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Rasselas Summary

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson's "philosophical romance" concerns the desire of the eponymous protagonist to discover whether it's possible for mankind to attain happiness. Although he himself has lived a life of unbroken serenity amidst boundless luxuries in a beautiful setting, both aptly and ironically named Happy Valley, the twenty-six-year old prince has become sated with this existence, and is anything but a happy man.

After numerous failed efforts to interest himself in local affairs, Rasselas seeks to escape from Happy Valley but finds every path has been blocked. He meets Imlac, a visiting sage, who describes for the prince the pain and oppression of a world yet unseen by him, with the tale of his own vicissitudes therein. Listening to this narrative makes the prince even more eager to see the outer world himself, and with the wise man's guidance, digs a tunnel through the mountains to escape. The prince's favorite sister Nekayah, as dissatisfied as her brother, joins them on their journey, accompanied by her maidservant, Pekuah.

As they travel through the world, the initial astonishment of the royal siblings fades as Imlac instructs them in the endlessly varied manners of the human race. Rasselas continues in his search to solve the mystery of happiness, but finds it as frustratingly elusive as he had in Happy Valley. Neither the pursuit of sensual pleasures, the possession of wealth, nor the attainment of learning seem to guarantee his intangible objective. Nekayah, who has spent much of her time in observing domestic life, also is saddened to find a status quo of discontent.

At Imlac's suggestion, Rasselas and Nekayah join him in visiting a pyramid, while leaving the claustrophobic Pekuah to rest in their tent. After reflecting on the folly of the royal vanity that built such a monument, the trio emerge into the light to find that Pekuah has been seized by Arab horseman. Rasselas is eager to give chase, but Imlac reminds him that they are no match for Pekuah's captors. Nekayah is grief-stricken.

The search for Pekuah continues as Nekayah languishes, but after seven months, the princess if overjoyed when they learn that her maid is alive. She is being held by an Arab chief who demands a ransom for her return, which they immediately pay.

Order restored, the travelers contemplate the future. When Rasselas declares to Imlac that he is considering a solitary life devoted to learning and literary pursuits, the sage tells him about an erudite astronomer friend, seemingly perfect in every way, who one day quietly revealed to him his godlike control of the universe, and his intention to pass this power on to Imlac. Such madness, he warns, is the potential danger of a solitary life. Fascinated by this astronomer, the women demand that Imlac arrange a visit, and over a period of months in their company, the man gradually regains his sanity.

But, what ultimately does Rasselas determine to be the source of human happiness? Perhaps this quote comes closest to Johnson's belief:

Such, said Nekayah, is the state of life, that none are happy but by the anticipation of change: the change itself is nothing; when we have made it, the next wish is to change again. The world isn't yet exhausted; let me see something tomorrow which I never saw before.


(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.

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(The entire section is 2,484 words.)