Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1001
The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, (also referred to as The Prince of Abyssinia: A Tale; most commonly referred to as Rasselas) is a 1795 allegorical fable, or an apologue about happiness, written by English writer Samuel Johnson. Because of its similar thematic representation, it is often compared to Voltaire’s Candide; however, it is by no means a satire.
“Happiness," said he, "must be something solid and permanent, without fear and without uncertainty.”
The book is also considered a theodicy because Johnson, being a devoted Christian, tries to explain why God allows evil and sin to be present on earth.
“Every man,” said Imlac, “may by examining his own mind guess what passes in the minds of others. When you feel that your own gaiety is counterfeit, it may justly lead you to suspect that of your companions not to be sincere. Envy is commonly reciprocal.”
At a different point, Imlac touches on pride:
“Pride,” said Imlac, “is seldom delicate; it will please itself with very mean advantages, and envy feels not its own happiness but when it may be compared with the misery of others. They were my enemies because they grieved to think me rich, and my oppressors because they delighted to find me weak.”
Imlac's wisdom continues:
Of the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason.
The plot revolves around Rasselas, the Prince of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), who is next in line for the throne of a beautiful place called the Happy Valley. However, Rasselas desperately wants to escape and go on a quest to find the true meaning of happiness. Alongside his sister Nekayah, her servant Pekuah and his good friend, the wise poet Imlac, Rasselas manages to escape by digging a tunnel under the valley. He travels around, mainly in Egypt, encountering a few adventures, and meeting numerous people of various professions. Failing to find the answer to his deeply philosophical question, however, Rasselas returns home to Abyssinia.
“I am not willing,” said the Prince, “to suppose that happiness is so parsimoniously distributed to mortals, nor can I believe but that, if I had the choice of life, I should be able to fill every day with pleasure. I would injure no man, and should provoke no resentments; I would relieve every distress, and should enjoy the benedictions of gratitude. I would choose my friends among the wise and my wife among the virtuous, and therefore should be in no danger from treachery or unkindness. My children should by my care be learned and pious, and would repay to my age what their childhood had received.”
Here is another quotation from the beginning of the journey. Rasselas is coming to terms with where he is from and where he is going, and his motivation to explore the world:
I have already enjoyed too much; give me something to desire.
Many critics and analysts also classify Rasselas as a philosophical romance, as it explores themes of love, human nature, morality, and marriage. This quote is from Rasselas himself:
“Such is the common process of marriage. A youth and maiden exchange meeting by chance, or brought together by artifice, exchange glances, reciprocate civilities, go home, and dream of one another. Having little to divert attention, or diversify thought, they find themselves uneasy when they are apart, and therefore conclude that they shall be happy together. They marry, and discover what nothing but voluntary blindness had before concealed; they wear out life in altercations, and charge nature with cruelty.”
Nekayah reflects on human relations, too,...
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in a conversation with her brother:
We differ from ourselves just as we differ from each other when we see only part of the question, as in the multifarious relations of politics and morality, but when we perceive the whole at once, as in numerical computations, all agree in one judgment, and none ever varies in his opinion.
Next, Imlac reflects on the passage of time:
Our minds, like our bodies, are in continual flux; something is hourly lost, and something acquired. To lose much at once is inconvenient to either, but while the vital power remains uninjured, nature will find the means of reparation. Distance has the same effect on the mind as on the eye; and while we glide along the stream of time, whatever we leave behind us is always lessening, and that which we approach increasing in magnitude.
The book was praised for its thought-proving narrative, its intriguing and stimulating rhetoric, and its philosophical approach to many areas of life such as: virtue, sin, marriage, mortality, imagination, intelligence, love, reason, and life itself.
Mortality is an event by which a wise man can never be surprised: we know that death is always near, and it should therefore always be expected.
The following quote touches on the necessity of balancing the search for meaning with honor.
Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful. I have found in thee all the qualities requisite for trust—benevolence, experience, and fortitude.
Pekuah makes a wise statement here, suggesting that we quickly and easily can dismiss any and all of our experiences as "life."
“For nothing,” said she, “is more common than to call our own condition the condition of life.”
Through Rasselas, Johnson essentially gives his own opinion on the notion of happiness, arguing that true happiness is something that we will never fully achieve, no matter whom we love, or marry, or how much money and power we hold, or how famous, respected, and well-spoken we are.
Let us cease to consider what perhaps may never happen, and what, when it shall happen, will laugh at human speculation. We will not endeavour to modify the motions of the elements or to fix the destiny of kingdoms. It is our business to consider what beings like us may perform, each laboring for his own happiness by promoting within his circle, however narrow, the happiness of others.