The Story of Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson

The following sample essay focuses on Samuel Johnson’s deceptively subtle satire ‘The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia’. Read the introduction, body and conclusion of the essay, scroll down.

Samuel Johnson’s deceptively subtle satire ‘The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia’ depicts Rasselas and his companions in their pursuit of the happiness acquired from the correct ‘choice of life’. The narrative consists of an extensive vocabulary, which is conveyed through an elegant style, and is written in the third person, in order to construct the illusion of objectivity and subsequently evoke an intellectual response.

One could consider these stylistic devices to produce an instructive and pragmatic moral tale, designed to rectify the belief that ultimate happiness is inherent in life. However, this essay will examine how Johnson challenges our preconceptions of happiness, of the role of the narrator, and of culture and society, through the employment of single faceted characters, frame narrative, and rhetorical language, to imply that the concept of happiness is diverse, that we cannot live by another’s instruction, and that we must dispense time wisely.

I also intend to contest Womersley’s claim that Johnson’s prose avoids ‘dogmatising’, and in contrast submit that he relies upon the assertion of one attitude to induce a variety of responses in us, the reader. Johnson contorts our conceptualisation of an external narrative voice from the commencement of the novel. The reader is acquainted with the notion of a narrator that controls the narrative discourse, while existing independently from it, but expects an unbiased account from the narrator, which is not delivered.

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Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and persue 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. ‘

Johnson’s rhetorical use of language in this paragraph creates a rhythm, which emphasises nouns such as ‘phantoms’, and the onomatopoeic ‘whispers’, to convey insubstantiality and diminish the meaning of the word ‘promises’. The tone created y the hard consonance of ‘p’s and ‘d’s is derisory, and leaves the words ‘hope’ and ‘youth’ unstressed, which can be interpreted as bitterness, lamentation, or simple wistfulness. The direct address of the pronoun ‘Ye’, has an interrogative undertone, and implicates the reader in the criticism, suggesting that as the story is being related for our benefit, attentiveness is necessary. The condemnation of the reader becomes more pronounced through the realisation that we, like Rasselas, are captivated by the inferred insight and the conviction of an oratory that lacks substance.

By examining the first paragraph more thoroughly, one acknowledges that as there is no justification to accept the narrator’s disparagements, and that as each line merely echoes the preceding implication, the inclination to concur depreciates. Therefore, ‘an attentiveness’ to Johnson’s style alters the reader’s perspective of a narrator, and conveys that it is not mandatory to attribute authority automatically to someone because of a preconception, as we are all limited by our experiences.

The consequence of this revelation is that as the wisdom that can be attained is restricted, and as we cannot live passively, we must direct our conduct according our own decisions. It could be argued that this limitation of his wisdom invalidates his moral claims, however Johnson’s style implies that their definition must be adjusted from righteous instructions, to considered suggestions that we are at liberty to accept or disregard. Johnson’s style, although eloquent, is deceptively simple and generally does not bombard the reader with a succession of stylistic devices, such as simile and metaphor.

This style induces an initial sense of objectivity while we formulate opinions on the ventures and conclusions of the characters, and our role as a spectator is enhanced by Johnson’s choice to place the tale outside of Europe. One purpose for this decision is that at the time of writing the British Empire was still thriving, and Europe was considered a place of cultural refinement and erudition, so by setting his moral tale in a society that the reader only associates with spaciousness and romance, and deems unsophisticated, we are not threatened or offended at the disclosed observations.

However, one criticism is that Johnson displays ignorance to other cultures in expecting the flaws of one society to be present in another, while a modern reader may contest the assumption that they share the views of a reader in Georgian society. Yet the application of simple style alludes to a sense commonality, and suggests that every society, despite the diversity, possesses deficiencies, and that these particular defects have been chosen because he is satirising his and the reader’s society.

Johnson provides comfort in our objectivity and permits us to establish our perceptions before challenges them. His first attack is upon our discernment of Abissinia, by altering the fundamental premises through his description of the ‘happy valley’: ‘surrounded on every side by mountains… From the mountains on every side, rivulets descended that filled all the valley with verdure and fertility’. The style is simple, which means that, although one can obtain many intentions from the content, there is at least one common interpretation for each individual.

The impression of spaciousness is diminished as the repetition of ‘every side’ conjures the image of imprisonment; the connotation is that the valley and its inhabitants – like the citizens of the British Isles – would perish without the external influences from which it protects itself. Johnson facilitates the transference of criticism to the reader by coaxing us to affiliate ourselves with the main characters, which are assigned the distinction of intellectuals and royalty – although it is a notably powerless station, such a prince fourth in line for the throne.

Despite this impotence, throughout the work they are often presented by their titles, such as ‘the prince’, yet it is also the way many characters are described, for example, ‘the poet’, and ‘the hermit’, to establish the sense of a manifestation of lifestyles and attitudes rather than actual people. This postulation is accentuated by attentiveness to the speech of the characters as, despite background and rank, each has been prescribed with a similar articulate expression. To him that lives well, answered the hermit, every form of life is good; nor can I give any other rule for choice, than to remove from all apparent evil’. Johnson manipulates the syntax of each character’s speech, placing the name of the generic group – in this instance ‘the hermit’ – within their speech, to construct the impression that although their label and their attitude restricts them, they also constitutes their lives. The exploitation of syntax conveys that immediate awareness of which character is speaking is inconsequential, as the value lies in the attitude.

The reader is informed that the hermit has existed in solitude for fifteen years, but knows little of his previous station, yet he is assigned proverbial speech, established through simple, monosyllabic words with soft consonants and elongated vowel sounds. Johnson’s choice to attribute the characters with similar speech could be interpreted as a limitation on his ability as a writer; however, the moral aspect of the narrative suggests that the intended effect is that all opinions are equal.

Yet, there is an apparent contradiction, as the speech reflects the style in all other areas of the narrative, and when a character’s behaviour is deemed worthless, their discourse is omitted, for example the ‘men of spirit and gaiety’. Rasselas considers himself as a sage man, and when confronted with people who are not like-minded, he dismisses them, in the same way that the narrator excludes their conversation from the narrative.

Johnson provides objectivity through his simple style and basic generalisations in order to scrutinise the manner in which we utilise it. He illustrates the difficulty in understanding anything transcending our experience as no amount of research or observation can provide an accurate grasp of another’s lifestyle. For example, the prosperous Rasselas is incapable of entirely appreciating the ordeal of a striving impoverished merchant’s son.

Yet, although we do not share the conditions of another, it is implied that we should respect it, rather than dismiss it or impress opinions upon it, as more than one manner of living exists and we each follow our own. The first impression of the work is that it complies with the style of a traditional eastern tale, through the utilisation of a frame narrative; however, by removing the luxury of an entirely resolved conclusion it parody’s tradition, and consequently condemns the tendency of writers to provide a single solution when considering a subject as varied as life.

It has been suggested by J. P Hardy that Johnson’s conclusion enforces ‘the realisation that no such happiness exists’1, which through a succession of miserable depictions of the human condition, is arguably an accurate description. Yet, although Johnson challenges the concept of a conclusion through the apparition of a negligible achievement, it is feasible that by understanding that there is not one perfect way to live, and by adopting veneration for the diversity of conduct, while being at peace with one’s own, one attains a happy conclusion.

The vital aspect of the narrative is that despite the postulations of critics such as David Womersley, that suggest that Johnson’s prose is ‘restless’, and ‘is always alert to the vanity of dogmatising’, it is inescapable that Johnson has used symbolic characters to represented a single, and unfavourable, facet of the human condition. However, in Womersley’s favour, by dogmatically pursuing several desolate resolutions, Johnson excites the intellect of the individual reader, and provides us the freedom to interpret the determine of the seemingly desolate narrative.

The messages contained within the narrative are suggestions, and therefore the conclusion must be considered as an option rather than a moral truth, hence reactions will vary from compliance, to possibly constructive rebellion. For example, Rosa Parks, who in 1955 refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, at a time when black Americans were fighting for civil rights, proving how nonconformity can benefit society, and denying the sentiment that we must be content in our lives and not pursue greater happiness.

The technique of frame narrative is combined with subtle repetition, semi-episodic chapters – titled to disclose the proceeding information – and a unique exploitation of syntax, to manipulate and comment upon the internal and external passage of time. Johnson constructs a conflict between the movement of the narrative and the narrative discourse. One example is when Rasselas is pending the completion of the wings: ‘Thus passed twenty months of the life of Rasselas’.

The line appears succinct as it is littered with many monosyllabic words, and in comparison to other more elongated sentences attains the illusion of brevity, communicating the rapidity with which time can disappear unheeded. However, the repetition of the prefix ‘of’, the extended vowels sounds, and the sibilance, lengthen the line, assisting the notion that a significant measure of time is often spent without achievement. This concept is enhanced when one considers that throughout the narrative the present is filled with reflection upon the past, and lamentation of the misappropriation of time and opportunity.

One example of this irony is when Rasselas wastes several hours grieving over lost time: ‘I have lost that which can never be restored: I have seen the sun rise and set for twenty months, an idle gazer on the light of heaven: In this time the birds have left the nest of their mother, and committed themselves to the woods and to the skies: the kid has forsaken the teat and learned by degrees to climb the rocks in quest of independent sustenance. I only have made no advances. ‘

The reoccurrence of the pronoun ‘I’ and the conjunction ‘and’, compounded with intentionally clichi?? d metaphors that reiterate the sentiment that a long time has passed, inspire annoyance towards his pathetic self-involvement, rather than pity. Through this meditation, one becomes aware of the significance imposed on the past and the future, for example when Lady Pekuah is missing, the princess uses her time to remember her, and anticipate the satisfaction of retrieving her.

The reader’s appreciation of the vice of misspent time induces the realisation that we are implicated. To realise wholly this implication, Johnson uses titled semi-episodic chapters give the initial impression that they are designed to eradicate the anticipation to allow the us to reader more conscientiously, for example, ‘Description of a palace in a valley’. One interpretation of these titles is that life is a series of definable events, and displays the negligible achievements that we perceive as significant, such as ‘The prince continues to grieve and muse’.

However, another interpretation is that the present is deemphasised, as the reader is conscious of the subject of the chapter, and explains the human condition as a succession of reflection and expectations. The reader is forced to realise that we reflect the behaviour of the characters, when we read a narrative we are not always concerned with what is occurring, only where it will lead and how it will end. The preceding level of understanding is that we are diverting ourselves from life by attempting to gain wisdom from a work of fiction.

Johnson’s style requires great attentiveness, but by succeeding in this endeavour, we display aversion to the present, by using time to uncover concepts that would have obtained through living, rather than passively and academically assimilating how to live. In one respect ‘Rasselas’ is a narrative concerning the right of passage of a nai?? ve prince, in another it is a realistic morality tale, providing a conclusion to portray the inevitable disappoint of idealistic dreams. However, through attentiveness to Johnson’s style the central message is not to live passively and to respect the gift of time by employing it efficiently.

These suggestions are implied subtly, as he initial gives us objectivity through third person narration, frame narrative, single facetted characters, setting, and to an extent, through his simple, eloquent language. Yet, closer inspection reveals that the narrator is unreliable, through the dogmatic attitude conveyed through rhetorical language, and therefore the sentiment conveyed is one interpretation of the diverse nature of life and happiness, that cannot be dictated to us by others, and that we are not entitled to judge.

The imparted advice that we must respect the gift of time is accomplished by leading us to acknowledge this folly in the characters, then – as the achievement is only recognisable through attention to his style – illuminates the irony that although we condemn their folly, we are guilty of wasting time, and displaying credulity towards the mere implication of insight. These conclusions insinuate his work to be a reflection of life rather than a method of guidance.

Johnson expects each reader to bring individual experience, attitudes, and preconceptions to the reading of his work, and allows the interpretations to vary and to influence accordingly. Therefore, although it is established that each aspect of his style implies a message, and attentiveness towards it and provides greater understanding of the meaning, it is not possible to determine what this meaning is as the essence of the implications is that every individual lives his life in the same manner in which he interprets a novel: differently.

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The Story of Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson. (2017, Dec 22). Retrieved from

The Story of Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson
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