Published in 1759. Other historical events of that era:1760's and 1770's James Watt makes advances in steam
engine to facilitate industrial development
Structure and Form
Johnson creates an Oriental Tale, which was popular form
of moral fable in the eighteenth century. This form reflects
1) The increased awareness of the world through expansion/travel;
2) The fascination with the exotic.
Johnson described the world of the Oriental Tale as "a vast
tract of country which differed from the west as a setting
for a story only in that riches could be more opulently
displayed, power more imperially exercised, and sages and
hermits more frequently discovered and patiently attended to"
(from The Rambler Buxton, Davis 36).
Consider: What part of the world does Johnson write about in
What is Rasselas' ethnicity? (and Imlac's, Nekayah's and Pekuah's)?
What role do issues of race and nationality play in the tale?
Johnson's prose style
Characteristics of Johnson's prose style include:
Majestic vocabulary, used for analytic precision or for
humor -- a source of the irony and hence satire.
Balance and antithesis of the couplet form brought from
poetry to prose. Unlike Pope's poetry, Johnson's prose
is not compressed -- on the contrary, it is expansive like
the blank verse of Paradise Lost.
Syntactic mastery; grand symetrical sentences without being run-on.
Periodic sentence: not complete until the very end;
designed to arouse interest and curiosity, to hold an idea
in suspense before its final revelation.
Note: 1) parallel phrases (resemblance or correspondence)
or clauses at the opening and 2) the use of dependent clauses
preceding the independent clause
What parallel phrases can you find in the following sentence?
Ex. (p. 660) "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 promises of youth, and that
the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the
morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia."
What examples of balance and antithesis can you find in the
Ex. (700) "Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless,
and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."
Ex. (707) "In the state of future perfection, to which
we all aspire, there will be pleasure without danger, and
security without restraint."
Story begins in isolation and lassitude (innocence/ignorance of
the world) and progressively moves into the world
I. Ch. 1-14 (Happy Valley) -- stresses auditory
images; Rasselas listens
II. Ch. 14-32 (Observational survey -- Their search
for the Choice of Life) Visual -- the four characters go out to
see the world
III. Ch. 33-49 (Engagement -- the episodes beginning
with Pekuah's capture) Active -- the characters act, exert, change
Section I -- Ch. 1-14: Happy Valley
Examine Johnson's use of satire and compare it with
Dryden, Pope and Swift. What is the tone of this narrative?
How does Johnson use satire here? Note his use of exaggeration
and contrasting images of moderation or rationality.
Irony -- broad term referring to an intended
meaning which differs from the denotational meaning of a statement;
from the Greek eiron (a dissembler; pretending to be something it is not).
Sentiment -- sometimes sentimentalism or less
positively sentimentality/ usually recognized in two senses: an
overindulgence of emotion, especially the conscious effort to
induce emotion in order to enjoy it and an optimistic overemphasis
of the goodness of humanity. How does Johnson represent sentiment
through the figure of Rasselas and the individuals that he encounters?
The story about the pursuit of happiness begins in the Happy Valley.
What are the implications of this name? of the setting? of beginning
the pursuit of happiness in this valley?
Explore the seeming paradox that Rasselas is unhappy in the land
where there is no desire, no want, no need of novelty or necessity.
Why are the people unhappy in the Happy Valley? Why don't they
let anybody know about their misery? What does this suggest
about the human condition?
In this first section, we see Rasselas' gradual awakening to
imagination, to desire, to the need to engage the world.
One example of the type of satire Johnson is prone to here:
p. 663 -- Rasselas' early instructor tries to make him satisified
with his life of plenty by telling him of the miseries of others.
Rasselas responds "Now. . . 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." What does this suggest about
Rasselas? How is misery necessary to human happiness?
Johnson was interested in the ways in which men and women
invented sources of anxiety when their own life did not provide
them. What evidence of this do we find in the story?
Imlac plays an essential role in Rasselas' quest -- what happens
when Imlac is introduced to the prince? How is Rasselas' idealism
contrasted with Imlac's experience of the world? What is the effect?
Chapter 10 includes an important discussion of eighteenth-century
aesthetics. Read carefully and try to apply this to what we
already know about eighteenth-century poetry. Imlac states that
nothing can be useless to the poet pp. 669-670. What does the
poet need to know? why? What is the "business of a poet"?
What are the implications of Imlac's description of the poet?
What is neccessary for his character? How does Johnson undercut
Section 2 -- Ch. 14-32: Observational survey -- Their
search for the Choice of Life
After hearing Imlac's story, Rasselas is determined "to judge
with my own eyes of the various conditions of men, and then to
make deliberately my choice of life" (673). What are
the allegorical implications of this journey?
Rasselas' sister, the princess Nekayah and her servant and friend
Pekuah join them on this pursuit of happiness. They decide to
divide their labors to save time. Rasselas goes to the court
and Nekayah investigates domestic life. What is the result of
Discuss: Why is no one completely happy?
Note Johnson's description of marriage. How does he de-romanticize
notions of love? How does the argument/dialogue between Rasselas
and Nekayah resemble earlier debates between Imlac and Rasselas?
What are the implications of this?
Nekayah realizes the impossibility of satisfying all
desires: (p. 689) "That nature sets her gifts on the right hand
on the left...." What does this passage suggest about the nature
of human happiness? about the experience of life?
Imlac interrupts with the rational advice: "It seems to me, that
while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live" (689).
How does this serve as a turning point in the narrative?
Section III - Chaps. 33-49: Engagement
How does Nekayah's loss of Pekuah underscore the
importance of human society? p. 694: "Since Pekuah was
taken from me, said the princess, I have no pleasure to reject
or to retain. She that has no one to love or trust has little
to hope. She wants the radical principle of happiness." What
is this radical principle of happiness?
The example of the Astronomer also illustrates the value of human
relationships: alone his good virtues become an illusion of power
and self-aggrandizement. How do Imlac's companions initially
respond to the Astronmer's condition? What happens when the
Astronomer joins the society of the Ladies?
Chapter 49 -- The Conclusion in which nothing is concluded
What happens as a result of their accumulated knowledge of
experience? What do each of the traveler's conclude? What are
their plans for the future?
"Of these wishes that they had formed they well knew that
none could be obtained. They deliberated a while what was to be
done, and resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return
to Abissinia" (709). What are the implications of this return
to their homeland? What is the allegorical significance of this conclusion?
Consider Rasselas as a moral tale and allegory -- what does it
suggest about how people learn? Do people ever learn? Why does
Imlac return to the world from which he wanted to retreat? Why
does the hermit?
Does the story offer any experience as intrinsically happy?
Nekayah's radical principle? the pursuit of knowledge (see chapter 11)?
What is the significance of their trip to the pymarids? How does
this suggest the importance of studying things past? Chapters 31-32.
What does the tale suggest about the truth of human happiness?
What virtues are necessary for human happiness?
As a prose narrative, what does Rasselas have in common
with the other narratives we have read, by Behn, Swift and Haywood?
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