Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Importance of Flying the Nest
Rasselas and Nekayah are the only siblings who are moved to embark on the trip outside of the Happy Valley. Without ever leaving their home—and the cushy life they have as royalty in Abissinia—they only know what is right in front of them. In embarking on their journey to see the world, with the help of Imlac, they develop a sense of their humanity that extends beyond the bounds of what they know. Johnson is, perhaps, suggesting that in order to understand ourselves, we must move our frame of reference from what is directly in front of us. If we only know our childhoods, hometowns, and the people we grew up with, our scope is quite limited. Rasselas and Nekayah have defended their understanding of humanity, and have both come to understand that the extravagance of human happiness is not real.
Happiness is Made, Not Found
Throughout the story, Rasselas tries to find happiness. First, he does this by attempting to escape the Happy Valley which, as the name suggests, is a “happy” place. However, Rasselas wants to find what he believes to be true happiness, something deeper, and so he leaves with his sister and begins searching the world. After visiting many places, they eventually realize that they haven’t found it, and they won’t. This reflects Johnson’s belief that happiness is not attainable, at least in the sense that most people are looking for it. Johnson was a religious man, and believed that earthly life could never provide the everlasting peace we are all searching for. With this in mind, Rasselas and Nekayah seem to find what happiness is not. It is not intellectual isolation, as in the case of the Astronomer. It is not social isolation, exemplified through the Hermit. It is not the Old Man’s age nor the Philosopher’s empty ideals. Instead, it is the possibility of a new day. It is the idea that the world has not been “exhausted.” There will be new things to learn from and take joy in. Happiness cannot be attained, but it can be found in our day-to-day lives.
According to the story, human nature will always prevent us from being content, and therefore we will always be searching for the next thing that makes us happy. When change occurs, we are eager for the next change and often fail to see what is right in front of us. Whether we are hung up on the past or anxious about the future, the present is neglected. Johnson emphasizes that the search for human happiness is individual. Even in the sheltered Happy Valley, Rasselas felt a very human dissatisfaction. He assumed that when he left, he would feel differently. He is unpleasantly surprised when he realizes that people throughout the world—regardless of their circumstances—feel this same unhappiness. It is everyone’s mission to seek happiness, just as it is human nature to believe that the grass is greener on the other side. Life in all forms comes with frustrations, happiness, sadness, grief, and humor. These elements are ever-present and come in waves. Being aware of our human tendency to move on to the next thing and still feel unsatisfied, we are reminded to seek our own meaning on purpose.