Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Samuel Johnson's Rasselas is, like Voltaire's contemporary Candide, a meditation on human happiness. Both works were written quickly, in Johnson's case because he needed money to pay for his mother's funeral.

This story is sometimes referred to as a philosophical romance, as the quest is for a philosophical sense of human flourishing (or happiness) rather than merely pleasure. As in Candide, the plot of this narrative involves the titular character traveling far and wide, to locations that would have seemed exotic in Johnson's day, in search of wisdom from a variety of points of view. What distinguishes Rasselas from Candide is the tone each adopts. Candide can become shrill in its satire of European folly and illogic, but Johnson's work has a far more gentle and open quality.

At the same time, Johnson does use the work to condemn certain ideas and values he finds repugnant in Europe. Johnson rejects the kind of white prejudice that led to "orientalism," or the assumption that the British were superior to Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, and therefore right to impose colonial or imperial domination on them. Johnson was writing at the time that the British Empire was highly forceful (1759). After losing the North American colonies, Britain turned its attention to Asia and India, fueling interest in exotic locations, such as in Rasselas. Rasselas is a prince of Abyssinia who travels to Egypt, though these locales are used more to suggest "otherness" than for any representation of distinct cultural differences. Johnson was also strongly against slavery, and this work critiques the practice as antithetical to human happiness.

Young Rasselas is exiled from the Happy Valley, a type of earthly paradise. This reflects a certain archetypal myth, representing an exile from the Garden of Eden in the Bible as well as the psychological loss of innocence that comes with adulthood. Rasselas and his companions use human ingenuity to escape their Happy Valley in search of adventure and insight. The text advances itself through a series of short, episodic scenes, seemingly more important in setting up a philosophical argument than presenting a coherent narrative. But perhaps the merely additive nature of this story is also part of the point: rather than strict coherence, life often offers merely "more." For some, this variety itself is the source of happiness. Nekayah seems to think that the anticipation of change—knowing that the world has not been depleted of wonder—is exciting. Tomorrow holds as much meaning as we allow it.

Yet, the novella critiques this idea as well, suggesting that novelty for its own sake is an empty delusion. The philosopher wonders what “delight” there is in the physical reality because of its temporary nature. Time passes and he feels some earthly wonders have lost their initial charm.

Speaking to philosophers, shepherds, poets, scientists, and more, Rasselas discovers that the search for happiness is itself somewhat paradoxical, for “while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live.” In the end, Rasselas and his companions, settled temporarily due to a flood, evaluate their discoveries. Each finds a different ideal for themselves, generally representing the type of options that would have been available to them before they had started out on their journey, had they only had the wisdom to know that. The work ends on a rather resigned and melancholy note, having realized that they are unable to obtain happiness. With this sad reality in mind, they return to Abyssinia. 

The ability to return to the Happy Valley, wiser but somewhat disenchanted, offers resigned contentment with the impossibility of ever achieving full happiness. The story then returns the reader to the beginning of the tale, where Johnson previews the endlessly elusive happiness that drives so much of human effort and ends in sorrow:

Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.

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