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.)