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The Structure of Rasselas

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The Structure of Rasselas

In this Chapter we shall focus mainly on the argument that Rasselas is or not an oriental tale (Thomas Seccombe, The Age of Johnson, page 31). We can take a close look at the narrative structure which is the episodic as we go further on the action- to some critics lacks dramatic of power (see Leslie Stephen, Hours in a Library page 17)




The critics make a difference between the novel itself and the works that talk about it. The most important fact which is taken into account is the wisdom encountered in the chapters. Johnson’s greatest comic work is the result of this analysis of the novel piece by piece (C.R. Tracy, Democritus, Arise A study id Dr Johnson’s Humor). According to Sir Walter Raleigh in The English Novel, Rasselas is seen as a sermon rather than a novel declaring that the structure of the plot is masterly, the events are arrange in a skilful climax, culminating in the story of the mad astronomer.

This eighteenth century novel, Rasselas has no value as a novel, but if we consider it from the moral perspective it can be surely considered the wisest book in the English literature. The structure of it is put in the relation to the end and so the critics tend to ignore the narrative part and to admire and focus on the wisdom itself. When we read Rasselas it is easily noted that it is not an “eastern” tale like others but it tries to follow more or less the same pattern as 'the Arabian Night' type of story.

Johnson’s novel talks about a young prince who lives in a place which resembles the Eden garden, but is discontented with his existence and so he leaves in search of total happiness. Along with his party he travels seeking for this fact but realizes that this can not be achieved anywhere in this worlds so he returns to his happy valley.

It is obvious that the main problem is the happiness itself and not the story so Rasselas can be seen as an apologue and the narrative about the prince only as a device to emphasize the emotions, the moral and happiness.

Johnson tries to make the reader understand that human limitation is accidental, a product of hope and not one of reality and that all this search will end in failure. The moral of the story stresses the fact that wise men will not spend all their life searching for earthly happiness but will be aware that this can not be achieved and that he is at God’s mercy and has to take into account eternity as well.

The attitudes towards happiness were not present for the first time in Rasselas but in Johnson’s earlier works like The Vanity of Human Wishes and Rambler Nos. 204-205. If we take for example The Vanity of Human Wishes we deal with the insufficiency of human pursuits as means to happiness and we see that the reader is advised in a way or another to pray for internal “goods” which can be achieved only throughout religion- a healthy mind, obedient passion, love, patience and faith. Apart from these, there are also presented the desirable goods in public life as well as in the private one (riches, political and military power, learning) which can be applied to women as well as to men (for example –beauty) which points up to vanity.

Another example is The Rambler Nos. 204-205 where although the advice is missing he stresses the idea of futility of a person to be happy. We can see the story of Seged, “the lord of Ethiopia” who tries to find perfect happiness and goes to an island where he tries to achieve it in ten day time. But everything is abandoned when in the eight day his daughter gets ill. This story somehow anticipates the story of Rasselas and it is similar to it in regard to several aspects: both are royalties and both escape from their day to day life in search for happiness but Seged seeks for iton an island not as Rasselas did –among people.

A fact that should also be taken into account is the similarity between the lord’s scheme of happiness and Rasselas’s continuous search for methods that would bring him contentment. Johnson also uses the same background – the Abyssinian one.

How was the theme born? First of all, he took into consideration the general morals expressed in The Vanity of Human Wishes and Rambler Nos. 204-205 but the Challenge was how to suggest the idea of unhappiness and to lead the reader to seek for the eternity. The best way to do this was to demonstrate that a person who might be considered happy is not, in fact, happy. He then classified them into three main groups: persons who had all the material things they need it, those who followed certain schemes to be happy and the last but not the least those who had certain positions in the society so they would afford happiness. If he would succeed in this attend of his to prove that material is not necessary linked with happiness then he would be able to direct the reader to hereafter. So, he used a story similar to that used in Rambler nos. 204-205 about a man who had all he wanted but he was not happy enough and whose search for a state of contentment will only end in a state of misery and unhappiness. Thus Rasselas was born.

The story could easily be divided into two parts: the first one presents the life in the valley, which is described like an earthly paradise; the second one presents the outside world which is different from the anterior part. When they came together they illustrate all kinds of places where happiness might be found. If we refer to the first part, the happy valley is described like a paradise and so the story of Rasselas begins. In Chapter I the valley is described with a romantic purpose of tradition of the imprisonment of Abyssinian royalty. This oriental setting especially of Abyssinia (Johnson had a preference for it) goes under two classifications:

a) structural-because of those critics who think that “scene plays an important role in the story, both in the reinforcement it leads to ideas and in the background of vague, exotic beauty, which it provides for the action; and that the novel…was set deliberately in a non-Christian part of the world like many of the didactic tales of its time, so that Johnson could deal with man on a purely naturalistic level and feel free to discuss the issues he had in mind unimpeded by other consideration”(Lovett and Hughes, History of the Novel, page 125).

b) non-structural

This kind of background is thought to make readers think that in those far, far lands of the desert human happiness is achieved easier and lasts much more than in any other place on earth. Also it makes a difference between Rasselas and the other oriental tales which are with happy-ever-after conclusions. Finally it shows the romantic legend surrounding the imprisonment of the children of Abyssinian monarchs permits to examine in an exhaustive fashion the places in which men might be presumed happy.

Gwin J. Kolb calls this extra-structural causes for the setting, but other invoke Johnson’s translation of Lobo’s Voyage to Abyssinia. There seemed to be a fashion for oriental tales in the eighteenth century English. It seems that writers from seventeenth century to nineteenth century used Abyssinia in many travel- books so frequently that it became an icon when somebody wanted to described an earthly paradise. Johnson’s happy valley is not perfect because although it is depicted like an earthly paradise it is also a prison the palace is built as if suspicion herself has dictated the plan. The permission to enter there rarely happened, but it was a permanent one.



After we have familiarized with the royal palace we are little by little introduced to the prince of Abyssinia. He is a boy of 26 years who wants to find out what happiness really is and what are the methods to reach it, but in the same time a naïve person, discontent with his life in the valley. This introduction of the main character can function as an apologue. If it would not be for this thirst of knowledge he might have been more sophisticated and probably would not seek for this quest of contentment. Rasselas is bored with his life in the happy valley and realizes that a man’s happiness is very different from that of an animal. So, the decision of going out to look for it makes the subject of the book.

In his attempts he encounters a sage named Imlac who tries to convince him that is useless to look for such things and that he should value his present state. When the prince hears these words he wishes to see the world since the sight of [its miseries] is necessary to happiness. Now the prince many things in his mind, one of them being how to escape from the valley, but many months had passed until he succeed it.

His first attempt to leave that place proves useless, then he meets an artist who suggest him that flying over the mountains could be the solution for him. Although skeptical he has some hope that he will succeed but the experiment turns to be a failure. The narrative is kept in motion by the prince’s investigation to escape and so all these facts have also served to link Johnson’s notion about happiness. It is a contrast between his wish to leave the valley and the ten months he spend in search for a proper solution.

As we move forward, Rasselas meets Imlac (chapter vii) due to the rainy season because he is forced to stay indoors. He hears the sage reading a poem on the various condition of humanity (chapter vii, page 15) and then the concert Imlac has to attend delays the story of his life that Rasselas was so eager to hear. The sage is a high minded person, possibly the right person Rasselas needed to escape from the valley and definitely a well experienced person to guide the young prince in his choice of life.

As the story tells us he was much more rebel then Rasselas is when he had the young’s prince age. Son of a rich man, he goes world wide for this thirst of knowledge, but after traveling to many places he decides that he ought to be a poet, so he intensifies his study of nature and men. It can be said thus that Imlac has ended his search where Rasselas begins. These facts lead to the conclusion that happiness does not last forever, neither for the young, nor for the old. Being a youngster, Rasselas is not aware of this and he will learn it by the end of the story.

Imlac’s story of life represents a detailed picture of the world’s unhappiness shown to Rasselas before he leaves the valley. The sage and the artist represent two mature people who know what life is like and talk about the misery and wickedness of men, but Rasselas being innocent continues to interrupt revealing his idealism and desires. As the story goes on, the sage tells him about his father that was a rich merchant, who wanted his son to be as rich as he was, but he was living in fear of being spoiled by the governors of the province (chapter viii, page16).

He continues and tells about the journey of the caravans with his companions, envious on his wealth, exposed him to the theft of servants and saw me plundered upon false pretences (chapter ix, page 19). Then he sees that Rasselas found admiration for the Europeans, but Imlac remarks that they are less miserable than other people but that they are not happy (chapter xi page 24). After finishing the story, Rasselas tells him about his desire to escape from the valley to make a free choice of life, but Imlac warms him that the world is a sea foaming with tempests and boiling with whirlpools (chapter xii, page 27) and that amidst wrongs and frauds, competition and anxieties, [he] will wish a thousand times for these seats of quiet and willingly quit hope to be free from fear (chapter xii, page 27).

In these first chapters Johnson introduces us to the dissatisfied prince, then to the discontent artist and the sage and then his declaration to the prince I know not one of all your attendants who does not lament the hour when he entered this retreat (chapter xii, page 26). None of the inhabitants of the valley are happy: neither the prince, the servants, the old nor the princess and the young. Imlac although is much happier then the rest because he traveled and has a mind replete with images, which I can vary and combine at pleasure and his history can be in some way the history of young Rasselas and the result is in a perfect correspondence with the purpose by virtue because the story used the story –within- the story device which is common in the oriental tales but here it is in contrast with them.

This contrast consists in the fact that this story has nothing to do with exciting adventures, beautiful women, love and happy endings that those stories have. An example to sustain the previous fact is when Imlac falls in love with the daughter of a Mogul and could become his heir and have many children, but nothing of this happens. The only things he remembers is the Moguls words above the power of a common man (chapter ix, page .

As we reach Chapter xiii Rasselas discovers the means to escape he is helped by Imlac to try the last means and the two try hard to obtain victory this time. Apart from them, Nekayah, Rasselas’s sister and her maid Pekuah are willing to accompany them in this fascinating journey outside. It is interesting to notice what Johnson indicated earlier, that is- the party is represented by all the categories in the valley- prince, princess and the subordinates male and female. There are four types of persons who will comment on the modes of life in the world-that is- the sage to interpret the findings and guide the party, the prince to gather more and more delusions in his purchase to find happiness and the two women to search for explanations into various domains.

Imlac takes them to Cairo where the young prince would see all the condition of humanity (chapter xvi, page 32). Here it seems that everyone is happy, only Rasselas does not share the same feeling. This sadness is confessed to Imlac who declares that this condition is in fact the condition of humankind. To emphasize this idea he states that We are long before we are convinced that happiness is never to be found and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining if for himself (chapter xvi, page 34).

But Rasselas thinks that conditions can differ to make someone happy and without taking into account Imlac’s remarks he is determined to see various and make the choice of life. He associates first with the young men of spirit and gaiety, gross and sensual (chapter xvii, page 35) but soon is convinced that he should never be happy in a course of life of which he was ashamed (chapter xvii, page35). Next he sees the doctrine of stoicism interesting; so much that he wants to imitate the sage, until he realizes that the wise man is in practice subject to the miseries of ordinary men.He then starts to examine these two situations one low and the other above the level on which humans are capable to sustain pleasure. Rasselas notices that stoicism insists on the suppression of passion, it is focused at a state of mind beyond as reach of men to men.



As the story goes on they move from the city to the country(this can be seen as a procedure by division) he and his party are faced with three types of rural life- the shepherds, the rich man and the hermit- that will offer three types of permanent happiness. First they meet the group of shepherds which have the fewest potentialities for happiness-they are envious sages, so rude and ignorant, so little able to compare the good with the evil of the occupation, and so indistinct in their narratives and descriptions that very little could be learned from them (chapter xix, page 38).

The gentleman symbolizes the brighter side of the country life and he is compared with the previous type of person: he is intelligent and wealthy, not poor and stupid as the shepherds are but he is not happy because property puts [his] life in danger (chapter xx, page 39). The hermit is the last type that they meet here. He is more intelligent then the gentleman but he does not have enough material comforts and has isolated himself in solitude to close (his) life in peace (chapter xxi, page 41). However, he did not achieve either happiness or peace in this way; what he did was to cut himself from diversion and relaxation which he thought were essential for human being. The recluse realizes that he does not want to spend all his life in solitude so he accompanies the party to Cairo.

Next Rasselas wants to try a final formula of happiness analyzing the philosopher’s declaration that to live according to nature is to live happily. When he asks what it is to live according to nature the answer is that this was one of the sages whom he should understand less as he heard him longer(chapter xxii, page43). The modes that Rasselas hoped to achieve happiness fail to provide him some answers he wishes to find. Neither of the schemes nor projects give Rasselas or the reader the minimum hope to find contentment.

In the next chapter Rasselas and Nekayah decide to look for answers into the private recesses of domestic peace (chapter xxvi, page48). They consider that ease can not be found among the poor so they focus their search in the high stations and middle ones. They discuss about their investigation for a happy person in courts and private houses in chapters xxv-xxviii. Their conversation shifts very frequently from the role of the lecturer to the role of the listener and vice versa serving one another as guide in the comment and question game.

Finally they both conclude that neither in high stations and moderate, married and single life, early and late marriages nor in virtuous conduct one can discover the perfect happiness. So far Rasselas and his party were observers of other’s lives but beginning with chapter xxxi this fact will change when they take a trip to the pyramids.

It is there where they become active participants. The party arrives at the pyramids and leaves Pekuah to stay in the tent because she is afraid to go inside and so she is captured by Arabs. Her friends return immediately to Cairo to begin the searches but all is in vain; Nekayah becomes inconsolable but after a while she starts to accept the fact.

The abduction of Pekuah may serve as a partial answer to the question about the end though by Johnson and also a dictum to impress the reader by affecting one of the characters. Imlac states that Nekayah has shown kindness when she allowed her maid to remain in the tent but unfortunately for her she was kidnapped. That is why Imlac says that no unlucky consequence can oblige us to repent it (chapter xxxiv, page63) and continues to remark the fear of Pekuah for the ghost that is a kind of justification beyond earthly life and the pyramids that remind us of the royal magnificence of ancient times where men were also discontent(chapter xxxii, page60 ).

Another description is about Nekayah’s grief who although heard the recluse’s story she still think that if she will change place she will feel better, so she wants to hide [herself] in solitude (chapter xxxvi, page66) but Imlac opposes to this decision by saying that the loss of one pleasure is not very good reason for rejection of the rest (chapter xxxv, page64 ) and that in time she will wish to return to the world (chapter xxxv, page 65). She returns to her normal life and wonders what may be expected from our persuite of happiness, when we find the state of life to be such, that happiness itself is the cause of misery (chapter xxxvi, page66).

Returning to Pekuah we find out that she is ransomed and after this episode she tells the story of her own capture to her friends. The story has more sharp contrast then Imlac’s story because in oriental tales noble lady’s abduction often initiates a series of great happenings. The romantic aspects that should be present are here flat and prosaic. The Arab chief is not handsome and a passionate lover, she is not spending the time hearing his addresses but she spends it observing the manners of the vagrant nations and…viewing remains of ancient edifices(chapter xxxviii, page70).

At the strong hold she does not meet a young man with who she can plan her escape but starts to study astronomy and when she is alone her only pleasure was to talk with my maids about the accident by which we were carried away, and the happiness that we should enjoy at the end of our captivity (chapter xxxix, page 72). It is obvious that this captivity does not offer the common things, characteristic to an oriental tale. The story of Pekuah enables us to see how the life of a sheik and his harem is. The maid is not happy with that life although at a first glance she look pleased with new sight that she saw but after she realizes that her place is not there. She describes him like a greedy man, that hastened to prepare for our journey hither (chapter xxxviii, page69) when he was offered ransom gold. The women of his harem had no idea but of the few things that were within their view and had hardly names for anything but their clothes and their food(chapter xxxix, page73).

After this episode, the party returns to Cairo where Rasselas begins to love learning and he decides to pass the rest of his days in literary solitude (chapter xl, page . The wise Imlac advised him that he ought to examine its hazards and so he begins to tell the story of the astronomer who believed it could control the weather and distribute the seasons. When the two women hear the story they decide to give up their visionary projects that is : the maid will stop imagining herself in a position of power, Nekayah will stop dreaming of pastoral obscurity, and Rasselas will abandon the dream of a perfect government. With this Johnson warns us that one can not rely on day dreaming for happiness.

Rasselas reaches a final point to make the best choice of life when he realizes that his investigation covered the principal ages (from youth to old) –when he begins to examine the life of young men, explores with Nekayah the private life on various levels, continues by seeing his sister sorrow by her maid, hears Pekuah’s story and in the end another story about the mad astronomer. He understands that the worse fact is the misfortune to lose your sanity and realizes that the exercise of mind compensate what reality is deficient in.



As they meet the astronomer, he feel very good in their company and so he recovers his reason and when he is questioned about the best choice of life he answered that he had chosen wrong(chapter xlvi, page85 ).In chapter xlvii the prince enters and brings a new topic the life of the monks at Saint Anthony. Imlac remarks that those men, are less wretched than the Abyssinian princes in their prison of pleasure (chapter xlvii, page88). Imlac presents in his discourse of the nature of the soul the intellectual reason of such a conduct. He declares that immateriality seems to imply a natural power of perpetual duration as a consequence of exemption from all causes of decay (chapter xlviii, page 91).

The reaction of Nekayah to me the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity (chapter xlviii, page 92) so it points up Johnson’s moral and brings the book to an end. Because they are young they still believe in the schemes of happiness, but they know this can not be obtained so they decide to return to Abyssinia (chapter xlix, page 93). The decision symbolizes the human desire for change in life and the searches for lasting happiness on Earth.

When we talk about the structure of Rasselas we definitely have to take into account the fact that critics recognize that this is not an oriental tale like those in the Arabian Nights but another sort which we will analyze in the fallowing part of this chapter. Many critics have tried to see beyond the story’s structure and wanted to understand it. Martha Conant says in the Oriental Tale in England that Rasselas may be regarded as the best type of the serious English Oriental tales (page 140) and appreciates it for its reflection of the author’s lofty character.

Geoffrey Tillotson in Rasselas and the Persian Tales argues that the story owns its subject and outline (page 111-116) to a certain group of eastern stories. As we can see the story is hard to be classified. We do not know if it belongs either to the group of oriental tales or to the group of satiric or moral ones. If we speak about oriental tales this term is world wide spread) Rasselas can be also linked with it but it can not hide the variety of the object within that have many pieces which occupy certain positions between the two extremes (see Conant page 267-283).

These are similar works that are unified by the element of the plot like: Arabian Nights Entertainments, The Persian Tales, The Chinese Tales. If we talk about the other group, the story is replaced by an organizing principle where the end is to be achieved in individual pieces, for example Marana’s Letter’s of a Turkish Spy, Brown’s Amusements Serious and Comical, papers in the Spectator, Guardian, Rambler, Adventurer.

Raselas might belong to this latter group but we have to consider that on the title page it is written tale; the party has definite characters; they deal with different situations and posses superficial resemblance to the parts of the real story. We can discuss on the general nature of the features and the particular aspect of the oriental tales where the plot is in direct relation with the content.Common features between Rasselas and the first group we talked about can be found in The Persian tales which was translated in English by Ambrose Philips who’s preface explains the design of these feigned histories is to reduce a young princess to reason, who had conceived an unaccountable aversion to men, and would not be persuaded to marry.

Every story provides a new lover or carrying husband yet they are all so different one from another. The nurse that relates the stories has to tell another one and another one because the princess finds fault with their behavior. The nurse then tells us about lovers who are unhappy because they lost their mistresses. Bedreddin is the king of Damascus and we find that the cause of his discontent is the tragic love affaire that he had.

He and the Sorrowful Vizier have more or less the same story: both are unfortunate in love and both suffer from the loss of whom they loved. The king decides to travel till he finds a happy person and begins his journey in the company of his adviser and his favorite. He travels, hears wonderful tales but all seem to have love problems. So he returns to Damascus saying if we three are not entirely contented, let us consider that there are others more unhappy (page 257).

We can make a parallel between the two stories and we can observe many similarities. First of all, the two are members of eastern royalty who go in search of a happy man in the vicinity and then in the outside world, but they can not find one so they return the place from where they left.

None of them is happy, both traveled without reveling their identity accompanied by men who can guide them throughout their searches. There are also differences between the stories. One of this is that unlike Rasselas, Bedreddin does not think of making the choice of life and too little is said about his dissatisfaction. He only believes that he will find a happy person.

Many common elements link Rasselas to the Persian Tales and also to the genre comprising the true oriental tale. It is interesting to notice that both Rasselas and Bedreddin are royal personages who were born and raised in an oriental country, but leave it and travel with a purpose and then decide to return home. They both disguise themselves like many other heroes. The old, wise men accompany them, also the princess and her maid is compared to beautiful women in the Persian Tales.

Rasselas has the device story-within –a story because we can hear first Imlac’s story and then Pekuah’s about the abduction. In the Persian tales there are usually remarks of miseries of life and happiness. Although it has some characteristics listed above we can not say that Rasselas is a real oriental tale. But all of them have elements that are best presented in Arabian Nights. It might be the case that the reason why they state Rasselas is an oriental tale is due to these elements. On the other hand, if we begin to examine the end of the tale and after this we shift to the elements in the story to obtain that end we have reasons to the oriental traits much more then to state they are oriental or that Johnson borrowed them from earlier tales.






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