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Rasselas (1759)

by Samuel Johnson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,469238,629 (3.36)100
Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, leaves the easy life of the Happy Valley, accompanied by his sister Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah, and the much-travelled philosopher Imlac. Their journey takes them to Egypt, where they study the various conditions of men's lives, before returning home in a 'conclusion in which nothing is concluded'. Johnson's tale is not only a satire on optimism, but also an expression of truth about the human mind and its infinite capacity for hope.… (more)
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A passing acquaintance with Samuel Johnson will reveal that the man could write splendidly. He possessed, by all accounts, an unapproachable intellect. His literary works are reminiscent of Voltaire's: witty, erudite, vast, and infinitely readable. His travel accounts and the biography by Boswell are considered paragons of their genre.

Sadly, Rasselas is his only true novel, and it is a short one. The rest of his corpulent corpus was composed of a book-length literary evaluation of Shakespeare's plays, biographies of major poets, an important (in its time) and well-crafted dictionary of the English language, and serial publications, which when compiled, are enjoyable "agony-uncle" style epistolary philosophical tracts. Take almost any sampling of his work, and you are almost guaranteed to be delighted - if you delight in profound insight into the nature of the human soul and its relation to the world. His sentences are complex, daunting, but continually stimulating. Rasselas, more so than The Rambler, is probably the best introduction to his work. It is not exactly a masterpiece, but is is far more interesting, in my opinion, than his plays and poems (the only other things he wrote which can be digested without much effort).

Written for quick money in the space of a week, this charming novella, in the style of Candide or A Voyage to the Moon by Cyrano de Bergerac (if that means anything to you), is nonetheless a brilliant morale tale, both timeless and grounded in the atmosphere of Johnson's mind (an intellectual Christian moralist, who sympathized with common folk), even if it takes place in Abyssinia, and various points along the map traversed by its sentimental characters. I found it to be a picaresque read, and enjoyed the analysis of the relative merits of different approaches to life - themes later explored at exhaustive length in The Rambler.

You have the prince, who wishes to experience the world, and who must do so at the expense of the luxury he is entitled to. Of course, he travels in style, sampling temples and lively districts, and encountering unexpected wonders, similarly to Gulliver during his sojourn. It is not a scathing critique and contains very little of a risque nature, as in Voltaire, but that makes it all the more approachable in my mind, and enjoyable to casual readers.

Samuel Johnson is a writer to enjoy over a lifetime, one to study. One of the giants of literary history, comparing him to Voltaire and Goethe is only a slight exaggeration of his powers. His strengths lie in the didactic discussion, which will become readily apparent if you embark on his great later works, which I have been doggy-paddling through slowly for some years, since the Rambler, not to mention the Idler, and his seemingly endless, encyclopedic miscellanies is a daunting task indeed. ( )
1 vote LSPopovich | Apr 8, 2020 |
A short, 95 page book that pondered the meaning of life. This was published in 1761 and it is dated with a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo. Of course, the ending concluded one was unable to ponder the meaning of life. Had this been much longer than 95 pages, I would not have finished it ( )
  Tess_W | Jul 1, 2019 |
A book that made not a big impression on me. Not good, not bad, not very interesting. A pleasant book to listen to, but not much more. ( )
  BoekenTrol71 | Feb 22, 2019 |
I found many interesting ideas in this classic but overall felt it was an uneasy mixture of philosophy and satire. Rasselas is bored in the Happy Valley in which all the offspring of Abyssinian royalty were confined (along with their servants & others required for their comfort and amusement) because, as he says himself, " 'That I want nothing,' said the Prince, 'or that I know not what I want, is the cause of my complaint: if I had any known want, I should have a certain wish; that wish would excite endeavour, and I should not then repine to see the sun move so slowly towards the western mountains, or to lament when the day breaks, and sleep will no longer hide me from myself.' " One of his advisors chides him saying that he didn't know what miseries the outer world contained & the Prince decides that "I shall long to see the miseries of the world, since the sight of them is necessary to happiness."

For a while, he is happy while contemplating how he will escape the valley as that gives him an interest in life & he eventually meets a poet, Imlac, who had lived outside the boundaries of the valley & in fact had travelled widely before settling there. In telling Rasselas his story, they discuss what makes for happiness. Imlac declares that "Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed." but the Prince is unwilling to accept this verdict. He invites Imlac to help him escape the valley & become his companion and guide. At the last minute, they are joined by Rasselas's favorite sister Princess Nekayah & her favorite attendant Pekuah.

With Imlac's assistance, Rasselas & Nekayah gradually adjust to life outside the Happy Valley and begin to investigate what kind of life is best. They meet many different types of people -- city society (in Cairo), a wise guru, a hermit, an astronomer, an Arab bandit, etc. They debate the nature of marriage & whether married life is required for true happiness. Somewhat surprisingly to me, Nekayah is the one who thinks marriage does not contribute to happiness but rather causes unhappiness, which she backs up with examples of married couples she has come to know.

During all this, Rasselas is trying to find the correct "choice of life" for himself. Johnson keeps returning to the question of whether solitude or society is better. As the hermit remarks: "In solitude, if I escape the example of bad men, I want likewise the counsel and conversation of the good." ( )
  leslie.98 | Dec 15, 2017 |
I find it hard to believe that a book this good could be written in a week, but the evidence is before me and I have read it. A strange mix of fairy tale, light philosophy and speculum regis. Smooth, unobtrusive writing. He has a way of turning a thought into a phrase that really speaks to you. Don't come to this looking for plot and characterisation.

I read the OUP edition. The notes are geared towards the international market with many definitions of words. If English is your first language you won't need them. ( )
  Lukerik | Aug 2, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (253 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Samuel Johnsonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Collins, A.J. F,Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Keymer, ThomasEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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 promise 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.
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The miseries of life would be increased beyond all human power of endurance, if we were to enter the world with the same opinions as we carry from it.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Choice of Life was the working title of the book first published as Prince of Abyssinia, a Tale, and later in variations of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssina.
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Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, leaves the easy life of the Happy Valley, accompanied by his sister Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah, and the much-travelled philosopher Imlac. Their journey takes them to Egypt, where they study the various conditions of men's lives, before returning home in a 'conclusion in which nothing is concluded'. Johnson's tale is not only a satire on optimism, but also an expression of truth about the human mind and its infinite capacity for hope.

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