-a-million chance to go home and he takes it, but now he can never come back. The narrator will never again access the whimsy and awe borne by his friend, precisely because it is confined to a concrete destination — one so remote it can only be arrived at by ephemeral magic. In the denouement, our narrator is left to remember, hope, and look up at the stars every now and again in the attempt to stay connected to a fantasy which he is now locked out of.

The summer I was twelve, we moved out of the only home I’d ever known, and I prepared to enroll in a new school that fall. I didn’t recognize then that this period would later come to represent a seismic shift in my life. It either coincided with, or caused, the conclusion of my childhood — I’m still not sure which. Our new house was much larger than the old one, which meant that we all spent more and more time in our own corners, only sensing each other’s presence through the walls. It was much further from the other surrounding houses, which meant that neighbors became figures I waved to occasionally, rather than playmates and sidekicks. I no longer explored woods with them, looking for evidence of legends or hidden kingdoms.

By and by, the magic dwindled — as I had feared it would. I grew up. Along the way, I experienced all the regular things that siphon away a person’s sense of wonder: the world’s cruelty and its indifference alike; failure; trauma and pain. By the time my twenties came around, I had begun to sink into a deep darkness. Five whole years slipped by while I remained trapped in the quicksand of a bottomless sadness, completely inert and unchanging, which is its own horrible magic.

I fell into the habit of perseverating on thoughts of my mistakes, turning them over and over in my mind, like worrying a sore tooth with your tongue for the sharp thrill of pain. I played endlessly looping mental reels about going back in time and doing everything over again, from the small stuff (not popping zits) to the bigger stuff (working harder in school, finding direction sooner). I wanted so badly to go backwards that I had cut off all momentum to move forward. I was mired in regret.

I wanted so badly to go backwards that I had cut off all momentum to move forward.

My childhood hadn’t been perfect, but the distance of time and the lenses of heartache and disappointment had cast it in a halcyon light. From my vantage point, it seemed like a period of infinite possibility, a swarm of galaxies flush with potential, around and within me. I belonged, I was loved, and I could be anything, which meant that I was everything.

During this time, I also began to suffer from a recurring dream. In the dream, I’d find myself returned to my childhood home. Sometimes it would be a true flashback, and other times it would be like time travel: my family and I, as our current selves, were whisked back there again to live out the remainder of our lives. Either way, the feeling of relief and safety that came over me was profound. The following morning’s realization that I had only been dreaming felt like fresh loss each time.

Some part of me was convinced that innocence, possibility, and awe were tied to a physical place — a place as far-flung as the most distant planet.

In re-encountering the ending of The Little Prince, I was taken aback by the ambiguity and melancholy I had failed to notice before. While it very much appears as if the prince has died — that, indeed, he has let himself be killed — there are just enough details given that leave room for alternative interpretation. This sudden reversal of understanding was, counterintuitively, freeing. If the prince is truly dead, and ultimately failed to make it back to his enchanted homeland, he is not unlike me: both of us are exiles in our own ways. If he did in fact successfully complete his voyage (while sacrificing his corporeal body), the triumph of belief against doubt and fear is inspiring. Things can look exceedingly bleak yet still turn out all right. Hope can be rewarded. But most freeing of all is the fact that the power to decide what’s what is left to each reader. Magic can be as close as believing, despite evidence to the contrary, in miracles. Our narrator chooses to believe. The story, already surreal, further transmutes into a deep dreamstate: one in which anything and everything is possible, all outcomes held in the heart concurrently.

Back in Spain, I hadn’t been ready to absorb and make meaning of my newfound understanding, but it touched me deeply all the same. I had to blink back tears in front of the other students. The story had hooked on some tender part and pulled it taut. At the time, I had recently woken from that long, cursed sleep and was dealing with the fallout of lost living. So many muscles (of every kind) were atrophied. Everything shook me harder and cut me deeper than it ought to, because disuse made everything feel like it was happening without precedent.

While it very much appears as if the prince has died , there are just enough details given that leave room for alternative interpretation.

At any rate, I pushed forward, often blindly. I managed to finish school, fall in love, kickstart my career, and begin writing again. For the first time in a long time, I was experiencing change, and glimpsing all manner of fresh possibility unfurling before me. New doors were coming into view. Little by little, shyly, hope and wonder returned — not the exactly as they were before, but what ever is?

An interesting thing happened to me recently. After a long absence, so long that I thought I’d never again have it, the dream popped up one night. I found myself back in that cozy kitchen, bathed in warm light, looking out at the backyard with its verdant grass and loved-in swingset. Everything just as it was before. And for the very first time, I didn’t feel happy. The house was empty, I was alone, and I wanted to go forward — back to the present.

Sometimes I think that life might be a series of longings for other planets, of moving through landscapes of vast loneliness and struggling to grab onto fellow travelers. Every present moment both an excoriation of the immaculate past and also raw material for a future nostalgia. And yet it’s hard to imagine living without longing or its forebears: loss and hope. I used to believe longing was a void, a starving hollowness that ached when it contracted, but now it seems like something else altogether. Something that builds worlds and carries me to them.

In the introduction to The Little Prince, our narrator recalls a sketch he had made in his youth; adults saw it as a boring old hat but a child could instantly recognize it as a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. The implication is that children see more than adults, whose perception has shrunk to a prosaic pinprick. But I think that as a child, I saw The Little Prince as a hat: simple, easy to explain, open and shut. Now, though, if I squint and believe and open (stay open), I can see the hat and the elephant and the boa, the little prince dead in the desert and triumphantly returned. I can see myself looking and the artist holding the pencil, all at once.

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