Samuel Johnson

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Biographical Sketches of memorable Christians of the Past, Samuel Johnson

The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page

Dr. Johnson's House

A Guide to Samuel Johnson


The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759)

  • Rasselas is a philosophical fable in the form of an Oriental tale. The action and characters serve to illustrate the theme that humans should not waste their lives in wishful thinking.  

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Study Questions



Rasselas is searching for happiness.  He and Imlac, an Eastern wise man, dig their way out of the Happy Valley, where the Emperor's children are confined. Nekayah, his sister, and Pekuah, her companion, accompany the two men. Their search takes them from Suez to Cairo, visiting all types of men, and finding that no one is really happy. At the Pyramids, Pekuah is kidnapped by Arabs. After her release, all decide on what would bring them true happiness. Pekuah chooses a convent, Nekayah chooses knowledge, the Prince would like a little kingdom where he could administer justice. Knowing that they will never obtain these things, they finally journey back home.    

Study Questions

  1.  Johnson's poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes" expresses the theme of Rasselas. Both are based on the OT Book Ecclesiastes, whose refrain is "all is vanity." How is this theme introduced in the first chapters of Rasselas?

2.  The name "Happy Valley" calls to mind the garden of Eden. Critics have interpreted Rasselas as a fable of everyman's passage from innocence to experience. Point out details in the text that support such an interpretation.

3.  To equate the Happy Valley with the biblical Eden is to ignore certain sinister details in its description. Find phrases that suggest the valley stands for the inclination of humanity toward self-deception and immersion in the pleasures of life as a means of avoiding its pains.

4.  In his search for happiness, Rasselas encounters many different types of people all of whom have symbolic significance. By what does Johnson satirize the hermit in Ch. XXI? by what the philosopher in Ch. XII?

5.  In the last chapter of Rasselas we read, "Imlac and the astronomer were contented to be driven along the stream of life without directing their course to any particular port." The metaphor of a ship drifting at the mercy of wind and tide conveys Imlac's passivity which reveals the paradoxical nature of his role as guide. What is the paradox and what does it express abut the joys and pleasures of life?

6.  Compare the final chapter of Rasselas with the final verses of Ecclesiastes. What is the role of religion as expressed in the two texts?

7.  What is an obvious difference between the ideas expressed in the endings of the two texts and what does the difference imply concerning Johnson's philosophical perspective as expressed in Rasselas?  


The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Full text)

An Introduction to Samuel Johnson's Rassela

Restless Wrestling: Johnson's Rasselas


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