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The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

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Rasselas--regarded as Johnson's most creative work--presents the story of the journey of Rasselas and his companions in search of "the choice of life." Its charm lies not in its plot, but rather in its wise and humane look at man's constant search for happiness. The text is based on the second edition as Samuel Johnson revised it.


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Rasselas--regarded as Johnson's most creative work--presents the story of the journey of Rasselas and his companions in search of "the choice of life." Its charm lies not in its plot, but rather in its wise and humane look at man's constant search for happiness. The text is based on the second edition as Samuel Johnson revised it.

30 review for The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bill Kerwin

    Written in one week to defray the cost of his mother's funeral, Johnson's moral tale is a superior example of the prose of its era, and its era—the Age of Enlightenment—is renowned for the quality of its prose. It is true that Candide—written in 1759, the same year as Rasselas--excels Johnson's work in both wit and humor, but then Voltaire's task was much easier. He merely wished to demolish another man's philosophy, whereas Johnson wished to persuade his readers how to be happy. Being happy wasn Written in one week to defray the cost of his mother's funeral, Johnson's moral tale is a superior example of the prose of its era, and its era—the Age of Enlightenment—is renowned for the quality of its prose. It is true that Candide—written in 1759, the same year as Rasselas--excels Johnson's work in both wit and humor, but then Voltaire's task was much easier. He merely wished to demolish another man's philosophy, whereas Johnson wished to persuade his readers how to be happy. Being happy wasn't easy for Johnson. He suffered from poor eyesight, facial scarring from scrofula, intense irritability, OCD, Tourette's, and thoughts of suicide. He also was afflicted with severe depression in his youth, so profoundly that—as he once told a friend--“he was sometimes so languid and inefficient that he could not distinguish the hour upon the town-clock.” How did he withstand such obstacles? By keeping his fancies and wishes private, applying himself assiduously to the task at hand, and enjoying whatever happiness arose from his labors. It should be no surprise that Johnson's personal method is similar to the moral of his tale. When Rasselas of Abyssinia becomes discontented with “The Happy Valley,” where his every whim is catered to, he departs, with his sister, her companion, and his tutor to explore the condition of the world. The four of them have many adventures, experiencing much pleasure and pain, but nothing offers them real satisfaction (except for the enduring promise of heaven). After discoursing on various philosophical topics, they conclude that the greatest wisdom would be to return from where they came, embracing their destiny in “The Happy Valley'. As a sample of Johnson's measured, deliberate prose, I offer the following excerpt from a discourse on the relative merits of the monastic and secular life: Those men, answered Imlac, are less wretched in their silent convent than the Abissinian princes in their prison of pleasure. Whatever is done by the monks is incited by an adequate and reasonable motive. Their labour supplies them with necessaries; it therefore cannot be omitted, and is certainly rewarded. Their devotion prepares them for another state, and reminds them of its approach, while it fits them for it. Their time is regularly distributed; one duty succeeds another, so that they are not left open to the distraction of unguided choice, nor lost in the shades of listless inactivity, There is a certain task to be performed at an appropriated hour; and their toils are cheerful, because they consider them as acts of piety, by which they are always advancing towards endless felicity.” “Do you think, said Nekayah, that the monastick rule is a more holy and less imperfect state than any other? May not he equally hope for future happiness who converses openly with mankind, who succours the distressed by his charity, instructs the ignorant by his learning, and contributes by his industry to the general system of life; even though he should omit some of the mortifications which are practised in the cloister, and allow himself such harmless delights as his condition may place within his reach?” “This, said Imlac, is a question which has long divided the wise, and perplexed the good. I am afraid to decide on either part. He that lives well in the world is better than he that lives well in a monastery. But, perhaps, every one is not able to stem the temptations of publick life; and, if he cannot conquer, he may properly retreat. Some have little power to do good, and have likewise little strength to resist evil. Many weary of their conflicts with adversity, and are willing to eject those passions which have long busied them in vain. And many are dismissed by age and diseases from the more laborious duties of society. In monasteries the weak and timorous may be happily sheltered, the weary may repose, and the penitent may meditate. Those retreats of prayer and contemplation have something so congenial to the mind of man that, perhaps, there is scarcely one that does not purpose to close his life in pious abstraction with a few associates serious as himself.”

  2. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    Dr Johnson’s foray into fiction is an oddity. The themes are similar to Candide and they were written at pretty much the same time. For different reasons. Johnson famously said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”. His only novel was no exception. In January 1759 his mother became ill and Johnson needed money to support her and pay her medical bills. He wrote Rasselas in a week, in the evenings. He received one hundred pounds for it and it ended up paying for his mother’s funeral Dr Johnson’s foray into fiction is an oddity. The themes are similar to Candide and they were written at pretty much the same time. For different reasons. Johnson famously said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”. His only novel was no exception. In January 1759 his mother became ill and Johnson needed money to support her and pay her medical bills. He wrote Rasselas in a week, in the evenings. He received one hundred pounds for it and it ended up paying for his mother’s funeral as well. Like Candide it was meant to be a critique of the philosophy in vogue at the time; the general optimism that everything works out well. It is set in North Africa; Abyssinia and Egypt. Rasselas is a prince of Abyssinia; his father the emperor has an infallible means of stopping rivalry for the throne by making sure all who challenge him live together in an enclosed valley. They live in absolute luxury and want for nothing. The catch is they cannot leave. Rasselas becomes inquisitive about the outside world and speaks to those who have lived out there. He spends time with a man of science (all needs are catered for) who speculates that they might be able to build something that will enable they to fly out. This enables Johnson to be prophetic about humanity conquering flight saying that it would be a disaster because of the implications of being able to move armies and arms around too quickly (got that one right Dr J!) The flight idea is a flop and eventually it is a philosopher called Imlac who works out a way of escape (geeks win again!). Rasselas and Imlac are accompanied by his sister Nekayah and her attendant Pekuah. They wander around Egypt and explore the monastic life, life devoted to learning, wisdom and science, the pastoral life, poverty, power and rulers. There is a good deal of rather irritating philosophising and debate and some repetition (even for a short novel). Inevitably they find all ways of life have their drawbacks and everyone wishes they had picked a different track and everyone wishes they could be young again. They go round in circles for a bit and get absolutely nowhere and head back to their valley. However there is a little off the wall conclusion as part of the last chapter. Each of them decide on an ideal course if they were able to do what they wanted. Imlac, the philosopher wanted to drift around the world examining all these different ways of life. Rasselas wanted a small kingdom where he could have enough control to ensure everything was justly run and his subjects happy. Pekuah wanted to join a convent and be a nun. Rasselas’s sister Nekayah wanted to found “a college of learned women” where women could learn sciences and the wisdom of the world (didn’t see that one coming I must admit). All in all a mixed bag; Johnson isn’t exactly fluent and you can tell it was written in a rush. However it was redeemed by some interesting ideas and speculations and Dr Johnson suggesting a university for women would be a good idea in 1759.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Wayne

    If you think this is too ,too old hat for you then perhaps the fact that Jane Austen was a BIG fan may break down your prejudices. And pride? She loved and inherited Johnson's neoclassical balance of style exemplified in such of his sentences as:"Remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience" and "Marriage has many pains but celibacy has no pleasures." See where Jane tapped into that conciseness, wit and wisdom now ? And both of these sentences are to be found in the enchanting philosophic If you think this is too ,too old hat for you then perhaps the fact that Jane Austen was a BIG fan may break down your prejudices. And pride? She loved and inherited Johnson's neoclassical balance of style exemplified in such of his sentences as:"Remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience" and "Marriage has many pains but celibacy has no pleasures." See where Jane tapped into that conciseness, wit and wisdom now ? And both of these sentences are to be found in the enchanting philosophical fable of Rasselas, the Prince, who with his friends escapes from the perfection of his life in the Happy Valley to discover the miseries of the outside world so that he may truly understand and appreciate happiness and in what it really consists. If you think your endurance low, never fear. Like a fable it is all bite-sized, consisting of little more than one hundred pages divided into forty-nine chapters. And when it is all charming, clever, wise and witty and written in a style and vocabulary both direct, simple yet original and a little antiquated you can get some of the flavour of another time and another place. Like me, you may find yourself keen to return to this world of honest, gentle wisdom which pulls no punches,but soothes one's soul.(Crumbs, I'm beginning to sound like Johnson.)And you may become curious about its author and venture into the many available biographies especially the famous one by his friend James Boswell. And read your Jane Austen with a new appreciation. Aren't books wonderful??!!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bettie

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05vsyz1 Description: An intriguing, contemporary take on Samuel Johnson's classic tale of an African prince in search of happiness. A star cast is led by Ashley Zhangazha as Rasselas, Jeff Rawle as Samuel Johnson and Lucian Msamati - the RSC's first black Iago - as the poet Imlac. Singer and actor Cynthia Erivo makes her BBC radio drama debut as Princess Nekayah. Recorded on location at Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, in the City of London - the very place wher http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05vsyz1 Description: An intriguing, contemporary take on Samuel Johnson's classic tale of an African prince in search of happiness. A star cast is led by Ashley Zhangazha as Rasselas, Jeff Rawle as Samuel Johnson and Lucian Msamati - the RSC's first black Iago - as the poet Imlac. Singer and actor Cynthia Erivo makes her BBC radio drama debut as Princess Nekayah. Recorded on location at Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, in the City of London - the very place where over 260 years ago, Johnson compiled his famous dictionary and then in January 1759, wrote his instant bestseller 'Rasselas' in a week, to pay for his mother's funeral. Acclaimed 18th century philosophy fuels a contemporary desert road trip in this inventive and playful adaptation by Jonathan Holloway. Period and modern collide in a satirical fantasy as Rasselas and his companions follow their quest for happiness and purpose to Cairo, where they encounter Arab Spring revolutionaries. Jonathan Holloway's drama also incorporates a compelling glimpse of Johnson himself - the lonely, 50-year-old celebrity and writer, in debt, in poor health, and missing his young Jamaican manservant, Francis Barber, who had run away to sea. Born a slave, Barber was freed at Johnson's insistence and treated kindly by him. Johnson had struggled through many years of poverty before moving to Gough Square and becoming a highly respected writer. 'Rasselas', his singular, progressive rumination on human happiness, is his only novel and his most popular work. Samuel Johnson Jeff Rawle Arthur Murphy Kevin Trainor Princess Nekayah Cynthia Erivo Prince Rasselas Ashley Zhangazha

  5. 5 out of 5

    Madeline

    A bored rich prince gets tired of his boring rich life, and decides to escape the so-called Happy Valley where he lives/is imprisoned to learn about real life and what it means to be happy. Along for the ride are a poet who's lived outside the Happy Valley before, the prince's sister, and her maid. The group travels around for a while and meets a lot of different people, none of whom are really happy. This is all an excuse for Johnson to ramble philosophically and repeat the same points over and A bored rich prince gets tired of his boring rich life, and decides to escape the so-called Happy Valley where he lives/is imprisoned to learn about real life and what it means to be happy. Along for the ride are a poet who's lived outside the Happy Valley before, the prince's sister, and her maid. The group travels around for a while and meets a lot of different people, none of whom are really happy. This is all an excuse for Johnson to ramble philosophically and repeat the same points over and over again. All in all, kind of forgettable and not very exciting. But the reading experience improves a lot if you imagine that Prince Rasselas looks like this. Read for: Colonial Imagination

  6. 4 out of 5

    Frankie

    I'm giving this five stars, because it's right up my alley style-wise (the Eastern pilgrimage tale), and I can't stop thinking about some clever points made even early on. It's sort of Gibran's The Prophet meets Candide, but with a more plausible outcome than either. I cannot find anything to complain about it in this novel. A few of my favorites: At the tail of Chapter 13, Imlac warns Rasselas about belief in omens, "Do not disturb your mind with other hopes and fears than reason may suggest. If I'm giving this five stars, because it's right up my alley style-wise (the Eastern pilgrimage tale), and I can't stop thinking about some clever points made even early on. It's sort of Gibran's The Prophet meets Candide, but with a more plausible outcome than either. I cannot find anything to complain about it in this novel. A few of my favorites: At the tail of Chapter 13, Imlac warns Rasselas about belief in omens, "Do not disturb your mind with other hopes and fears than reason may suggest. If you are pleased with prognostics of good, you will be terrified likewise with tokens of evil, and your whole life will be a prey to superstition." In Chapter 18, Imlac says "Be not too hasty to trust or to admire the teachers of morality. They discourse like angels, but they live like men." In chapter 44, Imlac tells of an astronomer of great renown and genius, who confesses to him that he believes himself to be in control of the weather, and worries that he might destroy the world if he doesn't pay close attention. The characters discuss at length the prevalence of bouts of madness among superior intellects, and the problem is resolved through their intervention (the astronomer becomes part of their retinue, and eventually confesses the delusion). I was amazed that such a complex and psychological character could emerge from an 18th century satire. "All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity … It is not pronounced madness but when it becomes ungovernable…" I wonder how much eccentricity could be forgiven under this formula? Probably the best quote is from the tail of chapter 11, and sums up most of the concept I believe Johnson wished to convey. "Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed." This may seem dark to some, but I think it's a pretty balanced and wise statement about expectation.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    Free download available at Project Gutenberg. From BBC Radio 4 - Drama: An intriguing, contemporary take on Samuel Johnson's classic tale of an African prince in search of happiness. A star cast is led by Ashley Zhangazha as Rasselas, Jeff Rawle as Samuel Johnson and Lucian Msamati - the RSC's first black Iago - as the poet Imlac. Singer and actor Cynthia Erivo makes her BBC radio drama debut as Princess Nekayah. Recorded on location at Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, in the City of London - th Free download available at Project Gutenberg. From BBC Radio 4 - Drama: An intriguing, contemporary take on Samuel Johnson's classic tale of an African prince in search of happiness. A star cast is led by Ashley Zhangazha as Rasselas, Jeff Rawle as Samuel Johnson and Lucian Msamati - the RSC's first black Iago - as the poet Imlac. Singer and actor Cynthia Erivo makes her BBC radio drama debut as Princess Nekayah. Recorded on location at Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, in the City of London - the very place where over 260 years ago, Johnson compiled his famous dictionary and then in January 1759, wrote his instant bestseller 'Rasselas' in a week, to pay for his mother's funeral. Acclaimed 18th century philosophy fuels a contemporary desert road trip in this inventive and playful adaptation by Jonathan Holloway. Period and modern collide in a satirical fantasy as Rasselas and his companions follow their quest for happiness and purpose to Cairo, where they encounter Arab Spring revolutionaries. Jonathan Holloway's drama also incorporates a compelling glimpse of Johnson himself - the lonely, 50-year-old celebrity and writer, in debt, in poor health, and missing his young Jamaican manservant, Francis Barber, who had run away to sea. Born a slave, Barber was freed at Johnson's insistence and treated kindly by him. Johnson had struggled through many years of poverty before moving to Gough Square and becoming a highly respected writer. 'Rasselas', his singular, progressive rumination on human happiness, is his only novel and his most popular work. Sound design: David Chilton Produced and directed by Amber Barnfather.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Cphe

    This was recommended by a reading friend on one of the Amazon forums that I frequent. Agree with other reviewers of the novella that it is a little "gem" of a book. This review is for the kindle version. Rasselas is a Prince who has all his needs and wants catered for but he is dissatisfied with his life. He sets out on a journey with his sister and his mentor Imlac to discover the "choice of life", the meaning of happiness. Was pleasantly surprised with this, how readable and found myself stoppi This was recommended by a reading friend on one of the Amazon forums that I frequent. Agree with other reviewers of the novella that it is a little "gem" of a book. This review is for the kindle version. Rasselas is a Prince who has all his needs and wants catered for but he is dissatisfied with his life. He sets out on a journey with his sister and his mentor Imlac to discover the "choice of life", the meaning of happiness. Was pleasantly surprised with this, how readable and found myself stopping frequently to savour ideas and "truths"

  9. 5 out of 5

    Randolph

    Nobody reads Johnson anymore except english majors. Which is a shame since while Johnson is disdained for his lack of political correctness in his conservative particulars, his wisdom in generalization is unassailable. Much can be gleaned from his philosophy and general opinions about life and our condition on this mortal coil. Hence, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia a moral tale if there ever was one. One of the things one has to keep in mind when reading Rasselas is that Johnson is Nobody reads Johnson anymore except english majors. Which is a shame since while Johnson is disdained for his lack of political correctness in his conservative particulars, his wisdom in generalization is unassailable. Much can be gleaned from his philosophy and general opinions about life and our condition on this mortal coil. Hence, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia a moral tale if there ever was one. One of the things one has to keep in mind when reading Rasselas is that Johnson is an adherent to the 18th century pre-Romantic notion that writing should be elevating, morality-wise. Therefore, this is a tale of moral opposites in order to not only entertain but teach us something, make us better persons, along the way. Forget this and you are in for a dull and confusing journey. Prince Rasselas lives in the "Happy Valley," a veritable Garden of Eden, but he is bored by the prospect of unmitigated happiness and yearns to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak. The prince wants to see life. He feels that happiness is not valued unless the opposite can be obtained and studied. The entire narrative revolves around Rasselas escaping from the Valley along with his sister, the princess, her entourage, and a wise man named Imlac. Along the way various adventures and lessons are learned. It is a no-brainer to see that after years of a taste of life on the outside of their gilded cage they all return to the valley. Many conceive Rasselas as a children's moral tale but children today would neither understand the language nor have the emotional maturity to understand the philosophy and lessons involved (at one point Johnson takes on the philosopher David Hume). The story does have a 1,001 Nights feel to it. At other times it is like Poor Richard's First Almanac. If you are into 18th english literature or history, or Johnson in general, you owe it to yourself to read Wrastle-Ass.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Leslie

    3.5* 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 wis 3.5* 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 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."

  11. 4 out of 5

    Gary

    I was on the road this weekend and picked up a copy of the WSJ weekend edition. It had an article about Samuel Johnson's Rasselas. My second semester in graduate school, I took a Johnson seminar from O. M. "Skip" Brack, who eventually directed my PhD thesis. He believed that the world would be a better place if everyone read Rasselas at least once a year. I haven't followed that regime, but I'm inclined to agree. Johnson is largely forgotten now by most readers (even though he is the most import I was on the road this weekend and picked up a copy of the WSJ weekend edition. It had an article about Samuel Johnson's Rasselas. My second semester in graduate school, I took a Johnson seminar from O. M. "Skip" Brack, who eventually directed my PhD thesis. He believed that the world would be a better place if everyone read Rasselas at least once a year. I haven't followed that regime, but I'm inclined to agree. Johnson is largely forgotten now by most readers (even though he is the most important figure in the second half of the 18th century), but this would make an interesting book club selection.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sunny

    WHEN I FIRST HEARD ABOUT THIS BOOK, I THOUGHT: In Jane Eyre, little Helen Burns reads this "didactic romance." (Quotes from my Barnes & Noble classics edition describing this book to me in the end notes.) (1) If little Helen Burns can read it, why shouldn't I? (2) What the HECK is meant by didactic romance? Will the Prince learn something from some horrible affair of the heart? (3) It's one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, so, it's 'on like Donkey Kong'. THEN I READ A FEW REVIEWS WHEN I FIRST HEARD ABOUT THIS BOOK, I THOUGHT: In Jane Eyre, little Helen Burns reads this "didactic romance." (Quotes from my Barnes & Noble classics edition describing this book to me in the end notes.) (1) If little Helen Burns can read it, why shouldn't I? (2) What the HECK is meant by didactic romance? Will the Prince learn something from some horrible affair of the heart? (3) It's one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, so, it's 'on like Donkey Kong'. THEN I READ A FEW REVIEWS, AND I THOUGHT: Wait! It's been compared to Voltaire's Candide? I just read that, and it was not my cup of tea. It wasn't even my cup of anything liquid. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... Oh, dear... AND NOW THAT I'VE READ IT: 18th century literature seems to mostly be philosophy wrapped up in a fictional story that illustrates an author's point of view. This one was more interesting to me than others that I've read, and there were a number of great quotes, but I can't say that I loved the book. My favorite quote: "Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."

  13. 4 out of 5

    Laura Jean

    This was a nice quick little read. It is a story about a younger son of the King of Abyssinia (Modern Ethiopia: the only African nation NOT to be colonized, by the way), who is raised in a utopian valley where his every need, pleasure and whim is met uncompromisingly. So of course he is unhappy. He finds a way out of the valley with one of his sisters, her waiting maid, and a sage friend, Imlac who has seen the world before entering the valley. The spend the rest of the book trying to figure out This was a nice quick little read. It is a story about a younger son of the King of Abyssinia (Modern Ethiopia: the only African nation NOT to be colonized, by the way), who is raised in a utopian valley where his every need, pleasure and whim is met uncompromisingly. So of course he is unhappy. He finds a way out of the valley with one of his sisters, her waiting maid, and a sage friend, Imlac who has seen the world before entering the valley. The spend the rest of the book trying to figure out humanity and life and happiness. And it is interesting the conclusions that they draw and the way they come about those conclusions. Quite an enjoyable book although I did find the ending a bit abrupt. Otherwise, I highly recommend it. After a very slight bit of research, it seems that poor Samuel Johnson wrote this in a week to help pay for his mother's funeral...which might explain the abrupt ending. The choice of exotic locations was actually quite popular at the time, which might explain his choice of Abyssinia.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Addy S.

    A fun classic, though it was confusing at times.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kelsey Bryant

    I think of this short book as a novelization of Ecclesiastes. It's about a search for "the choice of life." What is the meaning of life? What should we be doing to get the most genuine satisfaction out of life? It's funny how this question persists, unchanging, from B.C. to 1759 to 2017. Samuel Johnson was a philosopher and prolific writer, but this was his only novel (novella, more like it). Thus it's heavy on intellectual and philosophical conversation, though it also moves fairly quickly with I think of this short book as a novelization of Ecclesiastes. It's about a search for "the choice of life." What is the meaning of life? What should we be doing to get the most genuine satisfaction out of life? It's funny how this question persists, unchanging, from B.C. to 1759 to 2017. Samuel Johnson was a philosopher and prolific writer, but this was his only novel (novella, more like it). Thus it's heavy on intellectual and philosophical conversation, though it also moves fairly quickly with action and a variety of characters. Prince Rasselas, his worldly-wise tutor Imlac, his sister Princess Nekayah, and her maid Pekuah are the main cast. My favorite was Nekayah, who is an intellectual and spirited young lady. We can all identify with the search for the meaning of life. I liked how this was depicted in a journey that Rasselas and Nekayah took with their companions, venturing from the "perfect" happy valley where there are no problems except boredom and ease. Rasselas senses there is more to living than idle enjoyment, and he can only find it out by escaping from the valley where he lives with the rest of his father's sheltered children and their attendants. The journey is thought-provoking for all who read it. The conclusion might be a bit disappointing, however, as no strong conclusions are made about "the choice of life." But I like what the introduction in this edition (Oxford World's Classics) has to say: the question is really too big to be completely resolved in this book or in life itself. What then should we do with our lives? I think Nekayah has the answer: "To me, the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity." I strongly agree.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Laurens van der Tang

    "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." (from Boswell's Life of Johnson) Indeed, and sometimes, wonderful things emerge. True, Rasselas is no great novel. But it is a great ethical tract, which adresses questions which are still prevalent in the present day. Rasselas' simultaneous discontent and affluence looks very much like the situation of bored teenagers nowadays. Although no overarching solution is found by the main character, many valuable insights are encountered on the road. "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." (from Boswell's Life of Johnson) Indeed, and sometimes, wonderful things emerge. True, Rasselas is no great novel. But it is a great ethical tract, which adresses questions which are still prevalent in the present day. Rasselas' simultaneous discontent and affluence looks very much like the situation of bored teenagers nowadays. Although no overarching solution is found by the main character, many valuable insights are encountered on the road. It appears wealth is not the way to happiness, because Rasselas flees his rich homeland because of boredom. The meetings and conversations with the hermit and the astronomer prove, respectively, that solitude is not conducive either to virtue or wisdom. At the end of the book, Nekayah, Rasselas' sister and travel companion says: "To me, the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity.", reiterating the theme from Johnson's poem The Vanity of Human Wishes. This is certainly not the only subject: the requirements of a good poet, marriage, history, and the mind-matter debate are also discussed at some length. The edition I read (Oxford, 1958) included notes with many references to Boswell's life of Johnson, which made the influence of Johnson's own opinions quite clear. Johnson does not use his characters as mere puppets, however: dialogues are never completely ended in unison. The uncertainty which is always present in moral matters is thus nicely preserved, and this is why Rasselas is a successful work of moral philosophy in the spirit of Johnson himself.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jon

    Johnson apparently wrote this in the evenings of a week, hoping quickly to earn some money before his mother died so that he could pay for and attend her funeral. She died before he finished, and he brought the work to a rather abrupt end with a chapter titled "The Conclusion in which Nothing is Concluded." On the other hand, it was clear that Rasselas and his friends already had sensed what the answers to their questions might be, so the conclusion was appropriate. It is an astonishing feat of Johnson apparently wrote this in the evenings of a week, hoping quickly to earn some money before his mother died so that he could pay for and attend her funeral. She died before he finished, and he brought the work to a rather abrupt end with a chapter titled "The Conclusion in which Nothing is Concluded." On the other hand, it was clear that Rasselas and his friends already had sensed what the answers to their questions might be, so the conclusion was appropriate. It is an astonishing feat of rapid writing with a quill pen. I don't think I could copy it in the evenings of a week typing on my keyboard. In any case, it remained extremely popular right up to the mid 20th century, and it closely resembles, at least in thought, "The Vanity of Human Wishes" that Johnson had written a decade earlier. Here he depicts "Happy Valley" in Abissinia, where the royal household and various servants, teachers, and friends are confined to live perfect lives, in which every luxury or pastime anyone could possibly wish for is provided and from which every source of anxiety is removed. Yet Rasselas is restless, yearning for something more, he doesn't quite know what. He contrives to break out of this lovely prison and travel the world, seeking the source of real happiness. Happy Valley embodies the complete satisfaction of all vain human wishes, and what Rasselas discovers is that real happiness results from patience, a healthy mind, a will that is under control, faith, hope, and love. With these celestial wisdom calms the mind And makes the happiness she does not find.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    The closest thing SJ ever wrote to a novel, RASSELAS often gets compared to Voltaire's CANDIDE. But where Voltaire's novel attacks one philosophical tradition, Johnson's tries to participate in several. This is one of things I'm coming to like about Johnson - despite his reputation as a critic with highly subjective yet authoritative tastes (see, for instance, his disdain for Milton yet curious love for Pope's ILIAD), he constantly tried to build meaning out of the available intellectual traditi The closest thing SJ ever wrote to a novel, RASSELAS often gets compared to Voltaire's CANDIDE. But where Voltaire's novel attacks one philosophical tradition, Johnson's tries to participate in several. This is one of things I'm coming to like about Johnson - despite his reputation as a critic with highly subjective yet authoritative tastes (see, for instance, his disdain for Milton yet curious love for Pope's ILIAD), he constantly tried to build meaning out of the available intellectual traditions rather than prove there really was none. I'm reading this along with Adam Potkay's excellent (and very readable) THE PASSION FOR HAPPINESS, which points out the significance that eighteenth century writers, thinkers, and philosophers tried to analyze those titular two abstractions. Rasselas, the Prince of Abissinia, leaves the "Happy Valley" to try to find true happiness. Johnson reminds us that just calling something "Happy" does not make it so, and what results is the kind of intellectual pilgrims progress/vision quest that no one seems to write anymore. Rasselas, spurred by his Johnsonian teacher Imlac, decides that reason should rule the passions and imagination. But despite that being the obvious point of the polemical/allegorical aspects of RASSELAS, there's a noticeable hesitance to accepting that commonplace. The fancies often give life meaning, even when they result in the futile Babel-esque project of the pyramids or the false speculations of astronomy. This is a pretty simple, short read, and should be offered in any survey of 18th Century literature.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

    I'd seen several reviews and/or comments placing Rasselas in the same vein as Candide, and while I agree that they're both tales about young men going out into the world to discover themselves I can't take the comparison any further. Overall I found Rasselas a slow and rather disappointing read. The young prince of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) becomes bored with the coddled life inside the royal compound and resolves to go out and discover the world. It sounds like it's going to be an adventure, but it I'd seen several reviews and/or comments placing Rasselas in the same vein as Candide, and while I agree that they're both tales about young men going out into the world to discover themselves I can't take the comparison any further. Overall I found Rasselas a slow and rather disappointing read. The young prince of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) becomes bored with the coddled life inside the royal compound and resolves to go out and discover the world. It sounds like it's going to be an adventure, but it really turns out to be a lot more about the prince talking and thinking about things rather than DOING much of anything. About a third of the way through he does manage to leave the compound, and there's a bit of a mishap that arises in the latter chapters, but not anything very interesting in the long run. It does contain quite a few rather well-known and poignant quotations, my favorite of which is: "Be not too hasty...to trust or to admire, the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men." A good reminder for us all, but not quite enough plot for me to rate the book as a whole much higher. Book 38 of The List

  20. 5 out of 5

    Quentin Crisp

    I am dashing this one off, and must apologise for brevity, etc. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this, considering I have long felt myself at odds with the pragmatism and general English down-to-earth-ness of Johnson's traditional image, and of the few quotes of his that I had been familiar with, such as the execrable: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Even now, that seems a pretty hateful thing to say, typical of British philistinism. But, Johnson clearly is not a philis I am dashing this one off, and must apologise for brevity, etc. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this, considering I have long felt myself at odds with the pragmatism and general English down-to-earth-ness of Johnson's traditional image, and of the few quotes of his that I had been familiar with, such as the execrable: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Even now, that seems a pretty hateful thing to say, typical of British philistinism. But, Johnson clearly is not a philistine. He did write this for money (apparently in the space of a week), and he writes with superlative grace, so that the entire story seems composed of nothing but quotable lines. If only writers today had as much command of the language (let alone of story structure, and the cultural depth on which the text is founded), that they could toss something like this off in a week because they needed the money to visit their dying mother. But most contemporary writers can barely form a sentence.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Wicked Incognito Now

    This is one of those books that should be assigned in high school. It was written in 1759, but it's not inaccessible to the average reader. Samuel Johnson addresses humanity, and the nature of happiness by sending the Prince of Abissinia (modern day Ethiopia) on travels to meet many different types of people. Rasselas (the prince) is determined to find the thing that will make him happy and he takes his sister, her maid, and a poet with him. They encounter many different types of people: philos This is one of those books that should be assigned in high school. It was written in 1759, but it's not inaccessible to the average reader. Samuel Johnson addresses humanity, and the nature of happiness by sending the Prince of Abissinia (modern day Ethiopia) on travels to meet many different types of people. Rasselas (the prince) is determined to find the thing that will make him happy and he takes his sister, her maid, and a poet with him. They encounter many different types of people: philosophers, hermits, teachers, those that live lives of pastoral simplicity, wealthy people, people with much power, people that only strive for physical pleasure, middle class families....all of these people don't seem to have found the exact right route to happiness. Johnson's way of writing is highly moralistic without being sanctimonious. His writing is satirical and relatable without being sanctimonious. His wording is even beautiful without being too flowery. This novel is a pleasure to read.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Manuel Alfonseca

    Excellent summary of Samuel Johnson views about life, happiness and morals. Although I don't agree with everything he says, there are a few pearls that I decided to treasure, such as these two: Ignorance, when it is voluntary, is criminal; and he may properly be charged with evil who refused to learn how he might prevent it. My comment: A good lesson for our politicians. Do not reproach yourself for your virtue, or consider that as blameable by which evil has accidentally been caused. In other wor Excellent summary of Samuel Johnson views about life, happiness and morals. Although I don't agree with everything he says, there are a few pearls that I decided to treasure, such as these two: Ignorance, when it is voluntary, is criminal; and he may properly be charged with evil who refused to learn how he might prevent it. My comment: A good lesson for our politicians. Do not reproach yourself for your virtue, or consider that as blameable by which evil has accidentally been caused. In other words: If you act according to your conscience and as a result some evil is produced, don't blame yourself. You must only blame yourself for those evils that came from your acting against your conscience. My comment: A good rule for everyday life, but beware! You must take care that your conscience is rightly formed, otherwise Nazi criminals could be supposed to have acted according to their conscience and therefore be justified.

  23. 5 out of 5

    James

    18th century fantasy is a delightful imaginary journey in search of the good life. This novel is thematically similar to Candide by Voltaire, also published early in 1759 – both concern young men travelling in the company of honored teachers, encountering and examining human suffering in an attempt to determine the root of happiness. However unlike the satirical approach of Voltaire, in Rasselas Samuel Johnson confronts the question whether or not humanity is essentially capable of attaining hap 18th century fantasy is a delightful imaginary journey in search of the good life. This novel is thematically similar to Candide by Voltaire, also published early in 1759 – both concern young men travelling in the company of honored teachers, encountering and examining human suffering in an attempt to determine the root of happiness. However unlike the satirical approach of Voltaire, in Rasselas Samuel Johnson confronts the question whether or not humanity is essentially capable of attaining 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.

  24. 5 out of 5

    paulA neves

    Very interesting, concise read that might just spark your interest in Neo-classicism and biography, as so much of Johnson's philosophy here seems colored by his personal life, especially the death of his mother (he wrote Rasselas to make money to pay for her funeral). One of the most significant aspects of this moral/intellectual parable/tale is how Johnson uses it to hold court on the nature of poets and poetry (see Chapter X) and, more broadly, the untenable nature of happiness.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    Worth a read, a very beautifully written discourse on the choice of life and fruitlessness of many searches and plans. Great quotes such as "they considered themselves as condemned to labour for the luxury of the rich, and looked up with stupid malevolence towards those that were placed above them", "my prosperity puts my life in danger" and "the Prince soon found that this was one of the sages whom he should understand less as he heard him longer."

  26. 5 out of 5

    Larissa Rowan

    What is happiness? Baby don't hurt me, Don't hurt me, No more. Yeah this book is pretty cool. Maybe not for you if you're an optimist, or annoyed by whiny unsettled characters as this is essentially a story about being a teenage dirtbag...with some philosophy sprinkled on top.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Bartel

    A deceptively simple, viciously skeptical exploration of the limits of human pleasure and the endless search for the good life. Every kid should read this in high school.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Ok.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Joseph R.

    While living in the paradisiacal Happy Valley, Rasselas, son of the king of Abysinia, is dissatisfied. He has all material needs provided for and plenty of mild diversions. His restless curiosity makes him long for the outside world. He decides to leave the valley, which is easier said than done. The princes and princesses only get to leave if they have to take the throne. Otherwise they are locked away. Rasselas finds an ally in Imlac, a world traveler who came to the Happy Valley for solace fr While living in the paradisiacal Happy Valley, Rasselas, son of the king of Abysinia, is dissatisfied. He has all material needs provided for and plenty of mild diversions. His restless curiosity makes him long for the outside world. He decides to leave the valley, which is easier said than done. The princes and princesses only get to leave if they have to take the throne. Otherwise they are locked away. Rasselas finds an ally in Imlac, a world traveler who came to the Happy Valley for solace from a hard world. But Imlac is also dissatisfied with the Happy Valley and helps Rasselas escape. One of Rasselas's sisters discovers their plan and goes with them. Out in the real world, they seek the ideal life. They visit many different people from many different classes and occupations, hoping to find someone truly content. The book becomes a long list of failures. Seemingly, everyone has some part of their life that is unhappy or tedious. The book has plenty of little philosophical discussions in it, for example on the immateriality of the human soul or the value of a life lived according to nature. The main idea is the search for happiness, which is indeed a universal pursuit, from the beginning of mankind to today and into the future. Giving the text an adventure story (the royals escaping and then going incognito through Egypt to learn more about the world) cloaks the discursive nature with action and drama. Johnson even drifts into satire for parts of the story, which I found delightful. Recommended.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tyler Jones

    Reading the Borges lectures on English literature, I read about this book which I had never heard of (does my ignorance no any bounds?) and on the recommendation of the good professor gave it a whirl. My reading is coloured by what Borges has to say, for I agree it should be read in comparison to Candide; both books came out around the same time, and both reflect on the intellectual directions that England (Conservative!) and France (Less so!) where taking at the time. I am in agreement with Bor Reading the Borges lectures on English literature, I read about this book which I had never heard of (does my ignorance no any bounds?) and on the recommendation of the good professor gave it a whirl. My reading is coloured by what Borges has to say, for I agree it should be read in comparison to Candide; both books came out around the same time, and both reflect on the intellectual directions that England (Conservative!) and France (Less so!) where taking at the time. I am in agreement with Borges that Candide is the better book; its structure is more complex and it contains a wider range of themes. Still there is much to be said for Rasselas, overly introspective as it is. There is light touch to this book, and there is a nimbleness of mind that makes me think Chesterton was more than a little influenced by Dr. Johnson.

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