Rasselas, Johnson’s most famous work, was written rapidly to pay the expenses of his mother’s funeral and published anonymously. It tells in forty-nine brief chapters what seems at first to be a simple story with a clear moral. A young prince, Rasselas, is imprisoned in his Abyssinian birthplace, the Happy Valley. It is a paradise surrounded by mountains, which, once left, cannot be reentered. Although his life seems perfect, Rasselas is nonetheless bored and unhappy. He manages to escape from his home together with his tutor, Imlac, his sister, Nekayah, and her maid, Pekuah. They set out for Cairo on a quest for a kind of life that will bring happiness.
Rasselas soon discovers that happiness cannot be found among pleasure-seeking young men, learned older men, Stoic philosophers, hermits, or heads of government. His sister, Nekayah, who looked for happiness in private life, found only empty-headed cheerfulness in the daughters of the families that she visited, discord between parents and children, and often discord between spouses. Imlac then proposes that they visit the Pyramids to look for the secret of happiness in the past. When they arrive, Nekayah’s maid, Pekuah, afraid of being closed in forever, balks at entering and so is left outside while the others make their explorations. Yet when Rasselas, Nekayah, and Imlac emerge into daylight, Pekuah is missing. She has been kidnapped by Arab horsemen. For the first time, Rasselas, and especially Nekayah, experience real loss and genuine unhappiness.
After seven months, Pekuah is returned unharmed to her mistress. The group happily returns again to Cairo. There, Rasselas announces an intention to devote himself to the life of a scholar. Imlac tells about a scholar whom he knows, an astronomer who seems happy but, upon closer acquaintance, proves to be mad and to believe firmly that he is in control of the weather and the seasons. The astronomer, in fact, is attempting to name Imlac his successor as...
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Although technically a work of prose fiction, Rasselas belongs to the classification of literature known as the moral tale. In Samuel Johnson’s specific case, the piece emerges as an essay on the vanity of human wishes, unified by a clear narrative strand. Some critics have maintained that, in Rasselas, Johnson simply continued the same themes that he set forth ten years earlier in his poetic The Vanity of Human Wishes and then later in his essays for The Rambler. Essentially, in all three efforts, the writer focused on the problem of what it means to be human and on the psychological and moral difficulties associated with the human imagination. Johnson, both a classicist and a philosophical conservative, took his cue from the poet of Ecclesiastes, particularly the idea of the mind’s eye not being satisfied with seeing or the ear with hearing. Instead, whatever human beings see or possess causes them only to imagine something more or something entirely different. Further, to imagine more is to want more and, possibly, to lose pleasure in what is actually possessed. The inexhaustible capacity of the imagination (including specific hopes and wishes) emerges as the principal source of most human desires, an indispensable ingredient for human happiness. According to both the poet of Ecclesiastes and Samuel Johnson, however, human happiness must be controlled by reality, which is also the primary source of most human misery. Therefore, the line dividing happiness and enjoyment from pain, suffering, and torment remains thin and sometimes even indistinct.
Johnson chose to clothe his moral speculations in a form particularly popular among fellow eighteenth century speculators: the Oriental tale, a Western genre that had come into vogue during the earlier Augustan Age. Its popularity was based on Westerners’ fascination with the Orient: Writers set down translations, pseudotranslations, and imitations of Persian, Turkish, Arabic, and Chinese tales as backdrops for brief but direct moral lessons. Although the themes of Oriental tales tended toward the theoretical and the abstract, writers of the period tried to confront real and typical issues with which the majority of readers came into contact.
Originally published as The Prince of Abissinia: A Tale in 1759, Johnson’s work of fiction is known simply as Rasselas. The common name, however, did not appear on the title page of any British edition published during the author’s lifetime. The heading on the first page of both volumes of the 1759 edition, however, reads “The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.” Not until the so-called eighth edition of 1787 does one find the title Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia: A Tale by S. Johnson.
Although Johnson once referred to Rasselas as merely a “little story book,” the work enjoyed immediate and continuing success, which is an indication of its depth and seriousness of purpose. Literary historians agree that an English or American edition has appeared almost every year since the initial publication, and from 1760 through 1764, French, Dutch, German, Russian, and Italian editions were released. Indeed, before long, Spanish, Hungarian, Polish, Greek, Danish, Armenian, Japanese, and Arabic translations appeared, indicating clearly the universality of the piece.
Themes and plot
The theme of the vanity of human wishes contributes heavily to the appeal of Rasselas, even though such a theme may tend to suffer from an emphasis on skepticism. Certainly, Johnson seems to have conveyed to his readers the idea that no single philosophy of life can sustain all cultures and that no particular lifestyle can become permanently satisfying. This philosophy might lead people to believe that life is essentially an exercise in futility and wasted energy. The vanity of human wishes theme, however, as manipulated by Johnson, also allows for considerable positive interpretations that serve to balance its darker side. In Rasselas, Johnson does not deny the value of human experience (including desires and hopes), but he frankly admits to its obvious complexity; man needs to move between conditions of rest and turmoil, and he further needs to experiment with new approaches to life. The admission of that need by the individual constitutes a difficult and complex decision, particularly in the light of the fact that absolute philosophies do not serve all people nor apply to all situations. In joining Prince Rasselas in his search for happiness, the experienced philosopher and poet Imlac reveals his understanding that a commitment to a single course of action constitutes a stubborn and immature attempt to settle irritating problems. Continued movement, on the other hand, is simply a form of escape. The philosopher well knows that all men require a middle ground that considers the best qualities of stability and motion.
What emerges from Rasselas, then, is a reinforcement of life’s duality, wherein motion and rest apply to a variety of issues and problems ranging from the nature of family life to the creation of poetry. For example, the idea of the Happy Valley dominates the early chapters of the work to the extent that the reader imagines it as the fixed symbol for the life of rest and stability. Within the remaining sections, however, there exists a search for action covering a wide geographic area outside the Happy Valley. Johnson guides his reader over an uncharted realm that symbolizes the life of motion. Eventually, the two worlds unite. Before that can happen, however, Rasselas must experience the restlessness within the Happy Valley, while Pequah, the warrior’s captive, must discover order in the midst of an experience charged with potential violence. In the end, Johnson offers his reader...
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