According to his own statement, Samuel Johnson wrote Rasselas in the evenings of one week in 1759 to defray the expenses of his mother’s funeral. Nevertheless, one should not assume either that the tale was completely spontaneous or that its mood was entirely determined by his mother’s illness and death. Johnson had very likely been considering the subject for some time. His translation of Father Lobo’s A Voyage to Abyssinia in 1735, Johnson’s use of an Asian setting in his early play Irene (1749), and his employment of the device of the Asian apologue in several Rambler papers (which he edited from 1750-1752) all pointed the way. Furthermore, Rambler papers numbers 204 and 205 suggested part of the theme of Rasselas in telling how Seged, Lord of Ethiopia, decided to be happy for ten days by an act of will, and how this quest for pleasure was in vain. Even closer in theme is Johnson’s finest poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749).
The mood of Rasselas may seem to be predominantly gloomy, involving, if not cynicism, at least a tragic view of life. Still, it is possible to see in it some of the qualities of an ironic satire. The manuscript title of the book, The Choice of Life, is a key both to its plan and to its philosophy. Human nature being what it is, Johnson indicates, happiness can be only illusory, accidental, and ephemeral, existing more in hope than in reality, and, in the end, always being nothing when compared with life’s miseries. Those who seek happiness through a choice of life are destined to end in failure. This reading of the story may seem simply pessimistic, but there is another aspect of it that recognizes the multifariousness of life, which resists and defeats facile theories about existence such as those of the young travelers in the novel. In this aspect there is opportunity for some comedy.
Johnson skillfully begins with the conventional conceit of a perfect bliss that exists in some earthly paradise. Rasselas, an Abyssinian prince, his sister, and two companions escape from what they come to regard as the boredom of the perfect life in the Happy Valley to set out on a search for true happiness in the outside world. They try all kinds of life: pleasure-loving society, solitude, the pastoral life, life of high and middle estates, public and private life. Although Rasselas holds that happiness is surely to be found, they find it nowhere. The simple life of the country dweller so praised by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his followers is full of discontent. People with wealth and power cannot be happy, because they fear the loss of both. The hermit, unable to answer the question about the advantages of solitude, returns to civilization. The philosopher who preaches the philosophic systems of happiness succumbs to grief over the death of his daughter. A philosopher who thinks one can achieve happiness by “living according to nature” cannot...
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