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"A Matter of Consequence: The DSM-IV-TR and The Little Prince" by Avram Baer

Page history last edited by avram baer 14 years, 11 months ago
          Antoine de Saint-Exupery was and is one of France’s national heroes. Born of the aristocracy, Saint-Exupery was taken with aviation from an early age.  When the Nazis invaded and deposed the lawful government, Saint-Exupery chose exile in America; despite the fact that the Vichy’s had offered him a prominent place in the cabinet.  While in America, Saint-Exupery penned one of the most famous works of children’s literature, The Little Prince.  Sixty years on, The Little Prince remains a favorite the world over.


           While there has been much critical exploration of Saint-Exupery and his novella, The Little Prince Project takes a unique approach.  Using an interactive website, “Matters of Consequence”[1] combines character perspectives, psychoanalysis, text analysis and meta-structural framing, a direct reflection of the Little Prince Projects team members.  While two, Courtney Preston and Joanna Macapagal are English majors, the others, Christian Borneman and Avram Baer, are pursuing global studies and psychology, respectively.  This interdisciplinary approach serves to shed light on Saint-Exupery and The Little Prince from multiple angles, arriving at a conclusion distinct from other means of literary criticism.


The home page of “Matters of Consequence” is a model of the solar system as described in The Little Prince.  Each character is given their own planet which links to their particular webpage.  While each page can be accessed individually, a “Start Journey” link provides the opportunity to follow the narrative structure of The Little Prince, beginning and culminating on Earth. By allowing users to customize their experience, “Matters of Consequence” provides a useful resource for The Little Prince enthusiasts and serious researchers alike.


The next page “The Journey” further describes the purpose and techniques of The Little Prince Project; followed by the first character page, “The Narrator”.  Each page is an elegant combination of white, grey and black.  Readability is enhanced by the use of the Helvetica font. Each character is given a picture and background consistent with their location or circumstances.  For example, “The Tippler” shows a wizened drunkard, quaffing ale and smoking a cigar, against a backdrop of Irish whiskey bottles. Each of the character pages consists of four parts:



  • Character synopsis: Briefly describes the character and their interaction with the Little Prince
  •  Character Perspective: Combining dialogue text analysis and their preliminary mental diagnosis, each character has a perspective section; giving them a voice to describing their lives, world view and how they might have perceived their experience with the Little Prince. 
  •  In-Depth Dialogue Analysis:  Each character's dialogue has been filtered through several computer-aided text analysis tools on an experimental basis. In most cases, the resulting data obtained ads to the depth and breadth of the study of each character.
  •  Mental Diagnosis: Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Forth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), a preliminary mental diagnoses of the characters is provided. In addition, The New Harvard Guide to Psychiatry (NHGP) is used to provide further background for some diagnoses.  For quick reference, a color code is used to represent the strength of a particular diagnosis.


”Matters of Consequence” concludes with the page of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Described as “the life and times of Saint-Exupéry and the events and people that inspired the writing of The Little Prince,” this page provides a socio-historical perspective on how his childhood, aviation and his experiences at war and in the desert shaped and informed Saint-Exupéry’s work.



            The use of psychoanalytic tools in literary criticism is not new:

“ In the letter of October 15th, 1897 in which (Freud) announced that he had found the love of the mother and jealousy of the father in his self-analysis, he went on to identify this complex with the “gripping power”  of “Oedipus Rex" and the unconscious forces behind Shakespeare’s writing of Hamlet and that princes inability to act”[2].

Holland identifies the three “persons” of psychological criticism, author, character and theme.  “Matters of Consequence” addresses all of these.



The primary works used for the mental diagnosis component are the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) and the New Harvard Guide to Psychiatry (NHGP).  The DSM-IV-TR is one of the key diagnostic tools used in psychology and psychiatry.  It is also widely used in law to determine a defendant’s competency to stand trial or mental state during the commission of a crime. It can also be used to gauge a plaintiff’s mental anguish when calculating damages.  In education, the DSM-IV-TR can be used to identify learning disabilities and behavioral problems.


In order for a diagnosis to be valid, several symptoms must be present or in some cases, absent. These symptoms are referred to as criteria.  For some disorders, a particular symptom must be present or absent. For others, a minimum number of criteria must be met, with no particular emphasis on any. Also, code numbers are used for organizing disorder types and subtypes, for example, “297.1 Delusional Disorder, Grandiose Type.”[3]


Once a preliminary diagnosis has been arrived at, further medical tests or clinical interviews may be conducted to confirm the diagnosis.  In addition, most disorders have typical behaviors or beliefs common to most sufferers.  For example, people with 301.22 Schizotypal Personality Disorder “may feel that they have special powers to sense events before they happen or to read others’ thoughts.”[4]


Applying psychoanalytic principles and diagnoses to fictional characters can be a tenuous proposition. Like all sciences, psychology is based on empiricism.  That is, one relies on demonstrable and re-testable results rather than “intuition”.  While intuitive reasoning has spawned a great many theories and experiments, it is but the first step in psychological research.  When using psychoanalytical tools to assess literature, one is forced to rely on intuition, since there is no possibility of gaining new information about a character through interviews or experiments.


That is not to say that the written record is not a significant resource for psychologists. Archival case studies are often used to confirm or refute speculations about the mental state of historical figures, particularly those whose lives preceded the advent of psychoanalysis.   Abraham Lincoln was known to grapple with bouts of "melancholy."  However, Joshua WolfShenk , in the October 2005  issue of the Atlantic states: “Lincoln did suffer from what we now call depression, as modern clinicians, using the standard diagnostic criteria, uniformly agree.”[5]  Such a concrete diagnosis for a historical figure is rare; they are often much more speculative or vague, such as the “madness” of the Roman Emperor Caracalla.[6]   Lincoln left behind thousands of documents, letters, and firsthand accounts of his behavior and attitudes.  While case studies are never easy, this plethora of material greatly aided researchers.  Saint-Exupéry himself was also said to suffer from depression, particularly after he was accused of collaborating with the Germans by Charles de-Gaul.[7]  However, literary characters have no documentation other than the pages in which they lie.  While some, such as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley or John LeCarre’s George Smiley, have tens of thousands of words devoted to them, the characters of The Little Prince have hundreds if not less. 


However, for the purposes of the Little Prince Project, this proves to be something of an advantage; a meta-analysis of George Smiley would be a project, if not a book, in and of its self.   Despite its brevity, The Little Prince is rich with allegory, and the characters are no exception.  For example, the King, despite his claim to rule “over everything” is but an impotent figure head, reflecting Saint-Exupéry’s feelings toward the Vichy French government, who were but puppets of the occupying Nazi regime. 


Having a background in psychology, Avram Baer assumed the process of diagnosing the characters would be fairly straight forward.  Although he had only given cursory glances at the DSM-IV-TR prior to this project, Avram imagined satisfying the criteria for the character’s diagnoses would prove to be easy.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.  While he was aware of the elephantine (943) page count and comprehensive nature of the DSM-TR-IV, Avram was unprepared for the number of disorders and sub-disorders, some of which have very discrete differences.  Also, the dearth of dialog in The Little Prince presented many routes of interpretation. 


There are a number of ways to use the DSM-IV-TR.  The appendix contains “decision trees”[8], with questions describing symptoms that either do, “yes”, or do not, “no”, apply to the patient. The clinician moves down the tree, and hopefully arrives at a diagnosis.  Unfortunately, many of the questions (“Prominent delusions or hallucinations predominate”)[9] are impossible to answer using the scant text of The Little Prince. Luckily, the DSM-IV-TR is also organized by type of disorder, of which the sub categories flow fairly neatly into each other, for example “Personality Disorders” contains 301.50 Histrionic Personality Disorder followed by 301.81Narcissistic Personality Disorder.[10] Each disorder section is broken down into the following areas:


  • Diagnostic Features
  • Associated Features and Disorders
  • Specific Culture, Age, and Gender Features
  • Prevalence
  • Familial Pattern
  • Differential Diagnosis ( how to differentiate from similar/related disorders)


A concise “Diagnostic Criteria” at the end allows the clinician to quickly assess a patient’s symptoms. These criteria allowed Avram to more easily navigate the DSM-IV-TR by allowing him to quickly disqualify disorders that in no way applied a character and to qualify those that did.  Those potential diagnoses were narrowed down through closer analysis of the disorders sections until the most apt one was determined.  This approach did not work for all characters, nor should it.  While the Conceited Man is clearly an allegory for human vanity (hence a preliminary diagnosis of “301.81Narcissistic Personality Disorder”[11]) the snake represents death and all the vagaries that surround it.  So while in the interests of consistency a preliminary diagnosis of “V71.01Adult Antisocial Behavior”[12] was made, it was followed by a conclusion explaining its utter lack of clinical validity. 




Taken out of context, word’s can be twisted to serve the goals of the critic.  This is one of the hazards of using the DSM-IV-TR for literary analysis.  While every attempt was made to be objective, the lack of any background or explanatory data, coupled with the interpretive nature of literary analysis, makes this rather difficult.  Carelessness or the desire to make a diagnosis “fit” can invalidate the entire enterprise.  Presenting at the First Annual Symposium on Graduate Research and Scholarly Projects (GRASP) at Wichita State University, Jason Kenneth Harper discusses his experience as a graduate student using the DSM-IV to analyze Hamlet; diagnosing the Melancholy Dane with, unsurprisingly, V62.82 “Bereavement”[13]. Harper concludes his paper with the following:


“The DSM-IV presents a cautionary statement to be considered: not to use it without proper training, experience or understanding. I would not suggest careless “labeling” or unfounded classifications. But in studying literature, psychology, or creative writing, with no real people at stake, this application may be insightful. This method of investigation may be used as a way to form some idea of what may be occurring within, without, around, above, to, because of, etc with one’s creative writing. The manual provides “clear descriptions of diagnostic categories in order to…diagnose, communicate about, [and] study people with various mental disorders.” These descriptions may be used to fine tune a character in a story, to develop understanding of themes and behaviors in literature, to research individuals outside of psychological case studies, and provide information that can be applied to creative writing.”


           While there were times when Avram considered abandoning the idea of using the DSM-IV-TR, he is better for the experience.  This project deepened not only his understanding of literature, but psychology as well.  While it is not without its faults, the use of psychoanalytic tools in literary criticism presents new and exciting avenues for exploration.  As Margaret Atwood said, "The answers you get from literature depend upon the questions you pose."[14]  





[1]  Baer, Avram,  Christian Borneman, Joanna Macapagal and Courtney Preston Matters of Consequence University of California, Santa Barbara, English 149 (Winter 2009). 15 Feb 2009 <http://littleprince.webs.com/>

[2]  Holland,Norman Norwood. Holland's Guide to Psychoanalytic Psychology and Literature-and-Psychology. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press US, 1990. pg. 34


[3] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Text Revision. American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.; 4th edition, 2000


[4]  DSM-IV-TR 698

[5] WolfShenk, Joshua “Lincoln's Great Depression”, Atlantic Monthly(October 2005).  13 March 2009 <http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200510/lincolns-clinical-depression>

[6]   Caracalla. Britannica.com. Vers 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica. 13 March 2009<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/94451/Caracalla>

[7] Buckley, Martin “Saint-Exupéry Wartime Hero?” (August,7 2004). 13 March 2009 <http://www.thelittleprince.net/BBCwarhero.htm>

[8] DSM-IV-TR 745-756

[9] DSM-IV-TR 747

[10] DSM-TR-IV  685-714

[11] DSM-TR-IV 714

[12] DSM-TR-IV 740

[13] Harper, Jason Kenneth, “Using the DSM for the Interdisciplinary Application of Psychology, Literature and Creative Writing”(April 22, 2005). March 4, 2009 <http://hdl.handle.net/10057/466>

[14] Quotation by Margaret Atwood. Quoteblock.com 15 March 2009. <http://www.quoteblock.com/quote/the-answers-you-get-from-literature-depend-upon/>




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