Inspired by John Self’s “Art of the Novella Giveaway”, I decided to check out Samuel Johnson’s book. Rasselas was, apparently, widely read in 18th Century England. The book also has some similarities to Voltaire’s Candide (also published in 1759), though Johnson’s work is not satirical but in earnest.
The original working title of Rasselas was The Choice of Life. The phrase “choice of life” recurs throughout the short book, eleven times to be precise. For Rasselas, the choice of life is his preoccupation throughout the novel until the very end. His conclusion is not particularly satisfying, but the book is not without its pleasures. Johnson has a good sense of humor and there are a number of good quotes, so I enjoyed it despite what I felt was a poor conclusion.
The tale begins by describing itself in cautionary terms. “[A]ttend to the history of Rasselas” warns our narrator. Rasselas is, as the title reveals, a Prince of Abyssinia.
According to the custom which has descended from age to age among the monarchs of the torrid zone, Rasselas was confined in a private palace, with the other sons and daughters of Abyssinian royalty, till the order of succession should call him to the throne.
The place which the wisdom or policy of antiquity had destined for the residence of the Abyssinian princes was a spacious valley in the kingdon of Amhara, surrounded on every side by mountains, of which the summits overhang the middle part.
The valley is a mythical utopia reminiscent of Voltaire’s El Dorado. Like Candide in El Dorado, Rasselas is dissatisfied with his life in the valley notwithstanding the various measures the king has put in place to ensure variety of entertainment and stimulation. Unlike Candide, Rasselas is not motivated by love for someone outside, but by curiousity. Despite the king’s diversions, Rasselas wants to see the world and contrives to leave the valley. He explains to an old sage who is trying to dissuade him from leaving that he has “enjoyed too much” and, instead, wants something to desire, even if he does not know what the desire is or should be.
The old man was surprised at this new species of affliction, and knew not what to reply, yet was unwilling to be silent. “Sir,” said he, “if you had seen the miseries of the world, you would know how to value your present state.”
“Now,” said the Prince, “you have given me something to desire. I shall long to see the miseries of the world, since the sight of them is necessary to happiness.”
I thought this might follow in the path of Candide, but it did not. Rasselas begins his search for the means to escape and does end up finding a way out of the valley. Rasselas, once he finds his way out, is not bent on seeing the miseries of the world, but on finding the optimal “choice of life”.
Rasselas is accompanied on his trip by his sister, Nekayah, and an older friend/philosopher, Imlac, who helped in the escape. They secret sufficient jewels in their clothes to be wealthy outside the valley. Further, Nekayah also brings several servants along. The group travels out and has several adventures while observing and questioning others in the pursuit of the key to happiness. Rasselas wants to be sure he knows the key to happiness before he makes his choice of life.
The interesting part of their adventures are their conversations as they continue to try to find people who are happy. At one point, Nekayah notes:
“Such,” said Nekayah, “is the state of life, that none are happy but by the anticipation of change; the change itself is nothing; when we have made it the next wish is to change again.”
Ultimately, the party is disappointed in their quest and Johnson provides his moralizing conclusion. While the quest was obviously quixotic from the beginning, the end seemed particularly preachy. Still, Rasselas is quite entertaining and a very interesting book to contrast with Candide (the more successful book, in my opinion).