Cover of corrected Second Edition of 1759
|Original title||The Prince of Abissinia: A Tale|
|Genre||Apologue, Theodicy, Fable|
|Publisher||R. and J. Dodsley, W. Johnston|
The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, originally titled The Prince of Abissinia: A Tale, though often abbreviated to Rasselas, is an apologue about bliss and ignorance by Samuel Johnson. The book's original working title was "The Choice of Life". The book was first published in April 1759 in England. Early readers considered Rasselas to be a work of philosophical and practical importance and critics often remark on the difficulty of classifying it as a novel.
At the age of fifty, Johnson wrote the piece in only one week to help pay the costs of his mother's funeral, intending to complete it on 22 January 1759 (the eve of his mother's death). Johnson is believed to have received a total of £75 for the copyright. Though this is still popular belief, Wharton and Mayerson's book, "Samuel Johnson and the Theme of Hope," explains how James Boswell, the author of Johnson's biography, was "entirely wrong in supposing that Rasselas was written soon after his mother's death" (92). It wasn't a way of "defraying" the expenses of the funeral. In fact, Johnson wrote Rasselas instead of going to see his mother while she was still alive. It was written in anticipation of her funeral. Edward Tomarken writes in his book, "Johnson, Rasselas, and the Choice of Criticism", that this belief was not questioned until 1927 as "...the tradition of the gloomy, funereal tone of the choice of life motif in Rasselas remained unopposed: the question of whether or not the genesis of Rasselas involved a literal funeral was not considered important. Moreover, the assumption of a gloomy genesis served to keep religion in the background, for any theological difficulty could be attributed to the fact that the author was mourning the death of his mother" (14).
Following on the footsteps of Zadig and Persian Letters, Johnson was influenced by the vogue for exotic locations including Ethiopia. He had translated A Voyage to Abyssinia by Jerónimo Lobo in 1735 and used it as the basis for a "philosophical romance". Ten years prior to writing Rasselas he published The Vanity of Human Wishes in which he describes the inevitable defeat of worldly ambition.
This idea of a prince condemned to a happy imprisonment has resonance -- Johnson himself was probably ignorant of it -- in the legend of Buddha, though it would have reached him through the story of Barlaam and Josaphat, adopted as the subject of one of Lope de Vega's comedies: the idea of a prince who has been brought up surrounded with artificial happiness.
Although many have argued that the book Rasselas had nothing to do with Abyssinia, and that Samuel Johnson chose Abyssinia as a locale for no other reason than wanting to write an anti-orientalist fantasy, some have begun to argue that the book has a deep tie to Ethiopian thought due to Johnson's translation of A Voyage to Abyssinia and his lifelong interest in its Christianity. Other scholars have argued that Johnson was influenced, at least in part, by other texts, including works by Herodotus and Paradise Lost.
According to literary researcher Wendy L. Belcheer, Samuel Johnson's initial manuscript to the publisher titled the work, "The History of - - - - Prince of Abissinia," which suggests that Johnson was still playing around with the name of his protagonist. It is Belcheer's argument that "Johnson coined the name 'Rasselas' for its symbolic meaning, not its phonetic relation to the Catholic prince 'Ras Sela Christos.'" Since 'ras' means 'prince' and 'sela' means 'portrait', Johnson may have invented the term 'portrait of a prince' as an evocative name for his main character.
The plot is simple in the extreme, and the characters are flat. Rasselas, the fourth son of the King of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), is shut up in a beautiful valley called The Happy Valley, "till the order of succession should call him to the throne". Rasselas enlists the help of an artist who is also known as an engineer to help with his escape from the Valley by plunging themselves out through the air, though is unsuccessful in this attempt. He grows weary of the factitious entertainments of the place, and after much brooding escapes with his sister Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah and his poet-friend Imlac by digging under the wall of the valley. They are to see the world and search for happiness in places such as Cairo and Suez. After some sojourn in Egypt, where they encounter various classes of society and undergo a few mild adventures, they perceive the futility of their search and abruptly return to Abyssinia after none of their hopes for happiness are achieved.
Local color is almost nonexistent and the main story is primarily episodic. According to Borges, "Johnson wrote this book in such a slow, musical style ... in which all the sentences are perfectly balanced. There is not a single sentence that ends abruptly, and we find a monotonous, but very agile, music, and this is what Johnson wrote while he was thinking about the death of his mother, whom he loved so much."
Irvin Ehrenpreis sees an aged Johnson reflecting on lost youth in the character of Rasselas who is exiled from Happy Valley. Rasselas has also been viewed as a reflection of Johnson's melancholia projected on to the wider world, particularly at the time of his mother's death. Hester Piozzi saw in part Johnson in the character of Imlac who is rejected in his courtship by a class-conscious social superior.
Thomas Keymer sees beyond the conventional roman à clef interpretations to call it a work that reflects the wider geo-political world in the year of publication (1759): the year in which "Britain became master of the world". Rasselas is seen to express hostility to the rising imperialism of his day and to reject stereotypical "orientalist" viewpoints that justified colonialism. Johnson himself was regarded as a prophet who opposed imperialism, who described the Anglo-French war for America as a dispute between two thieves over the proceeds of a robbery.
While the story is thematically similar to Candide by Voltaire, also published early in 1759 - both concern young men travelling in the company of honoured teachers, encountering and examining human suffering in an attempt to determine the root of happiness - their root concerns are distinctly different. Voltaire was very directly satirising the widely read philosophical work by Gottfried Leibniz, particularly the Théodicée, in which Leibniz asserts that the world, no matter how we may perceive it, is necessarily the "best of all possible worlds". In contrast the question Rasselas confronts most directly is whether or not humanity is essentially capable of attaining happiness. Rasselas questions his choices in life and what new choices to make in order to achieve this happiness. Writing as a devout Christian, Johnson makes through his characters no blanket attacks on the viability of a religious response to this question, as Voltaire does, and while the story is in places light and humorous, it is not a piece of satire, as is Candide. Borges thought Candide "a much more brilliant book" than Rasselas, yet the latter was more convincing in its rejection of human happiness:
A world in which Candide -- which is a delicious work, full of jokes -- exists can't be such a terrible world. Because surely, when Voltaire wrote Candide, he didn't feel the world was so terrible. He was expounding a thesis and was having a lot of fun doing so. On the contrary, in Johnson's Rasselas, we feel Johnson's melancholy. We feel that for him life is essentially horrible.
Johnson was a staunch opponent of slavery, revered by abolitionists, and Rasselas became a name adopted by emancipated slaves.
The first American edition was published in 1768. The title page of this edition carried a quotation, inserted by the publisher Robert Bell, from La Rochefoucauld: "The labour or Exercise of the Body, freeth Man from the Pains of the Mind; and this constitutes the Happiness of the Poor".
Rasselas was a popular jumping-off point for continuations in the latter 18th century:
A radio adaptation of Rasselas by Jonathan Holloway was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on 24 May 2015, with Ashley Zhangazha as Rasselas, Jeff Rawle as Samuel Johnson, and Lucian Msamati as the poet Imlac. Cynthia Erivo made her BBC radio drama debut as Princess Nekayah.
The drama was recorded at Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, in the City of London; the same place where Johnson wrote his famous dictionary 260 years ago and also wrote Rasselas there in 1759. Sound design was by David Chilton, and the drama was introduced by Celine Luppo McDaid, Curator, Dr Johnson's House. It was produced and directed by Amber Barnfather.
Rasselas is mentioned numerous times in later notable literature: