An Introduction to Samuel Johnson's Rasselas
Johnson was still very poor when, in 1759, his aged mother died after a lengthy illness. In order to pay her funeral expenses he undertook the writing of a new work, Rasselas, (originally titled The Prince of Abissinia) and, working in the evenings, (with his mother's death, of course, very much on his mind) he completed it, remarkably enough, in a week's time. Rasselas, which is at once a novel, a humorous moral fable, a gentle satire, an "Eastern tale," and a Bildungsroman in petto (though Johnson modestly characterized it as a "little story book" ) describes Prince Rasselas's escape from the pleasant but boring Happy Valley, follows his determined search for earthly happiness, and chronicles its inevitable failure, and the return of the Prince (sadder but wiser) to his home. Considered as the most complete and consistent statement of Johnsonm's pessimistic view of human life as something to be endured rather than enjoyed, it is one of the small classics of world literature, and is perhaps Johnson's finest and (how so?) most characteristic work. Rasselas encompasses a great many ironies: one of its morals, for example (in spite or perhaps because of the fact that it was written by a great essayist) is that human beings learn not from books but from experience.
The central theme is the one which had already preoccupied Johnson in "The Vanity of Human Wishes": the wise philosopher Imlac who accompanies Rasselas on his intellectual and emotional pilgrimage (which echoes other fictional pilgrimages) in search of the meaning of existence is a version of Johnson himself, and in a very real sense the work itself (with its protagonist as Everyman) embodies Johnson's own disillusionment with life, his own sense that happiness was inevitably elusive and perhaps illusory, his own tendency to rely on hope for the future, and his own paradoxical reluctance to live, emotionally, in the present. What does Imlac mean when he tells the astonomer that "No disease of the imagination is so difficult of cure as that which is complicated with the dread of guilt"? The central theme struck a deep chord in contemporary readers: like Voltaire's Candide, which it resembles in some interesting ways (can you suggest any of them?), Rasselas was a great success in England; and, variously translated, it earned Johnson not only a measure of fame on the Continent, but also a European reputation as a moralist and man of letters, and is the only one of his prose works of which this can be said.
Last modified 3 December 2006