How did The Arabian Nights influence Samuel Johnson's Rasselas?

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teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Many linguists or experts believe that The Arabian Nights directly influenced or laid the foundation for European Orientalism in works of literature. Johnson's Rasselas was said to have been greatly influenced by the Arabian story.

So, how did The Arabian Nights influence Johnson's Rasselas? Some influences include:

1) Rasselas was meant to be a tale where questions about morality and philosophy were raised and explored. This was exactly the way that Arabian Nights was structured. Rasselas sought the answer to true happiness and true contentment. Some historians contend that through Rasselas' replica of the Arabian Nights world, Johnson was highlighting the inferiority of the Arab world in terms of its legal, societal, religious, and governmental structure.

2) Rasselas begins much the same way as The Arabian Nights, with a call to our attention. Rasselas invites us to "attend to the history of Rasselas, prince of Abissinia," while the Arabian Nights calls our attention to a prosperous merchant "with abundant wealth and investments."

3) Like some stories in The Arabian Nights, Rasselas also portrays a restless longing for some promised happiness in a foreign land. The implication is that the answer to happiness is found somewhere other than in the land one belongs to. Rasselas is unhappy with his lot in life; he reasons that he is not like the animals and that man has “some desires distinct from sense which must be satisfied before he can be happy."

4) Both Rasselas and The Arabian Nights utilize the story within a story structure.

In Arabian Nights, the stories we read are the stories Shaharazad tells to her husband, King Shahryar. The tale of King Shahryar is the original frame story.

In Rasselas, the astronomer eventually tells us his own story; he discusses what the possession of true understanding really means. The scientist contends that his purpose is unlike that of a poet's. Poets entertain and appeal to readers' emotions, but scientists strive to promote knowledge and understanding. He tells Imlac not to tamper with nature or weather, for doing so would bring great distress to humankind. This story within a story highlights the main theme of the story about finding true happiness and purpose in life.

5) The fascination with poetry is inherent in both Rasselas and The Arabian Nights. Here is the tale of Kamar Al-Zaman replete with poetry passages and here are Imlac's thoughts on the importance of poetry in Rasselas.

6) Like The Arabian Nights, Rasselas depicts images of Oriental life, architecture, kingly rule, and societal interaction. Johnson's imitation of Arabian Nights also highlighted his own attitudes about the Oriental Arab world. He believed that the despotism and political instability inherent in the Arabian world supported his personal contention that Oriental governance was vastly inferior to European bureaucracy.

In The Arabian Nights, the king has absolute and terrifying power. King Shahryar has the power to execute his own queen, decide the fate of other women, and claim his right to any land or treasure in the kingdom. The same is true in Rasselas.

Rasselas, the Abyssinian prince, is at first impressed with the rule of the Bassa of Egypt. However, he soon discovers the real truth of the matter. The Bassa is one of only many corrupt rulers who reign with tyrannical and despotic fervor; his subjects indulge in their own continual "succession of plots and defectors, stratagems and escapes, faction and treachery” in order to navigate this uncertain and treacherous world.

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