Samuel Johnson’s tale, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, tells the story of a young man, Rasselas, who is dissatisfied with his current life in a utopic society. He strives to venture outside the only existence that he has ever known in order to see and understand the trials that people actually endure in the real world. Through the many experiences that he witnesses and also takes part in throughout his journey outside of his seemingly perfect society, he comes to realize that happiness is not something he could just decide to search for. His sister, Nekayah, also joins him on his adventure and they together grapple with the realization that happiness is an ever-changing, fleeting state of being that cannot be grasped or forced. Johnson’s tale seems to emphasize the notion that there is really nothing in like that can guarantee happiness, and the more you search and yearn for it, the farther from it you end up as you waste your life trying to seize something that is too illusive for human control.
Rasselas and his sister, Nekayah are from the Happy Valley, a utopic place where life is devoid of any suffering. It is a place where “all the diversities of the world were brought together, the blessings of nature were collected, and its evils extracted and excluded” (Johnson, 2858). They are accustomed to a place that is seemingly utopic in structure, however, they are still unsatisfied and feel unfulfilled with the state of their lives. In this almost perfect place, “every desire was immediately granted,” but Rasselas finds himself wanting more, as he is unhappy with his current situation (Johnson, 2858). People in the Happy Valley “had all within their reach” as it is a place that is extremely difficult to leave, and many people lack the desire to (Johnson, 2859). However, Rasselas is dissatisfied with having every desire answered and not really knowing what life outside of his current existence is really like. He seems to be grappling with and trying to understand the concept that happiness cannot be truly had without sadness as he reveals that he wants “to receive some solace of the miseries of life” (Johnson 2860). Rasselas wants to leave the utopic society that is the Happy Valley, and he consults often with his instructor, Imlac, for guidance on the matter. Imlac tells the young prince that happiness cannot exist, be known, or truly felt without the presence of misery, and in response Rasselas expresses his longing “to see the miseries of the world, since the sight of them is necessary to happiness” (Johnson, 2861). The young prince meets an artist who is working on fashioning a device that can swim and fly, which Rasselas sees as a means of escape from his miserably utopic world. The artist explains the importance of “the labor of rising from the ground” to the prince, which is not only the way in which the device will work, but also the way in which getting through hard times in life works, as happiness is not always a guarantee (Johnson, 2864). Rasselas wants so badly to find a happier existence than the one he is currently experiencing, but it is not a task that can be accomplished just because he wants it to be.
Once making it successfully out of the Happy Valley, Rasselas seeks more guidance from Imlac, and listens to his life story in order to understand more about the world that he is about to become a part of. Imlac tells the young prince that “human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed” (Johnson, 2873). Imlac, the wise poet, instructor, and philosopher, seems to be trying to prepare the naïve Rasselas for the hardships that real life presents, and the fact that happiness will not merely be in his grasp just because he hungers for it. Imlac instructs the prince and princess to find their “choice of life” many times throughout the tale, which seems to allude to the fact that both characters have the ability to choose their path in life in the hope that happiness follows, but that happiness itself cannot be the end goal in order to be successful, because life is “a journey of which [one] cannot perceive an end” (Johnson, 2878). Rasselas wants so badly to find happiness, but it may not be the proper way to search for the meaning that he so desires in his life as it is a fleeting state of being that cannot be attained by sheer wanting of it. He wants happiness to be “something solid and permanent, without fear and without uncertainty,” but Imlac tries to convey how incorrect that notion is (Johnson, 2881). It appears that in Imlac’s eyes, he sees that people from all walks of life can experience life in different ways and have different approaches to life, yet their happiness is never guaranteed no matter how prosperous their path may appear to be. Rasselas and Nekayah seem to come to terms with this idea when they meet both wealthy and impoverished people who have similar outlooks on life. After meeting the wealthy families, Rasselas reveals that it is possible to know people with the “fairest show of prosperity and peace, and know not one house that is not haunted by some fury that destroys its quiet” (Johnson, 2889). Upon meeting the poorer families, Rasselas concludes that “every day is lost in contriving for the morrow” (Johnson, 2889). Nothing in life can guarantee happiness, not even monetary status, and more people than Rasselas and his sister expected struggle with finding the solace that they also yearn for.
Imlac also seems to express the notion in Johnson’s tale that happiness is an illusive, transitory state of being that is not only hard to seize, but can also be further prevented from being attained due to one’s own human intervention. He speaks to the prince about the dangers of envy as he explains that he will “rarely meet one who does not think the lot of his neighbor better than his own” (Johnson, 2880). Imlac appears to acutely aware of the tendency of happiness to seem stronger and more apparent when in someone else’s hands, when in reality everyone is struggling the same way. Rasselas comes across a master of Bassa on his journey in Cairo, and finds that although he lives a fruitful life full of abundance, he is also unhappy because his “prosperity puts [his] life in danger” (Johnson 2884). Even living a life with a prominent social status and economic state is not enough to secure the bounds of happiness, Rasselas realizes. As he converses with his sister, Princess Nekayah, about the people that they met one day, they discuss the life of a hermit. Living in solitude to escape from the evils that he has experienced throughout his life, the hermit admits that he has no “desire that [his] example should gain any imitators” (Johnson, 2885). The young prince and princess begin to come to the realization that living in fear of downfall or loss of prosperity and running from unhappiness, are both ways in which actual happiness is further prevented. Nekayah comes to an enlightened realization about happiness when she says that “a steady prospect of a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience; but remember patience must suppose pain” (Johnson, 2892). The princess seems to begin to understand that happiness is not something that can just be attained because it is wanted and because one decides to search for it, because it is a fleeting, nontangible thing. However, if one is patient enough and hopes for it come along while still living life, it might just present itself, but not without its own share of hardship to make it all the more coveted. Too much searching for happiness can get in the way of actually living and enjoying life, which can further prevent one from actual experiencing it. Imlac worries that Rasselas is trying too hard to force happiness in his life and search for meaning beyond that from which he has known which can be problematic, because “while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live” (Johnson, 2896). Imlac seems to be cautioning against searching for a state of happiness and a correct path to finding to so much to the point that actually living and experiencing life is missed out on.
After entering into a world where suffering actually exists, the prince and princess come to realize that many other people find attaining happiness to be a difficult task, also. Johnson’s tale seems to make comments on the inability of happiness to be sought as it is a fleeting, momentary state of being that cannot exist without sadness and misery. Life needs to be lived, and happiness can potentially follow and come in waves, but it cannot be an actual sought path. Happiness is “something [that] is hourly lost, and something acquired” (Johnson, 2903). The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia seems to demonstrate the notion that happiness is an illusive state that can be yearned for, but not always attained.
Johnson, Samuel. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. C. Print.