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The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia Paperback – Jun 15 2009

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; New Edition edition (June 15 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019922997X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199229970
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 1.5 x 12.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 159 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #154,396 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Jessica Richard's engaging new edition of Rasselas for Broadview provides everything needed to bring into focus the paradoxical nature of Samuel Johnson's achievement in that slender masterpiece. As this edition makes clear, Johnson penned, against the cultural grain, a willfully anti-exotic 'Oriental tale.' Richard highlights the insouciance of such an Oriental tale in which the main characters—Coptic Christians in Africa—reflect with aplomb on the accidental happenstance of northwest Europe's global ascendance. Through her well-chosen contextual materials, Richard both establishes a background for Rasselas in the conventions of eighteenth-century literary Orientalism and clarifies the manifest singularity of Johnson's classic novella." (Clement Hawes)

"The globalization of literary studies has produced fascinating insights into the cultural interactions between Europe and the East, and Europe and the Americas during the eighteenth century. Jessica Richard's enterprising edition of Johnson's Rasselas brings out the global interests of this popular tale by placing it firmly in the context of enlightenment Orientalism. It highlights Johnson's cosmopolitan universalism, for while embracing cultural difference he reverses the Oriental gaze, and uses the conventions of the Oriental tale to historicize his exploration of human desire and happiness. This new Broadview edition offers an excellent introduction to Johnson's global status." (Greg Clingham) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From the Back Cover

In Samuel Johnson’s classic philosophical tale, the prince and princess of Abissinia escape their confinement in the Happy Valley and conduct an ultimately unsuccessful search for a choice of life that leads to happiness. Johnson uses the conventions of the Oriental tale to depict a universal restlessness of desire. The excesses of Orientalism—its superfluous splendours, its despotic tyrannies, its riotous pleasures—cannot satisfy us. His tale challenges us by showing the problem of finding happiness to be insoluble while still dignifying our quest for fulfillment. The appendices to this Broadview edition include reviews and biographies, selections from the sequel Dinarbas (1790), and the complete text of Elizabeth Pope Whately's The Second Part of the History of Rasselas (1835). Selections from Johnson’s translation of the travel narrative A Voyage to Abyssinia, as well as his Oriental tales in the Rambler, are also included, along with another popular tale, Joseph Addison’s "The Vision of Mirzah," and selections from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Amazon.com: 24 reviews
47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
A "Coming of Age" Morality Tale March 6 2000
By Frank Lynch - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Johnson brings together a wide variety of his favorite themes in this brief book, as he follows a small band of travelers as they interact with the world around them.
"Rasselas" of the title is a prince who has led a sheltered life in the Happy Valley. Over time he becomes discontented with always being contented, and decides to escape his boredom by leaving. He is led by his guide Imlac, a court counselor and poet; accompanying them is Rasselas's sister and her maid.
Rasselas's goal is to make a "choice of life," something he has great difficulty doing once outside the confines of the Happy Valley. Repeatedly, the quartet encounters arguments and counterarguments for one way of life or another. Ultimately, they realize that it's not what they choose to do in this life that matters, as long as it doesn't impede on their after-life. That is the major conclusion they reach, in a final chapter which Johnson calls "The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded."
The book and its writing is fairly simple, and could be read by anyone in high school. Unlike a lot of Johnson's essays, the syntax is not tangled, and it is easy to get through. However, while the writing is fairly simple (Hemingway some times comes to my mind!), the themes are big. And a young reader must be patient: what sounds like a final opinion on one page frequently gets an "on the other hand" on the next.
This is important, because some of the lines which characters speak are easily taken out of context, and misintepreted. A reader who is not careful may find a line which seems to resonate, and draw the wrong conclusion. Here are two examples: at one point, Imlac (Rasselas's guide) says to Rasselas, "Human life is everywhere a condition in which there is much to be endured and little to be enjoyed." Pretty pessimistic! But in its proper context, Imlac has only cautioned Rasselas against envying the Europeans. In another instance, "The Artist" (no, not the one with the glyph!) tells Rasselas, "Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first oversome." How *wonderful* for the office bulletin board! But then (on the other hand) The Artist puts on a pair of man-made wings and takes a belly flop into a lake.
This book is chock full of aphorisims like these two, and that is part of its appeal. But they are deceptive in isolation, and should be considered as part of the book as a whole.
As a whole book, it is wonderful. Its scope is wide, because of the variety of experiences and because of the to-ing and fro-ing of the dialog. It's a great way to start with Johnson, because it has so many of his large themes, distilled into a little tale which really can fit in your coat pocket.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
A Search for Happiness Nov. 4 2004
By Lonnie E. Holder - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Rasselas was a prince of Abyssinia, doomed to spend his life in "Happy Valley," unless he is chosen to be the King. In Happy Valley Rasselas' every need is met. He is fed and cared for and protected. However, Rasselas is unhappy in Happy Valley. Eventually he finds a man of the world who has come to Happy Valley and by the rules of entry, is now unable to leave. Eventually Prince Rasselas, the poet Imlac, Princess Nekayah and her handmaid Pekuah find a way to leave Happy Valley to journey into the world.

The travelers leave with a quantity of jewels so that they might find their way made easier, as poor travelers typically find their travels harsh. They begin to visit many different kinds of people in an effort to find happiness and thus be helped in deciding their "choice of life." The group visit common people, shepherds, an astronomer, teachers, a wealthy man, and many others. However, the group encounters an unexpected problem; they are unable to find a person who is happy. Even people who appear happy often turn out to have complaints regarding their life. The apparently happy wealthy man complains that others want his wealth. The shepherds turn out to want to live somewhere else. Everyone is dissatisfied with their lot in life.

Adding to the complexity of their search is that people take advantage of the seekers. Some people scam them out of their money. The Princess and Pekuah are kidnapped by desert raiders seeking to ransom them. It seems as though the world is a harsh place compared to Happy Valley. The seekers wonder how anyone can be happy in such a harsh and unforgiving world.

Rasselas is a philosophical tale that wonders about the nature of happiness. However, be careful of your expectations because Rasselas does not provide any ready-made answers. The answers are left to the reader. My observation regarding Rasselas and his band of travelers is that those they encountered would have thought that Rasselas led a happy life because he and his group were able to travel freely where they liked, learning new things and meeting new people. Little did the seekers realize that while they were searching for happiness they were happy.

Rasselas provides an opportunity for a person of learning to contrast his life with those who seek to find something without that is truly within. For those who look, the answer is there, including the answer to where happiness lies. Rasselas was closer than he knew, but he knew not where to look. Unfortunately the learned Imlac provide no assistance and, indeed, steered Rasselas further from the truth.

Typically philosophy books are difficult to read because they tackle complex arguments in ways that are difficult to follow. In the case of Rasselas the search for the choice of life and the search for happiness are told as a parable, making the reading somewhat easier. However, Samuel Johnson wrote this story more than two centuries ago, and the writing style and vocabulary used are likely to be challenging for many. Balancing the difficulty in reading the story is that the story is not long.

Considered by many to be a classic, here is a book that anyone who has styled himself a philosopher or just a seeker after truth should read.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia or What Choice of Life to Make March 30 2009
By Buster - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Dr. Johnson's "The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia" offers a philosophical journey for our modern era--a search for the secret of what choice of life to make.

I highly recommend the Oxford World's Classic edition, edited by J.P. Hardy. The introductory material is quite helpful, and the extensive footnotes, further explaining the text, are a valuable gateway to many of Dr. Johnson's writings in Rambler and Adventurer, writings where he further pursued topics raised in this book.

Rasselas lives in a garden paradise--his every need is provided for by his father, the King, who has sent his four children to live in Happy Valley, a beautiful valley, a Garden of Eden, from which there is no known escape, until they are called to rule through the line of succession.

After years of having his every wish fulfilled, Rasselas grows dissatisfied--there is no challenge or deep satisfaction in merely waiting for others to die so he can be King. Rasselas wants more. He doesn't know life beyond the mountain. The Prince recruits his teacher, his sister, and her companion. Rasselas sets his goal to leave Happy Valley, and then he discovers his means of escape.

He plans to travel the world; to seek out the wise and the learned; to study humanity. Along the way Rasselas and his friends enquire and learn about the human condition: misfortune, desire, corruption, curiosity, loneliness, insanity and the loss of reason. They also consider other questions when making a choice of life: the business of a man of letters; the importance of novelty in a life well-lived; the greatness of a nation as measured by the completeness of her poets; the importance of a desire of knowledge; that the old is valuable because: "what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood."

Their travels take them to Cairo, and they visit a number of places, including the pyramids, and meet many people on their journey, giving them an opportunity to talk to others who have made their choice of life. They meet the married and the single man; what about the choice of a married life? They meet the recluse; what about the choice of a life of seclusion? They visit the great pyramids of Egypt, and learn about the folly of man. They spend time with the astronomer; a man who has spent his life studying the stars. He has lived the life of the hedgehog, learning deeply about star knowledge. How does he feel about his choice of life versus the man who learns about self knowledge?

Dr. Johnson wrote: "The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope." He also understood that "hope was necessary in every condition," but warns us as he begins his tale: "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."

I recommend you travel with Rasselas and his friends; enjoy their journey, their hopes, and their search for the choice of life.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
A prince's search for happiness Dec 17 2010
By Jeffrey Van Wagoner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
I finally got around to reading something from the great Samuel Johnson, who had such a significant impact in the 18th century. This is a relatively short novel about a prince that is effectively imprisoned in "happy valley" along with the emperor's other sons and daughters to protect them from the vicissitudes of life. The price grows weary of the place and escapes along with his sister and a poet.

The story involves their search for happiness and the type of life that they should lead. They explore the lives of the rich and powerful, the poor, scientists, farmers, and many other life styles. There is much philosophical discussion that I found interesting, but I'm not sure that this style of writing would appeal to most modern readers. Even with all of the dialogue, it is still a relatively short book. Subjects that were explored included whether it is better to be married or single, rich or poor, powerful or a subject, educated or ignorant.

I would recommend this book to those interested in philosophy and what was in the 18th century one of the most popular of books. For those looking for an adventure novel, this is not the place to look.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
alright March 29 2014
By A. Meyer - Published on Amazon.com
Although this was an interesting book I did have many times where I simply drifted into other pursuits and left the book just sitting there. The story is about a prince and his companions who are determined to find out the way of life and what is the best for them. In the beginning the prince pines to know the outside world and all its woes because he was stuck in a world where pleasure was the only thing he knew. Once they are on their way they discover time and time again that no matter what, whether it was the philosopher, or the hermit, or the isolated scientist, it didn't matter, they all felt that their life was pursued pointlessly and wished for something else.
This is something perhaps all young people should read (if they can keep their attention on it long enough), since it does hammer home the old saying the grass is always greener on the other side, and that sayings futility. One must learn to balance life with purpose and knowledge that when you grasp for one thing you inevitably end up losing another which you had. It is much like choosing paths, once chosen the others close up and regret is perhaps all you may have left after that unless you are given to a higher purpose.