Why does the group return to Abissinia at the end of the novel?
It is not inevitable that Rasselas, Imlac, Nekayah, and Pekuah return to their home country. After all, throughout the novel they explore many possible "choices of life," debate and discuss many options, and eventually settle on individual choices that seem true to their characters and destined to bring about some measure of happiness. That is why it is rather surprising that they decide to return from whence they came. Johnson's whole point is that no choice can guarantee happiness, and in all likelihood is destined to let one down. Thus, it makes sense that the characters give up their perhaps fanciful notions and return to a more familiar place. Happiness is not guaranteed, so one must do what one can to be rational, thoughtful, and wise about what endeavors one participates in. Their expectations must be practical so they are not disillusioned.
What are Johnson's views on youth and old age?
Both youth and old age are privy to irrationality and possess the potential for unhappiness. In youth, one is controlled only by passion. Youth acts on whims and according to fancy, engaging in pursuits that are eventually harmful because they lack wisdom and discernment. In old age, as the old man tells them, life loses its novelty. Impressing others, garnering praise, and reveling in one's triumphs no longer satisfy. If one's friends and family are gone, life is solitary. Time is spent thinking of one's misdeeds, wasted time, petty grievances, and missed opportunities. Contemplation of death causes one to wonder if one should have lived life differently, and one's thoughts turn heavenward. Neither stage of life is particularly conducive to real and lasting happiness; the former engages in transient and shallow experiences, the latter in melancholy musings.
What role does religion play in the text?
There is very little mention of God in the text. The characters do not appear particularly religious. They are very involved in their worldly affairs, and they do not spend much time probing the realities of life for religious people. However, one interpretation of Johnson's novel points to religion as an important component. If human beings are incapable of finding true and lasting happiness on earth, where are they to turn? It appears to some critics that people should not bother too much with such quests but instead turn their eyes to heaven. Eternal life is more important than anything a sublunary life has to offer. One should never lose sight of the fact that life on earth is, to quote Hobbes, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Only eternal life can bring happiness and peace.
What lessons do the hermit and astronomer impart to the reader?
While there are several instances in the text where solitude and seclusion are proven to be harmful, the stories of the hermit and the astronomer prove most instructive in imparting Johnson's message that sustained exile from society can prove deleterious to one's health and sanity. The hermit thought he would enjoy being alone in nature, but came to see that he was bored, distracted, and, while he no longer encountered anyone who could sway him to ill, he also never encountered anyone who could inspire him to good. As for the astronomer, his solitude actually leads him to mental illness. Because he is alone with his thoughts and fancies, he can no longer discern reality from imagination. He is only "cured" once he reengages society. Both of these men are helpful for Rasselas in showing him that lives devoted to learning and study can be fraught with peril if they do not include social engagements as well.
Why do critics think the novel fails as a novel but not as a moral tale?
Critics believe the novel is flawed as just that - a novel. The moral points overwhelm plot development and the characters are unrealistic and underdeveloped. The plot is flimsy and subordinate to the themes. The novel is terribly repetitive and circular. However, Rasselas succeeds as a moral tale because Johnson successfully imparts his message that the meaning of life is to do what one can with the small amounts of happiness that can be eked out. Happiness is not a guarantee and the human condition and reality of life render it difficult to achieve. Some critics/readers even infer a religious message as well - that we must look to God and eternal life. It is not as important that the characters and plot do not hold up to scrutiny, but that the moral message shines through.
What does the novel say about good governance?
While there is no long discourse on politics in the novel, the topic is hard to ignore because at the end of the novel Rasselas says his "choice of life" would be to run a small kingdom. This begs the question as to what kind of government Rasselas would run. Clues are found in his derision for the Bassa's court. He looks down upon the intrigue, the machinations, the treasonous behavior. He observes there is no guarantee of happiness in politics, even for the top ruler of the land. Due to his experiences at court, it is assumed that Rasselas would rule benevolently and wisely, not tolerating treachery, plotting, or legerdemain. However, the reader will never know how Rasselas would rule, as he decides to return to Abissinia and his fate is unknown.
What role does Imlac's history play in the text?
Imlac's history is a compelling read and provides insight into the character, but is important for another reason: his story also foreshadows Rasselas's and provides evidence to support Johnson's overall message. Imlac grows up with a similar desire to break free from his constraints and to see the world and expand his knowledge; Rasselas follows in his footsteps almost directly. Imlac is a guide for the young man, taking him through circumstances he experienced himself. The fact that both these men have similar experiences supports Johnson's message that all men are to endure a quest for the meaning of life and lasting happiness, but are unlikely to find it.
What is the structure of the novel?
The structure of the novel is bifurcated into life in the happy valley and life outside the happy valley. Furthermore, the story of Imlac and the journeys of Rasselas, which resemble each other, are also two ways to look at the structure. There are numerous instances of repetitions and similar themes present in the structure of the text, making it not just a linear narrative that follows Rasselas out of the happy valley and to his subsequent questions and experiences, but also a circular narrative that returns to previous concerns and demonstrates Johnson's message that most human beings have similarly disillusioning experiences as they search for the elusive meaning of life. Johnson's structure is important, then, for it mirrors his message. It is not an arbitrary decision to have the plot loop back on itself and most characters come to the same conclusions after similar experiences.
How does the character of the Arab fit into the novel?
The Arab may seem like a rather unimportant character; after all, he makes a relatively brief appearance. However, the nature of his character demonstrates the ambiguous and contradictory nature of most human beings. He kidnaps Pekuah, but treats her well. He is incredibly learned despite his disreputable occupation. He finds intellect and ambition more interesting than vacuity (seen in his own women). Despite his riches and his success, he is also unhappy. He is constantly striving for more, which makes him like the other disillusioned characters in Rasselas. Johnson's message here is that neither immorality or morality are guaranteed to bring about happiness - in fact, nothing is.
What role does nature play in the novel?
Most of the time nature is wholeheartedly revered by writers - it is perceived as a pure counterpart to the dangerous and perplexing vicissitudes of the world of man. Here, though, Johnson takes pains not to glorify nature but to indicate that it too is incapable of bringing about true and lasting happiness. The shepherds that Rasselas and Nekayah are so quick to admire for their pastoral lifestyle turn out to be caustic and petty. The hermit finds no satisfaction or moral improvement hidden away in nature. The wealthy man and his friends who took up refuge in nature to escape the Bassa find that they cannot actually leave the world behind. The philosopher who advocates living a life according to the precepts of nature cannot actually provide Rasselas with the information on how to carry this out. And, of course, the idyllic "happy valley" was the complete opposite. Johnson does not disavow nature, but he is far from ennobling it.