Analysis: Samuel Johnson - Rasselas: Philosophy and Psychology

Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia asks many important questions that, “concern human happiness-what it is and how it is to be attained” (Smith 625), presenting philosophical problems but leaving their answers open-ended. As an author with a deeply challenged history including many illnesses early in life, Johnson overcame these obstacles to become a successful conversationalist, critic, essayist, poet, and writer (“Samuel Johnson”). Rasselas was his only long fiction and also his most overtly philosophical work. The story describes the Happy Valley, a place where Prince Rasselas leaves along with his sister to experience a range of life adventures in the hopes of gaining insight into happiness. Johnson’s writing, including Rasselas, reflects his strong morals and learned philosophical understanding. The contrast between the Happy Valley against the places the prince visits tells us even more about Johnson’s worldview and perspective that even he as the author may not have perceived when writing the story. Still, the conclusion of the story reveals the most important aspect of Johnson’s philosophical outlook, that happiness is never fully realized, naming the chapter The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded and being sure to emphasize the continued struggle of his characters. Through integrating aspects of Johnson’s biography, and looking at both the story and its author through a psychological lens, including concepts such as transference, deeper philosophical meaning can be unearthed from the apologue including potential answers to questions posed within the narrative, most importantly the question of fulfillment, while uncovering aspects of Johnson’s perspective along the way.

Regarding the setting he chose, Johnson’s choice to make his story take place in the East has a potentially easy and difficult answer. The simple answer may just be that he was well-versed and interested in Eastern culture; “Johnson, before composing Rasselas, must have not only examined the Abyssinian royal family and Egypt but also read widely in European travel and geography books dealing with Egypt and the Near East…his Rasselas was the outcome of his general interest in Orientalism” (Karaduman 155). Other potential answers include themes of escapism, adventure, and the divide between cultures. It is hard to definitively claim Johnson’s inspiration, but a combination of all of these ideas could be part of the reality. Johnson also could have been aspiring to escape the typical and traditional setting expected of his writing. Johnson’s familiarity with Eastern royalty and their histories suggests a genuine fascination in Oriental cultures despite his lack of perspective on certain aspects of their culture, at least in a direct reflection in the text itself. The choice of location also may be in part due to the possibility of adventure and exoticizing of landscape as well (Karaduman). For Western cultures, the idea of an adventure and a tale in an Oriental context is more exciting and different than much of what they would normally read, giving the story an immediate appeal outside of its philosophical explorations. Setting the story in an Eastern context also gives Johnson the means to contrast Western and Eastern ideas. Since Johnson is writing from a Western perspective, his ideas are informed by this background, but intertwining Eastern ideas and concepts is more easily achieved in the Eastern landscape and cultural settings.

Johnson’s work as a lexicographer can also tell us that he valued the use of the English language and its potential applications on a deep level. This love of language is reflected on the pages of Rasselas where Johnson combines classical literary references, poetry, and widely applicable philosophical claims. The question of human happiness is a lofty one, sought out by Johnson for its seemingly impossible conclusion. Still, Johnson’s limited perspective and cultural knowledge pervades the story. His character claims: “Ignorance, when it is voluntary, is criminal; and he may properly be charged with evil who refused to learn how he might prevent it” (Johnson 67). Johnson claims voluntary ignorance is evil without exploring the cultural implications of ignorance or its varied origins. This is not a multiculturally aware analysis of the pursuit of knowledge, but rather one from an entirely Western point of view. This confirms for us that Johnson was using Rasselas as a vehicle of transference for his own philosophical intuitions about thought and its place in culture. This perspective invites a Neo-Freudian analysis of Johnson’s writing, as this view takes into account the ego’s fantasy, “the impossible wholeness of self”, otherness, and partial fulfillment. Johnson’s “otherness” likely began as early as childhood when he would be separated from others due to illness. The ideas of the wholeness of self and partial fulfillment are directly explored in Rasselas throughout many moments in the novel including the many narrative encounters leading up to its conclusion. The entire story could be considered a form of ego fantasy from Johnson, displaying his set of ideals projected onto the East rather than a realistic portrayal of its peoples or even of the West, only organizing a set of ideals rather than a realistic exploration of philosophical principles and their consequences. This is exacerbated by Johnson’s publically recognized strict morals.

For modern readers, it may seem clear that a Western depiction of the East is inherently problematic and has many potential pitfalls. Post/colonial study has made us aware of many of these problems, primarily the idea of the Subaltern. Johnson is not excluded from these problems and according to modern scholars did fall prey to many of the incorrect assumptions often made by the West. Of Johnson, Karaduman claims, “throughout Rasselas, he displays a colonial and imperial mentality and adopts a hegemonic attitude, whereby he others the Orient and Oriental culture and solipsistically presents the West and Western civilization as superior” (153). Hegemonic attitudes are problematic for any depiction of the Other, particularly with a false sense of sympathy founded in perceived superiority. This sentiment is mirrored by other modern scholars; “According to Johnson, the English people are superior whereas the Arab and Muslim systems are inferior” (Abdulhafeth 21). We see this not through overt claims but through the eyes of Johnson’s characters, making this issue perhaps even more insidious for an unaware audience. Scholars like Karaduman argue that Rasselas uses an imperialist perspective to approach the questions posed by the text, rather than depicting a realistic setting or considering how Eastern cultures would approach these questions. The story and its characters also come together to paint a picture of Western superiority in a way that reflects prevailing Western ideas as more “correct” than any other.

This is, as we have pointed out, even more problematic for a nation whose history is filled with imperialism and subjugation of the Other. Said explains of Europe, “The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other” (2). This pre-existing relationship with the East explains Johnson’s choice of setting but only complicates the resulting work. While it is scattered throughout the text, there is a presence of exoticizing the East in Rasselas. This presence of exoticizing reveals aspects of Western thought including a superiority founded in ignorance, something that Johnson himself criticizes in the text of Rasselas. Said’s article highlights the importance of Eastern culture and the Orient in the history of England and Europe, including the events leading into the writing of Rasselas and Johnson’s time. This also makes the writing of the story a bit more complicated rather than simplified. The East is not only exoticized by the West but also became an area of interest for its approach to life, as well as its very different range of classes. Since Johnson chose the East as a foundation for the story and a landscape, we can more easily identify the exoticization and use of the East as a vehicle for Western thought where it arises.

The princess Nekayah, for example, observes others and explains their faults; “She found their thoughts narrow, their wishes low, and their merriment often artificial. Their pleasures, poor as they were, could not be preserved pure” (Johnson 75). This is juxtaposed against Nekayah, “who is depicted favorably by Johnson, has had the education of a woman of quality; she is taught to dance, to exhibit good breeding, and to follow the example of her teacher” (Fritz 20). The necessity for education and “good breeding” is something valuable but the opposite is criticized and exoticized as something unique to the East in comparison to the well-off West. This is also a problematic assumption that separates East and West but also divides the people of the East within the novel. This is perhaps the most realistic part of the portrayal but does not analyze beyond the direct consequences within the narrative. Rather, Johnson wishes to explore ideas of Western thought such as logic and reason; “Of the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason” (Johnson 93). Reason is pivotal for Johnson throughout the text and buried in its questions. This informs the way he approaches concepts and themes like class, perception, and education including the idea of intellectual thought.

The historical context of the publication of Rasselas is debated but the common consensus shows that Johnson was not paid much, and the work was rushed to meet a deadline. This rushed timeline tells us that the work was largely formed out of Johnson’s existing ideas (Mace). Nancy Mace discusses Samuel Johnson’s background up to and including the publication of Rasselas in her research. This includes the consistently debated topic of whether Johnson was paid for writing the piece and the length of time it took for him to complete the work. She ultimately concludes that “the partnership…bought it for 75 pounds” (458) but explains the conflicting information and historical data surrounding the artifact. This low price and the desperate nature of the work convey that the work meant more to Johnson than it may appear, as the tale, while not necessarily fleshed out to Johnson’s liking, is polished and a remarkably whole work.

The “choice of life” in the novel is one that pervades every narrative progression and philosophical consideration, as it is the characters’ primary concern. This question can be applied and considered in many different contexts as well. Robert Mayhew considers a unique question concerning Johnson’s text, the evaluation of “the ‘choice of life’ with respect to nature” (553). He explores the text through multiple lenses to answer this question including classical, socioeconomic, and psychological perspectives. Many aspects of the tale inform this claim of the intent including the form of the story, explanations of the senses, the mind, and spirituality as they relate to nature in the story. These are all important aspects of a psychological analysis of Johnson and his writing, especially as they reveal aspects of his state of mind as well as his intentions. Mayhew points out, “nature and landscape are far more than a ‘background’ or ‘springboard’ in Rasselas, and it follows that they are important as an exemplification of Johnson’s Christian view of moral choice” (539-540). Observations like these, plentiful in the article, directly support an argument of Johnson’s writing being informed by his environment including his Christian background, and these informing the many philosophical questions posed in the text.

There are also inherently important social concepts present in Rasselas including corruption, poverty, and these are all extended through Johnson’s rhetorical strategies. Pirnajmuddin explains some of the historical background of the story including the texts that inspired Johnson’s work. He points out many instances in the story that elicit reactions from readers; “The paradox in Rasselas‟ situation, naturally, provokes the reader to muse” (401). The answers and explanations provided by Johnson are unanswered and open-ended according to Pirnajmuddin. One of the most explicit and important examples of a question being left unanswered is a question posed at the beginning of the story: “If you want nothing, how are you unhappy?” (Johnson 17). Like many questions posed during the story, there is a tentative answer, but not a definitive conclusion. Rasselas answers, “you have given me something to desire. I shall long to see the miseries of the world, since the sight of them is necessary to happiness” (Johnson 17). This seems like a definitive answer, but the Prince seeks out these experiences and returns empty-handed and with all of the same problems he had before leaving, including the grander question of happiness and its elusiveness.

Another lens to look at Johnson’s story is through Aristotelian teleology. Pahl explains the presence and significance of Aristotelian teleology, the explanation of phenomena regarding purpose, in Johnson’s text. This is directly useful in any philosophical analysis of Johnson’s text and its posed questions and provides a necessary philosophical context for many of its stories. For example, he discusses the differing viewpoints of scholars regarding the quest and its implications; “Unfortunately, many scholars doubt whether Rasselas's quest leads anywhere, let alone to maturity” (223). This supports the general conclusion from many scholars, including Pirnajmuddin, that the conclusion of the story is a broad representation of many of its sub-narratives and explains a general lack of clarity around happiness with an intentionally obscured methodology. Research discusses the existence of different viewpoints regarding the ambiguity of the narrative events in Rasselas and more importantly the implications of these events. The conclusion of many sections of the story, especially the final chapter, lead us to believe that Johnson wanted to communicate a general lack of certainty with life and with the pursuit of human happiness. He purposefully leaves many things unclear in a narrative sense to reflect this as well. Aristotelian teleology helps to explain some of Johnson’s approaches to concepts like happiness, work, and social life. As Pahl states, “Like Aristotle, Johnson also believes that happiness is universally desirable” (224). This commonality may seem trivial, but this is reflected directly in Johnson’s writing. There is not a nihilistic or hopeless approach to happiness, just one that is obscured by uncertainty.

The narrative events of the story also lead us towards a general uncertainty in a broader sense. Rasselas himself experiences a multitude of events that do not lead to any real certainty, especially in terms of answering his largest question, and lead to future uncertainty, exemplified by the story’s conclusion. This is illustrated many times throughout the story so we can point to many stories including listening to Imlac and various other experiences; “sadly, though, Rasselas’ quest is frequently misguided; thus in the Happy Valley he believes happiness is found in endless activity and longs to become like ‘the kids and the lambs chasing one another’” (Pahl 224). The simple pleasures of life, especially those experienced by common people according to Johnson, are associated and connected to happiness at various stages of the story. Rasselas and Nekayah even daydream and imagine themselves living simple lives and engaging in various adventures that are foreign to them up until that point.

Still, Rasselas deviates from classical philosophy, including Aristotelian teleology, by communicating the uselessness of boundless philosophizing and complex thought. This is reinforced at many points in the story through the glorification of simple life and unobstructed enjoyment of physical activity and the simple pleasures of life. This is made very clear in chapter eighteen when the Prince recounts the importance of liberation from thought and the happiness derived from landscape and the world around him; “He then communicated the various precepts given from time to time for the conquest of passion, and displayed the happiness of those who had obtained the important victory, after which man is no longer the slave of fear nor the fool of hope; is no more emaciated by envy, inflamed by anger, emasculated by tenderness, or depressed by grief; but walks on calmly through the tumults or privacies of life, as the sun pursues alike his course through the calm or the stormy sky” (Johnson). He then goes on to explain how so many heroes were not moved by “pain or pleasure”, signifying the triviality of earthly passion and suffering in the pursuit of happiness. This can appear paradoxical, but Johnson is pointing out the importance of intrinsic value in life. There is a common consideration for the internal, for happiness from within, that is reinforced by narrative but explicitly stated by Rasselas among others. When Rasselas points out the importance of calmness in the face of so many struggles, and the importance of liberation from emotions like envy, anger, and grief, he is pointing towards freedom as a foundation for individual value and eventual happiness.

The language Johnson uses, especially considering his past as a lexicographer, tells us even more about the subtext and analogies present in the story. Duane Smith explains linguistic and thematic patterns used in Johnson’s writing in his article titled “Repetitive Patterns in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas”. The article explains these patterns in great detail including question-answer structure, Platonic repetition, and Christian themes, overviewing the overarching concept of Johnson’s questions that, “concern human happiness-what it is and how it is to be attained” (625) is an essential part of any argument considering this text. For example, Johnson uses dialogue to convey and communicate a range of styles that primarily includes class differences. There are straightforward explanations of these differences as well, such as when Imlac observes the different appearances of extravagance in comparison to the masses in poverty in the second chapter. The differences in dialogue between characters also help differentiate their views and backgrounds, respectively. The Prince speaks in a way that reflects his status, where in comparison Imlac speaks loftily and with a focus on abstract or complex philosophical concepts. For example, in chapter twelve he says, “There may be community of material possessions, but there can never be community of love or of esteem. It must happen that one will please more than another” (Johnson). He goes on to discuss this with the Prince where there is a clear difference in their speech.

Johnson’s focus on satirical writing explores aspects of Western thought through the creative lens of Eastern storytelling. Michelle Stern’s article “Fantasies of Choosing in Rasselas” claims Rasselas is a “satire of the human condition… [which] exposes the futility of a worldview grounded in a narrow understanding of hope” (523). Stern provides what amounts to an explanation of many concepts in the story that are useful for a set of deeper claims about its intentions. The most important theme that Stern explores is that of choice. This is a major theme within the story and Stern explains how this theme is extended into an exploration of humanity. The characters in the story are limited by their environment and circumstances, yet they seek out truth over simple knowledge. This makes the events of the story, especially its conclusion, more meaningful and even more dreadfully impactful. The eventual realization of fulfillment coming from within themselves creates a sense of freedom even while it can appear hopeless by the same notion.

Johnson also draws a line to differentiate classes of people through behavior. Imlac explains of these people, “I am less unhappy than the rest, because I have a mind replete with images, which I can vary and combine at pleasure. I can amuse my solitude by the renovation of the knowledge which begins to fade from my memory, and by recollection of the accidents of my past life…The rest, whose minds have no impression but of the present moment, are either corroded by malignant passions or sit stupid in the gloom of perpetual vacancy” (Johnson 60). Of course, we can glean a lot from this passage including class differences, but the important piece that tells us more about Johnson’s perspective regarding his deeper questions is that he places a very high importance on individual thought over what we now label as “living in the moment” or what Imlac calls “malignant passions” and “the gloom of perpetual vacancy”. Imlac does clarify that this vacancy is perpetual, so this distinction is important in differentiating the continual with the present moment, but there is still a disdain for those “whose minds have no impression but of the present moment”.

Imlac also warns the Prince of the dangers of the outside world, including the corruption of others. He paints the picture of a world that is out to corrupt, deceive, and harm anyone like Rasselas; “The world, which you figure to yourself smooth and quiet as the lake in the valley, you will find a sea foaming with tempests and boiling with whirlpools; you will be sometimes overwhelmed by the waves of violence, and sometimes dashed against the rocks of treachery. Amidst wrongs and frauds, competitions and anxieties, you will wish a thousand times for these seats of quiet, and willingly quit hope to be free from fear” (Johnson 60). There is an assumption that Rasselas is naïve, which makes sense considering his isolation in the Happy Valley and even further because of his separation from the rest of the people of his world. Imlac also suggests a respite from the realities of life is something to be cherished. He paints this dichotomy as something to be considered and as a warning but this connects even further into some of the larger questions posed by the story. Still, the Prince dismisses this warning in pursuit of the “choice of life”, showing perseverance in search of answers and even a pursuit of knowledge in regard to these “conditions of men”.

The conclusion of the story is the most debated of the narrative for good reason. The climax of Rasselas’ travels results in a conclusion “In Which Nothing Is Concluded” in Johnson’s own words. This last chapter of the text has already been analyzed to a great extent, but there is still some detail to be considered within the context of Johnson’s intentions. Peter New, for example, claims that the conclusion suggests, “maturity but apathy, an apathy which has throughout been associated both with age and with failure. Only through willed endeavour and deliberate activity… has anything been discovered at all” (151). There is a very clear and undeniable process of maturation throughout Rasselas’ journey, even with the conflicting ideas of knowledge and experience when presented by Imlac and the events of the text.

This intersection is where my argument diverges from those like Pahl substantially. Pahl claims that Rasselas’ journey results in the travelers coming to an “end to their quest by realizing that happiness…is not found in pleasure or even in philosophical contemplation but is synonymous with God” (230). While there is no doubt that the Prince and the others realize happiness is not found in contemplation, it is not clear that Johnson is communicating a synonymity of happiness with God. This is one possible interpretation, but not a final or exact interpretation that rules out others. Johnson leaves the conclusion of the novel open ended and explains that it is open ended for a substantial reason. This makes the realization that Rasselas reaches more universal than a connection with God. One could argue that the definition of God is up to interpretation, but this is still an unnecessarily specific description of the conclusion of the story. Johnson even states “Imlac and the astronomer were contented to be driven along the stream of life without directing their course to any particular port” (185). This does support an obscured realization rather than a properly specific one. He also states, “Of those wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could be obtained” (Johnson 185). There is clearly a lack of definite conclusion in these statements, especially when paired with the events leading up to the conclusion.

As we have established, this is a repeated theme throughout the story and especially with Rasselas’ character in several instances. This is a pattern that Duane Smith refers to in his article as well. Smith points out an instance where Imlac talks about his life and his profession as a poet, to which Rasselas responds by immediately invalidating and dismissing the importance of this discussion (626); the Prince interjects, “Enough! thou hast convinced me that no human being can ever be a poet” (Johnson 49). This extends even beyond a simple rejection. The Prince states that “no human being can ever be a poet”, going so far as to dismiss the labours laid out by Imlac and move on to another topic, also telling Imlac that his own words have convinced Rasselas of the impossibility of the profession and its fruitless struggles. This is a repeated theme throughout many of the chapters of Rasselas, as we see a repetitious meaninglessness premature ending to many of the events in the text. This repetition is not just a thematic principle but a deliberate commentary by Johnson of the meaninglessness of many of these events without the proper context, only realized at the end of the story. This context may have been explored further by Johnson if he had more time or funding, but we will never know what else the story had to offer beyond these pages. Regardless, the unrealized goals and unfulfilled expectations are spread across the text and suggest an obscured view of reality including an uncertainty that pervades Johnson’s perspective. This is a logical extension of Johnson’s perspective and background.

Considering some of the other questions posed by the story, some are uniquely open-ended. The bigger questions have broad implications, and while this does not hinder the impact of Johnson’s claims, it makes the answers general enough to apply to a variety of problems. This actually makes the considerations of the text even more useful in many cases. For example, the Princess claims in Chapter twenty-four, "he does nothing who endeavours to do more than is allowed to humanity. Flatter not yourself with contrarieties of pleasure. Of the blessings set before you make your choice, and be content" (Johnson). Statements such as this are widely applicable because they are not specific enough to make simple and direct claims (Stern). When the Princess makes this claim she does not define the limits of humanity. Yes, she is stating that lofty aims are not practical and fail to consider the pragmatic concerns of man, but where is the line to be drawn? Where are men to stop when considering lofty ideals and what is practical philosophy versus pragmatic thought? Rasselas asks questions like these but does not provide a solid answer, even though the reasoning for this may be multi-faceted. Perhaps one reason is because Johnson needed to finish the story in such a short time or because he had a lot going on outside of writing Rasselas, including a short deadline and personal matters (Mace). These reasons contribute to a story that even Johnson himself identified as less complete than he had intended, at least in an ideal sense. Still, Rasselas successfully explores the complexity and intricacies of human nature, fulfillment, and agency in relation to destiny. Johnson, through quotes like the one we hear from the Princess here, suggests that people are inherently limited by their own proclivities yet still need to be content with their lives including those limitations. We must consider our reality and move forward with contentment, not focusing on the unobtainable ideals outside of our realistic humanity.

By looking at these aspects of Johnson’s writing we can understand many of the details of the story but also the intent behind the philosophical questions and their open-ended answers. The text delves into profound questions surrounding human happiness, leaving readers to ponder their personal interpretations of such a broad set of questions. Johnson's narrative skillfully contrasts the artificial bliss of the Happy Valley with the complexities of the outside world, shedding light on his nuanced worldview. The format and satire provide an interesting foundation for Johnson’s story. Johnson employs an episodic format, allowing Rasselas to embark on a series of adventures and encounters that span diverse landscapes and societal settings, despite their lack of grounded reality to extend the symbolic questions. This episodic structure not only keeps the story engaging but also enables Johnson to offer a broad view of human life, overviewing various facts of existence and human behavior, including humanity itself. Rasselas is also notable for its satirical elements. Johnson critiques the prevailing philosophical, religious, and societal beliefs of his time. By using satire, Johnson infuses the story with wit and humor while simultaneously challenging conventional wisdom and exposing the limitations of human understanding. The characters themselves act as complex vehicles to explore these questions, considering ideas of happiness and the fragility of life including isolation and socialization.

Works Cited

Abdulhafeth, Ali Khrisat. “The Image of the Orient in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas.” IISTE, Accessed 10 Apr. 2024.

Fritz, Cindy. “The Treatment of Women in the History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.” Eastern Illinois University, The Keep, Accessed 11 Apr. 2024.

Johnson, Samuel. The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia. Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Karaduman, Alev. “The West versus the East: Samuel Johnson’s Cultural Solipsism in Rasselas (1759).” Hacettepe Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi Dergisi/Hacettepe University Journal of Faculty of Letters, vol. 31, no. 2, Dec. 2014, pp. 153–60. EBSCOhost,

Mace, Nancy A. “What Was Johnson Paid for Rasselas?” Modern Philology, vol. 91, no. 4, May 1994, p. 455. EBSCOhost,

Mayhew, Robert J. “Nature and the Choice of Life in Rasselas.” SEL: Studies in English Literature (Johns Hopkins), vol. 39, no. 3, Summer 1999, p. 539. EBSCOhost,

New, Peter. Fiction and Purpose in Utopia, Rasselas, The Mill on the Floss and Women in Love. London: Macmillan, 1985.

Pahl, Chance David. “TELEOLOGY IN SAMUEL JOHNSON’S RASSELAS. (Cover Story).” Renascence, vol. 64, no. 3, Spring 2012, pp. 221–32. EBSCOhost,

Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. John Wiley & Sons Incorporated, 2017.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Penguin Books, 1977.

Smith, Duane H. “Repetitive Patterns in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas.” Studies in English Literature (Rice), vol. 36, no. 3, Summer 1996, p. 623. EBSCOhost,

“Samuel Johnson.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2 Apr. 2024,

Stern, Rachel Michelle. “Fantasies of Choosing in Rasselas.” SEL: Studies in English Literature (Johns Hopkins), vol. 55, no. 3, Summer 2015, pp. 523–36. EBSCOhost,