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The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia Paperback – Jun 15 2009
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About the Author
Thomas Keymer is the editor of three outstanding editions for OWC: Fielding Joseph Andrews and Shamela, Richardson, Pamela, and Defoe, Robinson Crusoe. He has co-edited The Cambridge Companion to English Literature from 1740 to 1830 with Jon Mee (2004), and is the editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Laurence Sterne.
“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, Pennsylvania State University
“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, Bucknell UniversitySee all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"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.
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.
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.
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.