Study Guide

Rasselas

by Samuel Johnson

Rasselas Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

Rasselas Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

It is the custom in Abyssinia for the sons and daughters of the emperor to be confined in a remote place until the order of succession to the throne is established. The spot in which Rasselas and his brothers and sisters are confined is a beautiful and fertile valley situated between high mountains. Everything needed for a luxurious life is present in the valley. Entertainers are brought in from the outside world to help the royal children pass the time pleasantly. These entertainers are never allowed to leave, for the outside world is not to know how the royal children live before they are called on to rule.

It is this perfection that causes Rasselas, in the twenty-sixth year of his life, to become melancholy and discontented. He is unhappy because he has everything to make him happy; he wants more than anything else to desire something that cannot be made available to him. When he talks of his longing with an old philosopher, he is told that he is foolish. The old man tells him of the misery and suffering of the people outside the valley and cautions him to be glad of his present situation. Rasselas, however, knows that he cannot be content until he sees the suffering of the world.

For many months, Rasselas ponders about his desire to escape from the valley. He takes no action, however, for the valley is carefully guarded and there is no chance for anyone to leave. Once he meets an inventor who promises to make some wings for him so that he can fly over the mountains, but the experiment is a failure. In his search for a way to escape, his labor is more mental than physical.

In the palace, there is a poet, Imlac, whose lines please Rasselas by their intelligence. Imlac also is tired of the perfect life in the valley, for in the past he traveled over much of the world. He observed the evil ways of humankind and learned that most wickedness stemmed from envy and jealousy. He noticed that people envy others with more worldly goods and oppress those who are weak. As he talks, Rasselas longs more than ever to see the world and its misery. Imlac tries to discourage him, for he believes that Rasselas will long for his present state if he ever sees the violence and treachery that abound in the lands beyond the mountains.

When Imlac realizes he cannot deter the prince, he agrees to join him in his attempt to leave the perfect state. Together the two men contrive to hew a path through the side of a mountain. When they are almost ready to leave, Rasselas sees his sister Nekayah watching them. She begs to accompany the travelers, for she also is bored with the valley and longs to see the rest of the world. She is Rasselas’s favorite sister, so he gladly allows her and her maid, Pekuah, to join...

(The entire section is 1115 words.)