The pursuit of happiness

‘The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia’ – Samuel Johnson

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The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia – Samuel Johnson

‘Rasselas’ compresses into a hundred or so pages everything that puts Dr Johnson among the great lions of English literature and life.

Telling how Rasselas and his companions escape from the bland pleasure of their perfectly happy valley in Abissinia to Egypt, to study how people live, the book is a parable and a pilgrimage in which all manner of subjects are discussed – flying machines, poetry, marriage, madness. ‘Rasselas’ embodies Dr Johnson’s most powerful and heart-warming qualities: his tragic sense of life, his justice, his wisdom which is never boring or solemn, and his miraculous ability to balance humour with sympathy in weighing up some of life’s more mysterious problems – what is happiness, and how can we find it?

I find it ironic that the last book I reviewed was a 20th century take on the pursuit of happiness, and now here I am again, but this time reviewing Samuel Johnson’s interpretation from 1759. It’s not surprising that I have rated this as dreary because it is sometimes a bit of a slog. What I mean by this is not just the language and style of writing, but the social commentary that Johnson includes.

The novel follows the Prince and Princess of Abissinia, as they decide to escape the Happy Valley – a plentiful paradise where every wish is fulfilled. They desire more – they want to feel a need for life and desire. In other words, they are no longer satisfied by the material and wealthy life that the Happy Valley offers.

The procrastinating and deliberating of the Prince and Princess is entertaining because they appear to lament on the negativities of society and procrastinate on its issues, but often are not compelled to widen their observations of society. Instead, they seek other ways of living to make comparisons. I think this is clearly summarised in the concluding chapter, titled ‘The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded’ and, like ‘The Beach’, the reader is left feeling that nothing has been gained, questioning whether the Prince and Princess are now truly happy?

The book has very short chapters and this helps you dip in and out of it. I think this is important to fully appreciate Johnson’s commentary because it does require a lot of thinking at times! If you are up on your classics and 18th century history, then definitely give this a go. It is interesting to consider Johnson’s social commentary at the time and undoubtedly this does enrich one’s reading of this novella. However, don’t feel put off at giving this a go. At the very least, you will read a short story about two members of royalty who go off on an ancient jolly!