Prince of Abyssinia The History of Rasselas Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia

Samuel Johnson

The following entry presents criticism of Johnson's novel The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759).

Rasselas remains one of the most popular works by the esteemed and prolific Johnson. Supposedly written in just seven days, Rasselas is alternately considered a novelistic rendering of the pessimism evinced in his poem The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) or as an optimistic philosophical argument for the limitless potential of humankind. The ambiguous genre and tone of Rasselas, neither novel nor essay, neither moral tale nor satire, make it a crucial text in the history of both prose fiction and Enlightenment philosophy.

Biographical Information

Johnson was born in Lichfield in 1709 to Sarah Ford and Michael Johnson, a bookseller. Though the young Johnson's formal schooling was cut short by his family's poverty, he continued to read extensively in his father's bookshop. He eventually developed a reputation in literary circles as a translator, commended by one of the greatest poets of the day, Alexander Pope. Johnson's first book, published anonymously in 1735, was a translation of the French Voyage to Abyssinia, by Father Jerome Lobo, an important historical source for Rasselas. That same year Johnson married, and with money from the marriage settlement opened a boarding school. When the school failed Johnson went to London, accompanied by a former student, David Garrick, who would soon become the most important actor of the eighteenth century. For the next twenty-five years Johnson worked as a journalist, initially writing for Gentleman's Magazine, and eventually launching his own publication, The Rambler, for which he wrote several essays exploring themes he would develop at greater length in Rasselas.

When Johnson's wife died in 1752, he ceased publishing The Rambler, working on his Dictionary, a project that firmly established his contemporary reputation. He also contributed essays to such periodicals as The Adventurer and The Universal Chronicle, the latter of which published his series of essays as "The Idler." In 1759, Johnson published Rasselas. His biographer James Boswell reported that Johnson wrote it hurriedly in the hope "that with the profits he might defray the expense of his mother's funeral and pay some little debts that she had left." Johnson requested that the book be published anonymously, although he assumed that its authorship would eventually be known. In 1764, he became a member of what would later be known as The Literary Club; other illustrious members included Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, and Boswell. Johnson spent much of the last part of his life traveling, documented in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and other travel essays. In 1777, Johnson began writing biographical prefaces for editions of English poets; these were published together in 1781 as the ten-volume Lives of the English Poets, an important resource for scholars and, according to Johnson himself, one of his favorite writing projects. He died in 1784.

Major Works

Johnson's literary output is substantial and encompasses a wide variety of genres. His first major poems were imitations of classical satire, a genre popular at the time, especially after Alexander Pope's imitations of Horatian epistles. London, an imitation of Juvenal's third satire, was a modest success in 1738. In it Johnson attacked the prime minister Horace Walpole and denounced the poverty and corruption that afflicted lower-class Londoners, such as Johnson himself Though his work was favorably compared with that of Pope, Johnson did not continue writing poetry; instead, he turned to journalism and essays, not publishing his second major poem until 1749. Entitled The Vanity of Human Wishes (in Imitation of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal), the popular, well-received poem details the futility of human pursuits, deflating the hopes and ambitions of monarchs, soldiers, and scholars alike, and points toward the miserable deaths of those most successful in life. The year 1749 also saw the production of Johnson's only drama, Irene. His former student Garrick produced the play as the manager of the Drury Lane theatre, but by most accounts the production was not a great success. In 1747, Johnson had proposed to the Earl of Chesterfield the necessity of a dictionary of the English language; Johnson subsequently spent the early part of the 1750s working on the project, finally completing the forty-thousand-word volume in 1755. Such authors as John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, and Pope himself had long complained about the rapid, uncontrolled innovations in English grammar and vocabulary; Johnson's attempt to gather together the many variances in the language and to bend the lexicon to the authority of classical precedent made him an instant literary hero. He also continued writing his moral essays for The Adventurer, The Literary Magazine, and The Universal Chronicle; his review of Soame Jenyns' A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, published in 1757, is among his most famous. Two years later, when Rasselas was published, it was virtually assured success based on the identity of its popular author. The book went through several editions in its first year and eventually inspired a sequel, penned by the daughter of one of Johnson's friends, entitled Dinarbas (1790), which enjoyed short-term popularity and eight printings due to its connection to Johnson's highly esteemed work. Rasselas tells the story of the title character, the eponymous prince of Abyssinia (or Ethiopia), and his growing dissatisfaction with the unceasing pleasures of his utopian home in the Happy Valley. According to Ethiopian tradition, the children of royalty were confined to an edenic valley, secluded from the harsh realities of the outside world. Happy Valley, though, rather than being seen as a paradise by Rasselas, is instead considered by him to be a prison, harboring boredom and tediousness. So Rasselas, accompanied by his teacher Imlac, his sister Nekayah, and her lady-in-waiting Pekuah, escapes his idyllic homeland to experience the outside world and search out the one way of life most likely to lead to lasting happiness on earth. After a series of comic misadventures, brushes with danger, and repeated disappointments, the travelers determine that, in the words of Nekayah, "the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity."

Johnson's next major project was an edition of Shakespeare's plays (1765), generally considered by critics as the best edition of Shakespeare that had yet been published, and distinguished by Johnson's prior work as a lexicographer and his very personal, opinionated commentary on the plays. Johnson also remained a staunch critic of English politics, publishing a series of controversial essays, many supporting the policies of his friend M. P. Henry Thrale, Hester Thrale's husband before Piozzi. Johnson's attack on American colonists in Taxation No Tyranny (1775) is especially blistering; in it he mocked their pretensions to "freedom of conscience" and condemned the hypocrisy of slave-holders fighting for "liberty." The pamphlet won him an honorary doctorate from Oxford. His last major work published during his lifetime was the impressive biographical scholarship in Lives of the English Poets, published collectively in 1781. His Prayers and Meditations, a reflection of his sincere and searching practice of Christianity, was published in 1785, within a year of his death.

Critical Reception

Rasselas was published to general acclaim: although it must be acknowledged that many early reviewers were friends and admirers of Johnson, their praise is validated by the generations of later critics who have also held the book in high esteem. Early commentary, particularly from Johnson's first biographers, focused on the work's reflection of Johnson's personal life and beliefs; Boswell, for example, noted that the "gloomy picture" Johnson painted in Rasselas was possibly a result of Johnson's own "melancholy constitution." Sir Walter Raleigh, too, called the work "the most melancholy of fables." The dark nature of Rasselas is a point of concern even for those who admire the book, and the debate over whether the work is finally optimistic or pessimistic has continued throughout its entire critical history. Closely linked to this argument is the debate over the moral value of Rasselas. Boswell, for instance, stated that Johnson emphasized the vanity of life on earth in order to instruct mankind to look to eternal life for happiness. In this way, according to Boswell, Johnson offered his readers hope that, rather than like "beasts who perish," humankind could achieve everlasting happiness through their immortality. Indeed, in the view of many commentators, Rasselas presents an essentially moral and Christian outlook, with its emphasis on the afterlife rather than on temporal concerns. Many modern critics, however, have seen Rasselas as neither moral nor optimistic but simply as a form of entertainment. Claiming that Johnson himself did not direct his readers to consider the moral value of his work, Duane H. Smith has asserted that the author knowingly offered Rasselas as merely a form of amusement for his audience. Commenting also on Rasselas as a form of diversion, Catherine N. Parke has focused on the "psychology of boredom" as evidenced in the piece. According to Parke, Johnson saw "historical thinking"—the ability to look beyond the immediate present to the past—as a way for a bored mind to express and stimulate itself. Looking at the power of the human imagination in the work, Walter Jackson Bate, too, has studied how Rasselas exhibits a typical Johnsonian investigation into the "human craving for 'novelty'." According to Bate, the title character, though all his wants and needs are fulfilled in Happy Valley, desires a life where unsatisfied needs would force him into activity to stimulate his unoccupied mind.

The style and genre of Rasselas has also remained a point of critical contention. Raleigh included it in his history of the English novel, despite its distinctly unnovel-like characterization and structure; Sheridan Baker has called it an ironic adaptation of oriental romance; and more recent critics, such as James F. Woodruff, have considered it a variation on classical satire. Other modem critics have labeled it a philosophical discourse, a comedy, a philosophical romance, and a quest romance, among other classifications. The structure of Rasselas has also prompted critical discussions. Refuting the claims of many earlier critics who found Rasselas "structureless" with no beginning, middle, or end, Gwin J. Kolb has argued that the structure of Rasselas, in the form of a tale, is vital to its message, or "thesis"—that happiness is not achievable in earthly life but is attainable in eternal life. Other twentieth-century critics have continued this focus on Rasselas as a literary achievement. Commenting on Rasselas as a work of art rather than as a philosophical piece, Emrys Jones has maintained that Rasselas shows Johnson's wit and artistic power, particularly in its "inconclusive conclusion." In Jones's view, there can be no ending to the work because life itself cannot be contained within a neat literary piece. Critics have been virtually unanimous, however, in acknowledging Johnson's acute perception of the nature of life andthe capacity of the human soul in Rasselas. Marlene R. Hansen has praised Johnson's positive, progressive portrayal of the equality of women, and several scholars—including J. P. Hardy, Carey McIntosh, and Robert Walker—have noted Johnson's emphasis on the need for hope.