Rasselas

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, tires of the Happy Valley where he lives in seclusion while waiting to assume the throne. With the poet Imlac as their guide, Rasselas, his sister, and her maid leave the Valley and travel throughout the Middle East in search of a happy life. His experiences...

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Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, tires of the Happy Valley where he lives in seclusion while waiting to assume the throne. With the poet Imlac as their guide, Rasselas, his sister, and her maid leave the Valley and travel throughout the Middle East in search of a happy life. His experiences in both city and country offer Rasselas no satisfaction; nowhere can he find a pleasant existence. He comes to understand that life is an experience that must be endured, and whatever happiness comes to man does so only fleetingly. Finally weary of his journeys, Rasselas decides to return to the Happy Valley.

Johnson’s story has been described as a moral tale. Throughout, the emphasis is on the lessons Rasselas and his companions learn. These lessons are bitter ones. Rasselas begins his search for happiness by leaving an Edenic locale, where all sensual pleasures are fulfilled. Yet nowhere outside the valley does he find anyone truly happy; those who seem to be so are either lying or mad. Earthly happiness occurs only when change enters one’s life; one’s only real hope is to find eternal happiness after death.

In the process of destroying notions of earthly Utopia, Johnson systematically penetrates the facades that had grown up around certain ways of life. For example, he exposes the sham of the pastoral tradition by portraying shepherds as ignorant and displeasing buffoons. The work also provides a wealth of insight into Johnson’s personal and literary philosophy; Imlac’s discussion in chapter ten of the function of poetry is an important summary of 18th century literary theory.

Bibliography:

Burke, John J., Jr., and Donald Kay, eds. The Unknown Samuel Johnson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. Offers new interpretations of Rasselas’ theme and meaning in light of Johnson’s private life.

Curley, Thomas. “The Spiritual Journey Moralized in Rasselas.” Anglia 91 (1973): 35-55. Generally positive review, focusing on the moral overtones of Johnson’s choice-of-life ideology as it relates to the circumstances and actions of the travelers in Rasselas.

Ehrenpreis, Irvin. “Rasselas and Some Meanings of ‘Structure’ in Literary Criticism.” Novel 14, no. 2 (Winter, 1981): 101-117. A rather disparaging view of Johnson’s artistic abilities, noting the shallowness of his characters and the inconsistencies within the structure of Rasselas.

Nath, Prem, ed. Fresh Reflections on Samuel Johnson: Essays in Criticism. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1987. Contains a broad range of critical essays dealing with Johnson’s writings, with particular emphasis on its artistic nature. Useful for its opposing interpretations of theme and meaning in Rasselas.

Wahba, Magdi, comp. Bicentenary Essays on “Rasselas.” Cairo: Société Orientale de Publicité Press, 1959. Focuses on Rasselas as a positive message of hope and call from despair, offering a counterargument to the pessimistic interpretation in force since its publication in the eighteenth century.

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