The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia
Long Way to Happy: The Illusion of Satisfaction in Rasselas
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.
Beyond Mere Style in Rasselas
Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, which follows Rasselas and his companions as they search for the choice of life that generates the most happiness, influenced Johnson’s generation so profoundly that the period from 1750 to 1784 has been dubbed the “Age of Johnson.” Along with Johnson’s philosophical ruminations pondered in the course of this satirical moral apologue, Johnson’s writing was, and remains, renowned for its style. Writing with a paralleling Neoclassical structure, with periodic sentences that emphasize the last words of the sentences, and with constant negation, Johnson’s style became a distinguishing feature of his work and has inspired a slew of authors to use his techniques in their own work. Given the import centered on Johnson’s style by his contemporaries and modern audiences, one must question whether there is significance to Johnson’s techniques beyond mere writing style. Portraying paralleling incidents which foreshadow the novel’s inconclusive conclusion, emphasizing the weightiness of his novel’s ending which changes the novel’s entire argument, and negating the entire trajectory of Rasselas with his conclusion, Johnson constructs the novel’s events to mimic his literary style, thereby amplifying the importance of his literary style.
The novel’s events, centered upon Rasselas’ journey to discover the nature of happiness, parallel Imlac’s own journey, and by concluding that absolutely nothing has changed, the novel negates the possibility of completing its entire mission, to pursue happiness. In this way, Johnson’s style, employed all throughout Rasselas, anticipates the novel’s conclusion, foreshadowing the flabbergasting “conclusion, in which nothing is concluded” (111). Despite the seemingly nihilistic conclusion that the novel leaves the reader with, the reader may perceive Johnson’s sense of hope, not simply by his mention of G-d and eternal life, but by understanding the paralleling sequence of events in Rasselas, which enable one to anticipate another chance for Rasselas to pursue happiness. Ultimately, by discerning the manner in which Rasselas’ sequence of events parallel Johnson’s writing style, one can distinguish that the negating conclusion, which seemingly overturns the novel’s purpose, is more hopeful than it initially seems.
Notably, the novel’s concluding chapter exemplifies Johnson’s writing style, which involves parallelism, periodic sentences, and negation. The description of Nekayah’s unfulfilled resolution makes use of parallelism: “She desired first to learn all sciences, and then proposed to found a college of learned women, in which she would preside, that, by conversing with the old and educating the young, she might divide her time between the acquisition and communication of wisdom, and raise up for the next age models of prudence and patterns of piety” (112). By placing two antithetical phrases, each beginning with gerunds, side by side (“conversing with the old” and “educating the young,”) as well as by including the paralleling phrases “models of prudence” and “patterns of piety,” one can perceive Johnson’s use of parallelism. The final sentence in the novel is periodic, relying on the last word to make its essential point–the point which overturns the entirety of the novel: “They deliberated a while what was to be done, and resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abyssinia” (112). Finally, the novel portrays negation in its expression of the characters’ conclusion that “none” of their goals are procurable: “Of those wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could be obtained” (112). Clearly, Johnson employs parallelism, periodic sentences, and negation as a part of his writing style in Rasselas.
The significance of these writing techniques increases as one perceives their presence in the plot’s structure: as Rasselas’ journey mirrors Imlac’s travels and as Rasselas and Pekuah make mistakes that parallel their own past blunders, the novel’s ending can become understood as a deferment of events, thereby changing the reader’s perception about the possibility of the best “choice of life.”
Imlac’s journey foregrounds Rasselas’ and his companions’ paralleling journey of searching for happiness and their ultimate abandonment of their search. Early in the novel, Imlac tells the prince his own story about how he came to live in the Happy Valley, describing: how he came from a wealthy family; how he learned and grew to realize that all men, even wise men, have flaws; how he travelled and grew weary of his surroundings; how he learned all he could in the lands he travelled to; how he returned home and failed in his endeavors there; and how he ultimately retreated to the Happy Valley in order to escape life’s sombering realities. Imlac concludes his story by admitting to Rasselas that he, like the other attendants in Rasselas’ employ, is unhappy. As the privileged Prince Rasselas leaves the Happy Valley in order to travel, to search for the best way to gain happiness through the accumulation of knowledge by researching various modes of living, and to finally return to the confining Happy Valley, one can perceive the manner in which Rasselas’ journey parallels Imlac’s.
The novel also portrays parallelism by illustrating the manner in which Rasselas and Pekuah repeat their past errors in the novel’s conclusion. Early on in the novel, after deciding to leave the Happy Valley, for the span of twenty months Rasselas manages to please himself with imaginative reveries of his impending journey in the outside world, until he regretfully realizes what he’s done:
He considered how much might have been done in the time which had passed, and left nothing real behind it. He compared twenty months with the life of man. “In life,” said he, “is not to be counted the ignorance of infancy or imbecility of age. We are long before we are able to think, and we soon cease from the power of acting. The true period of human existence may be reasonably estimated at forty years, of which I have mused away the four-and-twentieth part.” (15)
This quote proves that Rasselas, upon realizing how quickly twenty months have gone by, understands that he ought to utilize his time wisely and make use of his life while he is physically capable of doing so (before the “imbecility of age” comes upon him). While this awareness prompts Rasselas to finally reinvest himself in seeking passage out of the Happy Valley, he ultimately fails to use this knowledge in making his choice of life at the end of the novel, returning to the utopian Happy Valley rather than living out a productive, fulfilling life.
Pekuah also fails to learn from her trials on their journey as she ultimately avoids the unknown and any change in life. Through Pekuah, Johnson demonstrates the problem with surrendering to one’s imagination. The Arab has the opportunity to kidnap Pekuah only because she retreats to the tents as her imagination gets the better of her and her fear prevents her from accompanying her mistress. When asked by Nekayah what it is that she fears, Pekuah responds: “‘Of the narrow entrance . . . and of the dreadful gloom. I dare not enter a place which must surely be inhabited by unquiet souls. The original possessors of these dreadful vaults will start up before us, and perhaps shut us in for ever’” (71). This fear of entering into the unknown “dreadful gloom,” a dark “gloom” in which her safety is uncertain to her, can be understood as Pekuah’s fear of change. Because of her unchecked imagination, Pekuah fears the dark unpredictability of the cave, just as one might fear the unpredictability that accompanies change in life. However, Johnson demonstrates the problem with living in fear of change and unpredictability as this fear only serves to place Pekuah in an unforeseeable situation amongst the tiresome seraglio. While it seems that Pekuah has learned her lesson at the end of the novel after her experiences with the Arab and his seraglio, since she insists she will go along with Nekayah to the catacombs despite her past fear (108), she ultimately fails to recognize the importance of change in life by the novel’s conclusion: “She was weary of expectation and disgust, and would gladly be fixed in some unvariable state” (112). Her desire to be “fixed in some unvariable state” is of course possible in the never-changing, confined Happy Valley, but, in reverting to fearing the unknown and change, Pekuah fails to pursue her happiness.
By understanding the manner in which Rasselas’ life parallels Imlac’s, “The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded,” which can easily be perceived as nihilistic, can be understood as deferring a conclusion for the novel. Given that Samuel Johnson fought depression, struggled a great deal because of his physical impairments (he had scrofula and poor eyesight, was deaf in one ear, and likely has Tourette’s syndrome), and wrote Rasselas in order to pay for the funeral of his deceased mother, it is understandable to state that the novel’s conclusion is meant to be about the pointlessness of life, just as Rasselas’ journey with his companions ultimately may strike the reader as senseless since they have seemingly learned nothing. However, given the repetitive structure of the novel explored previously, one may conclude that–just as Imlac left the Happy Valley to accompany Rasselas in his search for happiness–Rasselas, whose life clearly parallels Imlac’s, will one day likely venture out of the Happy Valley, accompanying some youth who desires to gain perspective on the choice of life. Thus, in understanding the deliberate paralleling structure of Johnson’s novel, one may perceive that Rasselas merely defers an ending.
Johnson’s evocation of G-d provides further support for this more hopeful reading of the novel, which is enabled by perceiving the parallelism between the lives of Imlac and Rasselas. While the novel ultimately instills in the reader that the pursuit of happiness is a fruitless endeavor (as Johnson relays in his poem The Vanity of Human Wishes), it also leaves the reader with hope that there may be more beyond life. As Imlac and Rasselas discuss the “Supreme Being” (31) and as the main characters consider the nature of one’s soul, which has been made by the “Being” (111), one can surmise that in the fictional realm of the novel G-d clearly exists. As a Christian invoking G-d and the concept of eternal heaven, Johnson clearly means to provide a sense of hope for his readers as Nekayah states just before the novel’s conclusion: “‘To me,’ said the Princess, ‘the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity’” (111). By evoking heaven through “the choice of eternity,” Johnson, who feared the vacuity of life, clearly means to supply his readers with the hope that, even if one’s pursuit of lasting happiness seems pointless, one can still anticipate the glory and respite of eternal heaven.
Clearly, Samuel Johnson’s writing techniques of parallelism, periodic sentences, and negation in Rasselas go beyond mere style since they enable one to perceive the way in which Johnson shapes the plot and what may occur subsequent to the novel’s events, consequently enabling the reader to maintain a sense of hope. By understanding the manner in which the sequence of events mirrors Johnson’s sentences, one can foresee the conclusion’s ultimate negation of the novel’s purpose, to discover the nature of lasting happiness. Also, by gaining insight about the parallels between Rasselas’ and Imlac’s lives, one may perceive the novel results in the hopeful deferment of an ending–a hopefulness which is supported by the novel’s mention of G-d and heaven.