Crippling Optimism: Prevailing Providence in Rasselas and Persuasion

March 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

As writers of moral narratives, Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson demonstrate the value of reason and contentedness over imagination and ambition. Johnson’s influence on Austen as an author of moral purpose becomes clear in a comparison of their two works, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia and Persuasion, respectively. In his allegorical tale, Rasselas, Johnson utilizes encounters in to show how the Prince’s “hunger of imagination which preys incessantly on life” is the cause of his dissatisfaction. In Austen’s Persuasion, the Sir Walter Elliot’s vanity, ambition and refusal to give up all of the trappings of his position in society ends in his having to rent out the family estate, Kellynch. Johnson and Austen both set out to create a moral tale, but differ in the manner of creating the tale. Interestingly, Johnson employs fantastical allegory to convey a moral with a surprisingly resonant realism. Austen follows a more believable route, creating a world mirroring the culture of her time. Both authors utilize their narratives not only to portray their characters as reformed, but to also convey a moral to their reading audience. In Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot is a vain and stubborn baronet who values position through birth over position through progress. Austen highlights his vanity on several occasions, including in the first lines of the novel: “Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage…there if any other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed” (Austen 3). Other details which convince the reader of Sir Walter’s vanity include a description of his mirror-filled dressing room and his preference to be seen only with attractive people. Introducing the reader to the ludicrous Baron in the first chapter sets a moral precedent through which to display other characters and situations. This provides the reader with a specific portrait of an “insensible” character, who will perhaps later reform. His character, satirized as ridiculous, serves as juxtaposition with the more sensible, modest characters in Persuasion. By the end of chapter one, it becomes apparent that Sir Walter’s attempts to keep up appearances appropriate to his desired class position have resulted in devastating debt. Austen includes a satiric rationalization for this debt in stating, “It had not been possible for him to spend less: he had done nothing but what Sir Walter Elliot was imperiously called on to do…” (Austen 10). Lady Russell and Anne Elliot, the sensible character of the novel, attempt to find the least painful methods through which Sir Walter’s situation can be ameliorated. Their suggestions of cutting certain extravagances from his lush lifestyle are met with contempt by the narrow-minded Sir Walter: “’What! Every comfort of life knocked off! Journeys, London, servants, horses, table—contractions and restrictions everywhere! To live no longer with the decencies even of a private gentleman! No, he would sooner quit Kellynch hall at once, than remain in it on such disgraceful terms” (Austen 14). The decision to quit Kellynch, the family estate, and move to Bath could have been prevented had Sir Walter been more receptive and less dissatisfied with the prospect of a change of lifestyle. Sir Walter is representative of the shriveling aristocracy in Austen’s time. This decay is brought about by industrialism, a system in which position by birth becomes less valuable. The members of the older aristocracy, whose positions have been secured by birth, are subjected to the reality that they may have to live on their allotted means instead of living in an unrealistically endless, extravagant economic fantasy. Through Sir Walter’s dilemma, Austen shows the importance of contentment with what is truly possible, and not keeping up appearances of a false position which becomes impossible to maintain. Samuel Johnson’s moral fable, Rasselas, also demonstrates the damage ambition and imagination can do to the mind. Much like Austen’s Persuasion is a reflection of the culture and concerns of the time, Johnson’s tale is to some extent a reflection of his current emotional state. Written speedily as his mother lay in her deathbed, Johnson hoped the funds gained from Rasselas would pay for her funeral and settle her debts. Johnson’s somber situation is reflected in the sober tone of Rasselas. Not one to circumlocute, he appeals to the reader with an admonition and invitation to listen to his tale: “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 Abyssinia” (Johnson 2680). Johnson portrays a prince dissatisfied with the utopian land around him, in which, “All the diversities of the world were brought together, the blessings of nature were collected, and its evils extracted and excluded” (Johnson 2681). The prince is convinced that if he could make his individual “choice of life”, he could be content instead of merely satisfied with the life he has been given. He desires to see other lives, and wishes to leave his home, the Happy Valley. Despite his comrades’ chidings, prince Rasselas refuses to believe anything but that “…if I had the choice of life, I should be able to fill every day with pleasure” (Johnson 2696). Unlike the other inhabitants of Happy Valley, the prince is dissatisfied with the perpetual state of content the valley provided. In fact, he took more pleasure in imagining scenarios of difficulty and struggle: “His chief amusement was to picture to himself that world which he had never seen; to place himself in various conditions; to be entangled in imaginary difficulties, and to be engaged in wild adventures; but his benevolence always terminated his projects in the relief of distress, the detection of fraud, the defeat of oppression, and the diffusion of happiness” (Johnson 2685). For the prince, Happy Valley becomes a hellish sort of paradise. Essentially, these imaginings are representative of the diametric opposite of his current state, showing the “grass to be always greener” for Rasselas. Rasselas travels to explore what choice of life other people have taken, and to discover whether they are content. Each individual Rasselas meets seems content upon first encounter , but further examination shows this happiness to be false. Textual details, including Johnson’s rhetoric and his depiction of prosperity and solitude affirm that the desire for complete happiness can never be fully satiated. In writing the particular encounter with a hermit, Johnson seems to identify imagination with mental illness, claiming it to be conducive to madness: “All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity…it is not pronounced madness but when it becomes ungovernable, and apparently influences speech” (Rasselas 2733). Much like Sir Walter’s ludicrous, extravagant and ambitious spending habits were not seen as an issue of concern until they began to cause obvious harm, Johnson implies that imagination is always a lurking danger which often goes unrealized until it is too late. After a sweeping list of adventures, the anticlimactic ending shows the prince and comrades returning to Abyssinia. After the companions contemplated their respective, unobtainable wishes: a kingdom, college, and an “unvariable state” devoid of “expectation and disgust,” a cloister (2742). “Of these wishes that they had formed, they well knew that none could be obtained. They deliberated a while as to what was to be done, and resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abyssinia” (Johnson 2743). This return to Happy Valley is a far cry from Rasselas’ initial vision, in which he was determined to “…judge with my own eyes the various conditions of men, and then make deliberately my choice of life” (Johnson 2698). This irony also shows the impossibility of choosing a life when Providence has decided otherwise. Just as Rasselas comes to accept the happiness he has been allotted, unchangeable by a different “choice of life,” Sir Walter has to accept the changing world around him. Until this point, he has been reluctant to respect those who have gained position in any manner aside from “good birth.” This moment of acceptance occurs upon the engagement of Captain Wentworth and Anne, when Sir Walter decides concerning Wentworth that “his superiority of appearance might be not unfairly balanced against [Anne’s] superiority of rank; and all this, assisted by his well-sounding name, enabled Sir Walter…to prepare his pen…for the insertion of the marriage in the volume of honor” (Austen 275). Wentworth’s presence proves Sir Walter’s value of birth to be somewhat out of date. However, Sir Walter is still incorrigible in his inherent vanity, it is still “the beginning and end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character: vanity of person and of situation” (Austen 4). The best this compromise can do is lessen the inflexibility of Sir Walter’s “vanity of situation.” Austen echoes Johnson’s sentiments perfectly in the last chapter, by bluntly stating that Wentworth was “…now esteemed quite worthy to address the daughter of a foolish, spendthrift baronet, who had not had principle or sense enough to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him…” (Austen 275). The acceptance of “Providence” is key to a contented life, as is demonstrated in both Persuasion and Rasselas. In the end of both pieces, the characters achieve different forms of acceptance of their allotted piece of Providence.

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