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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780

    March 28: Class 10

    Reading Assignment:

    Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

    Post 4 Group B -- Response 4 Group A
    WIKI Commonplace Book, Check #2

    Samuel Johnson's Rasselas is a delightful philosophical tale about the elusive quest for human happiness. It also incorporates many eighteenth-century literary issues, with its developed prose narrative and periodic sentence style and a blend of satire and sentiment. It is set in northern Africa, a context that would have been considered very exotic and which places Rasselas within the popular genre of the Oriental Tale. Such a setting reflects both the literary tastes of the age and the themes of colonial expansion we have observed in earlier texts. As you read Rasselas try to connect this work with others we have read this semester, in particular Oroonoko and Gulliver's Travels.

    Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:


    Published in 1759. Other historical events of that era:

  • Seven Year's War 1756-1763 (expansion of English land holdings to include India, parts of Africa and the Carribean -- colonized)

  • 1760 George III comes to the throne at 22 years of age

  • 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 Rasselas? 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. 2679) "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 following sentences?

    Ex. (2704) "Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."

    Ex. from chapter 47: "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, Behn 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? How might you relate this to themes in Paradise Lost?

    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. 2683 -- 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. 2685-6. 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 Imlac's enthusiasm?

    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" (Chapter 12). 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 their findings?

    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. 2701) "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" (Chapter 30). 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? Chapter 35: "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" (2712). 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 and Swift?

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