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Johnson, Samuel. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.


The Happy Valley

"Description of a Palace in a Valley". Rasselas, aged twenty-six, is the fourth son of the emperor of Egypt. He is kept captive together with other successors to the throne in a plentiful valley in the kingdom of Amhara. The valley is surrounded by mountains and the only entrance is a cavern protected by strong gates. The prisoners have every wish fulfilled but they cannot leave.

"The Discontent of Rasselas in the Happy Valley". Rasselas seeks in vain for the source of his discomfort. He observes that animals have physical needs only, whereas human beings have also other desires to satisfy.

"The Wants of him that Wants Nothing". Rasselas withdraws from pleasures into solitary meditations. His old instructor asks him what he lacks but Rasselas is unable to formulate what it is. The old man suggests that Rasselas would appreciate his happiness more if he knew the miseries of the world beyond the valley. Rasselas embraces this idea and forms the desire to learn about the life outside.

"The Prince Continues to Grieve and Muse". Rasselas finds comfort in activity focused at an aim. He spends his time imagining himself in various difficult and dangerous adventures. He realizes that a whole year has passed without his doing anything to make his dreams come true. He spends several more months grieving his idleness but then he decides to find out a way to escape from the valley.

"The Prince Meditates his Escape". Rasselas spends another ten months in surveying the valley and the insurmountable mountain range. He fails to discover any way of escape but he does not despair and hopes for success instead.

"A Dissertation on the Art of Flying". Rasselas meets an artist and experimenter in mechanic sciences. The man claims he would be able to construct wings for men to fly. He fears that his invention may be abused, therefore Rasselas must keep the experiment secret. After a year the wings are constructed but they do not work.

"The Prince Finds a Man of Learning". Rasselas gets acquainted with the poet Imlac who tells him about his experience of the world outside the valley.

"The History of Imlac". Imlac is a son of a wealthy merchant who intended him for a trading career. Imlac however found pleasure in learning, came to despise riches, and preferred to live as a scholar. He travelled Persia, Arabia, and other countries, staying in each of them as long as there was something new to learn. He observed that in every country poetry was greatly valued so that he decided to become a poet. He studied carefully both the objects and creatures of nature and the different conditions of people to be able to describe them. Imlac met several European nations and realized that their civilization is more advanced than that of the Asian or African peoples. The Europeans are therefore less unhappy but they are far from being happy: "Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed" (p. 67). Imlac returned home twenty years from his departure to find his father dead and his friends estranged. He was tired with being constantly rejected and disregarded and entered the happy valley deliberately. He admits that he is not happy now but that he has the advantage of having experienced enough to live on. Rasselas asks Imlac for assistance with his escape and is determined to make his choice of life.

"Rasselas Discovers the Means of Escape". Rasselas and Imlac observe rabbits fleeing from inundation up the mountain slopes. The rabbits inspire them to dig a hole in the mountain as a means of escape. The work is heavy but Imlac urges Rasselas for perseverance.

"Rasselas and Imlac Receive an Unexpected Visit". The undertaking of Rasselas and Imlac is discovered by one of Rasselas's sisters, Nekayah. She too is unhappy in the valley and asks to be allowed to accompany Rasselas. Rasselas consents.


"The Prince and Princess Leave the Valley, and See Many Wonders". Rasselas, Imlac, and Nekayah with her maid Pekuah make their escape. They are surprised by the unknown world which does not pay them the royal respect they were used to. Imlac instructs them how to behave among strangers. They spend some time in a village to get used to common humanity and then in a port from where they proceed to Cairo.

"They Enter Cairo, and Find Every Man Happy". Imlac hires a house in Cairo and has himself recognized as a wealthy merchant. He invites all the different sorts of people to the house so that Rasselas could watch them and make his choice of life accordingly. Rasselas believes that all the people he meets are as happy as they seem to be but Imlac informs him that he is being deceived by appearances. Imlac believes that perfect happiness is never to be attained, people however believe that their neighbours posses it and keep on envying them.

"The Prince Associates with Young Men of Spirit and Gaity". It takes two years for Rasselas to learn the language. He joins a group of young men who seem to be most happy only to realize that they are wasting their lives in superficial sensual pleasures. He leaves the company disgusted.

"The Prince Finds a Wise and Happy Man". Rasselas attends a lecture by a scholar who argues for stoic patience as a means of happiness. Rasselas visits the man several days later to find him crushed by the death of his only daughter. The scholar does not live according to what he preaches and Rasselas leaves him disappointed.

"A Glimpse of Pastoral Life". Rasselas and his company set out in search of a reputed hermit. They make a stop among shepherds but Rasselas and the princess are repudiated by their primitive vulgarity. The shepherds claim themselves very unhappy.

"The Danger of Prosperity". The company is invited to a stately palace of a wealthy man. The owner of the palace seems to be happy but he complaints that he is in danger of life because of his riches and the plots of envious neighbours.

"The Happiness of Solitude. The Hermit's History". The company arrives at the humble shelter of the hermit. He has been living fifteen years in solitude to avoid the evil. Together with avoiding the corrupt men he however deprived himself of the company and conversation of the virtuous ones. He is resolved to return to Cairo the next day.

"The Happiness of a Life Led According to Nature". Rasselas joins a discussion of learned men. The scholars tend to dispute with one another and derive pleasure from diminishing their opponents. One of them suggests that happiness can be found in life according to nature, modelled on the example of animals. He is however unable to explain to Rasselas comprehensibly how to lead such a life in practice.

"The Prince and his Sister Divide between them the Work of Observation". The princess suggests that she will search for happiness in the habitations of the poor while Rasselas should examine the palaces of the rich to the same purpose.

"The Prince Examines the Happiness of High Stations". Rasselas is admitted to the court of the Bassa. He finds than the courtiers envy and hate one another and are constantly plotting against their enemies. At the end of his stay, the Bassa is arrested, his successor is deposed, and the following Sultan is murdered. Not even the man in the highest rank is therefore happy and safe.

"The Princess Pursues her Inquiry with More Diligence than Success". The princess finds the desires of the poor low and their peace spoilt by jealousy. She realizes that many poor families pretend to be living in the state of affluence and spend all their energies on preserving this appearance.

"The Princes Continues her Remarks upon Private Life". The princess compares a family to a little kingdom which is also torn by factions and threatened by revolutions. The young and the old generations disagree and despise each other and there is no natural affection between parents and children. Married couples are in constant fight while single persons deliberately make themselves outcasts of society.

"Disquisition upon Greatness". Rasselas observes that discontent is all pervading. He suggests that perfect virtue could lead to perfect happiness, this state is however unattainable in life. Everyone is bound to commit evil from time to time by ignorance or mistake.

"Rasselas and Nekayah Continue their Conversation". Rasselas emphasizes that they do not attempt to find remedy for the world but seek for individual happiness. He disagrees with the princess on the subject of marriage, which he thinks natural and advisable.

"The Debate of Marriage Continued". Rasselas suggests that if marriage is good for mankind in general, then it must be good for individuals as well. He compares the advantages and disadvantages of those who marry early and those who marry later in life but finds faults with both conditions. The princess concludes that one must make his choice, be happy with the advantages, but be also content to cope with the drawbacks. One cannot have the advantages of both at the same time.

"Imlac Enters and Changes the Conversation". Imlac suggests to Rasselas to survey the historical monuments of the country. Rasselas hesitates but Imlac explains him that in order to live well in the present, we must learn the lesson of the past.

The Pyramids

"They Visit the Pyramids". The company prepares to enter a pyramid but the princess's maid refuses to go in out of superstitious fear of the dead.

"They Enter the Pyramid". As to the purpose of the pyramids, Imlac supposes that they are results of "that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some employment" (p. 113). The emperors who had the pyramids built did so for no practical purpose but to satisfy their vanity and to supply a goal for their lives at the point when they have already reached all that they could have wanted.

"The Princess Meets with an Unexpected Misfortune". When the company returns from the pyramid, they learn that Pekuah was abducted by Arabs. Pursuit is unsuccessful, so Pekuah is lost.

"They Return to Cairo without Pekuah". The princess tries all the means of punishing the abductors and rescuing her favourite Pekuah. She fails and feels guilty for having left Pekuah behind unprotected. Imlac comforts the princess by assuring her that we can neither foresee nor prevent what God plans for us to happen.

"The Princess Languishes for Want of Pekuah". The princess grieves her loss and decides to withdraw to a solitary life. Imlac persuades her that there is no use in increasing "the burden of life by a voluntary accumulation of misery" (p. 120). He explains that something is naturally lost while something else is gained.

"Pekuah is Still Remembered. The Progress of Sorrow". The princess is surprised to find herself gradually and against her will recovering from the loss of Pekuah. She wonders about the nature of happiness which she found in the company of Pekuah and which came to be the source of her sorrow.

"The Princess Hears News of Pekuah". One of the messengers delivers the news that Pekuah is held captive by a wealthy Arab who demands ransom money in exchange for restoring her. The business is duly transacted and Pekuah returns to her mistress.

"The Adventures of the Lady Pecuah". The Arab who abducted Pecuah owes to her that his purpose is to collect ransom in order to increase his riches. When he sees Pecuah attended by her own maids, he conjures that she is a princess and treats her with proper respect. Pecuah is detained in the Arab's castle. Her only company are simple and unrefined maids whose innocent amusements do not bring Pecuah much pleasure.

The Astronomer

"The History of a Man of Learning". Rasselas renews his search for happiness and now hopes to find it in scholarly life. Imlac tells the story of an astronomer who spent forty years observing the celestial bodies. He lives engrossed in his occupation and only from time to time admits some friends to converse with them.

"The Astronomer Discovers the Cause of his Uneasiness". The astronomer discloses to Imlac that he can control the weather and regulate the seasons. He uses this faculty to assist mankind indiscriminately. As he feels his death is approaching, he appoints Imlac his successor and warns him not to abuse the gift.

"The Dangerous Prevalence of Imagination". The story of the astronomer shows the danger of fancy when it comes to prevail over reason. Rasselas, the princess, and Pecuah all confess that they have their day dreams too.

"They Discourse with an Old Man". The company comes across a sage and inquires after his opinion concerning his lot. The old man is composed but not happy for the world had long lost novelty to him and he outlived all with whom he could share the pleasures of life.

"The Princess and Pekuah Visit the Astronomer". The women desire to see the unfortunate astronomer. Pekuah pretends that she wishes to become the astronomer's scholar. She has gained some basic knowledge in astronomy during her captivity. The astronomer comes to enjoy the company of women and his mind seems to clear gradually. When Rasselas finally reveals him the purpose of his quest, the astronomer does not give him any advice but owes that his own choice of life was a wrong one. He spent all his life in theoretical study without experiencing anything and deprived himself of domestic pleasures.

"The Prince Enters, and Brings a New Topic". The company discusses the condition of the monk and conclude that is is better to live a good life in public than to live a good life in seclusion. For those who cannot resist evil, the monastery however provides a helpful protection.

"The Conclusion, in which Nothing is Concluded"

"Imlac Discourses on the Nature of the Soul". The astronomer suggests that when Rasselas cannot find what he is looking for among the living, he may try to do so among the dead. The company therefore visits the catacombs. They discuss about the nature of the soul, its immateriality and immortality. The princess realizes that in the presence of death, her choice of life loses importance and the only relevant choice is that of eternity promised to the soul by the Creator.

"The Conclusion, in which Nothing is Concluded". The travellers contemplate their experience. Pekuah liked the best the convent where the Arab restored her to the princess and she wishes to have the place filled with pious maidens and herself be made prioress of the order. The princess is enchanted by knowledge and wishes to found an academy for women. The prince wishes for a kingdom of his own where he could built up a perfect government. Imlac and the astronomer are "contented to be driven along the stream of life, without directing their course to any particular port" (p. 158). All of them know that their wishes will not be fulfilled and resolve to return to Abyssinia.



Human beings naturally tend to be dissatisfied with their lot. Those who do not live in the happy valley envy those who live there and on the contrary, Rasselas envies those who know the life beyond the valley. Rasselas has all his desires already satisfied and there is nothing left for him to desire. There is no goal of life for him, which is the source of his discomfort. The situation of Rasselas implies that the existence of distress is necessary for human beings to be able to appreciate comfort.

Rasselas sets out in search for happiness with the belief that he has the power to choose his life for himself. Neither of those whom he meets are happy with their choices. Rasselas eventually chooses to return where he started so that he had made an attempt to choose a new happy life of his own but ended up with his old unhappy life anyway. What follows is that it is not relevant whether we can choose our lives or not, we are naturally doomed to be unhappy with our lot, whatever it is.


  • Author

    Samuel Johnson. (1709 - 1784).
  • Full Title

    The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
  • First Published

  • Form

    Philosophical novel.

Works Cited

Johnson, Samuel. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. 1759. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898.


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