Does this picture frighten you?

By Pritha Mahanti and Jessica Jakoinao

The above drawing, Drawing Number One, is supposed to have been made by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s (1900–1944) fictional narrator in Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince, 1943) when he was six years old. He asked the adults if this was a frightening image. To his great surprise, almost everyone said it wasn’t because “why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” Thereafter, he showed them what the drawing was really about and, sadly, the grown-ups suggested that he put aside his drawings and devote himself to geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar. Dismayed, the narrator was forced to reckon that adults were dimwits when it came to understanding images, making them a dull lot preoccupied with ‘reasonable’ matters. The narrator, as he got older, would try out his experiment of showing any seemingly clear-sighted adult he met his Drawing Number One, that he always kept. If they said, “This is a hat” he would never talk to that person about boa constrictors, primeval forests, or stars but ‘bring himself down to their level’ and talk about bridge, golf, politics, and neckties. The adults, he says, would then be greatly pleased to have met such a sensible man.

Was the narrator actually smart? Or was it an excuse for him to hate on adults? What would children make of the drawing? And what if they said it was a hat! Are we about to reveal that an internationally famous best-seller is built on a false premise? Well, we showed the drawing to some children who had no prior exposure to Exupéry’s work of fiction. Here’s what they had to say….

So seven out of ten participants thought it could be a hat. Does that mean that the child is dead? Or worse, that the child is no better than the adult? We wanted some reassurance, so we gave them eight choices. Thankfully they didn’t bring themselves down to talk about tea, cards, business or politics. Clearly, then, the child is not dead. It still seeks the forests, stars and magic. (Well, snakes, as was agreed unanimously, are unpleasant.)

We are still left with the bigger question. Is the child no better than an adult? Do not make the mistake of assuming that it is an irrelevant question because if childhood shows the man who might ultimately become a man-child, where are we even headed? (gender here, as always, has been sacrificed briefly at the altar of language). This is also a world where children have taken up the responsibilities of the adults. From climate to education, the child is the new face of the ideal leader. Moreover, a global pandemic induced lockdown has only made matters more complicated. The world of the children and the adults were forcibly fused within the narrow confines of domesticity. A deadly virus and uncountable deaths aside, children were put to the most excruciating test, that of solitude.

We will leave you with the puzzle (if at all you care to think that it is one). All we can say is that Exupéry’s fictional narrator perhaps forgot that we are always and already distorted versions of one another. Does it frighten you that the picture might indeed be of a hat?

Drawing Number Two by the narrator to show the adults that it really was an elephant swallowed by a boa constrictor.

P.S. We actually had an adult say “Elephant!”. In her 40s, Chonchui Ngashangva likes to talk about Forests and Tea.

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