- Webs of Concern: The Little Prince and Charlotte's Web
Any literary work is susceptible to an indefinite variety of interpretations. In this respect works of literature are like formal systems. Our understanding of the sequences of words in a novel, poem, etc. or the sequences of symbols in a logico-mathematical system is not completely determined by those sequences of words or symbols, still less by any intentions of the author(s). We achieve an understanding of a literary work or a formal system when we associate with it some model of the way things are or, at least, of a way they could be. Sometimes in order to do this we may have to suspend (temporarily) some of our beliefs about what is the case. But such are the demands of imaginative interpretation.
One type of model which can be used with great success in interpreting works of children's literature and adult fantasy is a Heideggerian model. By associating parts of Martin Heidegger's philosophy with certain parts of these literary works, we can achieve a novel, if not profound, understanding of them. Two cases in point are The Little Prince by A. de Saint Exupéry and Charlotte's Web by E. B. White.1 It has even been reported that Heidegger himself once considered The Little Prince to be "one of the great existentialist books of this century."2
Stated as simply and untechnically as possible, the particular Heideggarian model appealed to here is one concerned with persons and their capabilities.3 Now persons are capable of many things, of flying planes and watering flowers, of eating leftovers and killing insects. Yet these are rather superficial capabilities, not being characteristic of persons as such but rather only of persons as pilots or gardeners, omnivores or killers. Among the more fundamental capabilities are those of being aware of oneself, of being concerned about things in the world, of dreading one's death, and untimately of living authentically. Since each person as such is unique and irreplaceable, this ultimate capability is also the ultimate personal obligation: to live authentically. Under the present interpretation, The Little Prince and Charlotte's Web are about various personal struggles to live authentically. In each of these works there are characters who find themselves thrown into existence, as it were, amidst other beings with whom they end up being concerned, all the while being confronted with the difficult and inescapable task of truly becoming what they alone can be—even unto death. This is precisely the task of living authentically. The ever-present danger here is that of losing one's sense of personal identity by becoming part of the crowd or by becoming overly concerned with other beings.4 [End Page 61]
In The Little Prince, neither the stranded pilot nor the prince himself have succumbed to the temptation of becoming a people-self; i.e., a faceless, anonymous part of a crowd. Since he was six years old, the time at which he produced his famous drawings of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, the stranded pilot has been of the opinion that grown-ups are not only concerned with inconsequential "matters of consequence," such as bridge and golf, politics and neckties, but also terribly dense when it comes to discussing such important matters as boa constrictors, primeval forests and stars. "So," he says, "I have lived my life alone, without anyone that I could really talk to . . ." (p. 5).
The little prince has not been so lonely, having his flower to talk to. However, his opinion of grown ups is much the same as that of the stranded pilot. They are not merely strange, nor even "very, very odd," but rather "altogether extraordinary" in their denseness and their concerns (pp. 47, 50, 52, 57). The king who has no subjects except a rat, the conceited man who has no admirers except himself, the tippler who drinks to forget that he is ashamed of drinking, the businessman who values his accounts but not what they are of, the geographer who knows nothing in particular about geography—none of these receives nor deserves the admiration of...