Rasselas is the fourth son of a powerful emperor in Abissinia. He and his siblings are confined to the palace and cannot venture to the outside world. The palace is located in a valley with tall mountains on either side, and there is no way to leave except for the heavily guarded gate. The valley is splendidly beautiful, though, and no evil of the world can intrude on the paradise.
The emperor visits once a year and for eight days the palace is filled with amusements and delights. Many entertainers want to stay there forever; if they are allowed, they can never leave again.
The princes and princesses only know a life of leisure and pleasure. Their days are filled with merriment, and the sages that teach them paint the outside world as a terrible place full of despair. Few princes ever dispute this idea, but Rasselas, who is 26, begins to withdraw himself. People notice and try to combat the "singularity of his humour" (10) with more and more amusements.
One sage follows him in his perambulations through the rocks and trees, and hears him sigh about his boredom and dissatisfaction. He thinks men must have some untapped need that the palace cannot attend. He tries to make up for his thoughts by being more sociable.
The next day, Rasselas's elderly instructor tries to corner him and talk to him about his attitude. He asks the prince what he wants, and Rasselas says the problem is that, indeed, he wants for nothing. All the days are the same, he has nothing to desire, and he thinks that seeing the miseries of the world will give him something to yearn for.
After the conversation, Rasselas feels better for a time because he knows he is young and has time to change his situation. For twenty months he lives in his imagination, pleased with his secret store of happiness as he imagines himself in the real world.
After, though, one daydream reminds them that it is false, he realizes he has wasted so much time. Life is short, and he has squandered it in ignorance and idleness. After a time, he decides his regret was also a waste of time and that he must fix his problem. He thus decides to do whatever he can to escape from the valley of happiness.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, and he spends ten months in fruitless searching looking for a way out. He enjoys communing with nature, however, and his explorations of the valley. His desire to get out strengthens, but he feels less confident that it will be accomplished.
One of the artists in the valley is a man known for his mechanical powers; he had made plenty of helpful contraptions for the palace denizens. Rasselas comes to speak to him one day when the man is building a sailing chariot. Rasselas is skeptical when he tells him that he intends to fly, but the man cautions him that “nothing…will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must first be overcome” (19).
He tells Rasselas that he plans to try out his contraption in one year, and tells the prince not to reveal his plans. Throughout that year, Rasselas visits him and watches his progress.
The appointed time arrives and the artist climbs to a promontory and leaps off. He does not fly, and plummets into the water below, where the wings keep him aloft. Rasselas pulls him out of the water.
Rasselas grows gloomy again, and his mood is matched by the incessant rains plaguing the city. As all the children are confined to the palace, they spend time listening to poetry. Rasselas finds himself captured by the words of Imlac, and invites him to his quarters to continue to read to him. For his part, the poet “pitied his ignorance, and loved his curiosity” (21). Rasselas eventually orders the poet to tell him his life story and how he ended up in the happy valley.
Imlac agrees, but disclaims that it will be a long tale. He begins, saying he was born in Goiama to a wealthy but honest merchant. Although he was very well off, he still desired to be the wealthiest man in all of Abissinia. He wanted his son to continue this goal as well, and sent him to school so he would learn the ways of commerce. He gave his son ten thousand gold pieces as a veritable test, saying that if he wasted it he would have to wait until his father died to get more, and if he increased it he and his father could live and work together as equals.
Imlac was sent out to the world, and he felt his heart quicken with excitement. He wanted to travel and satiate his curiosity to know the ways of the world. He took passage on a ship to Surat. He was intrigued by watching the ocean for hours, but soon grew tired of this view. At Surat he joined up with a caravan, but the men took advantage of him and swindled him throughout the journey, supposing him rich and ignorant.
He arrived at Agra, the capital of Indostan. He began to learn the language and was able to communicate with the most learned men. He grew in favor and went before the emperor to speak of his travels. He found the emperor wise and good.
He eventually traveled to Persia, where he remarked upon the social nature of the Persians, observing their manners and mores. He then went to the simultaneously idyllic and bellicose Arabia.
Samuel Johnson's Rasselas is his only novel, and one of the works for which he is most celebrated. The text is barely a novel, however, as its plot is subordinate to its themes and messages. Scholars refer to it as a parable, or an essay. In combination with the Rambler, Johnson's series of essays, it constitutes Johnson's most cogent and worthy thoughts on what constitutes happiness, the meaning of life, the value of learning, the relative importance of society vs. solitude, and more. As one, if not the, most keen-witted and learned intellectuals of the day, Johnson peppers his novel with hundreds of historical, philosophical, and literary references; while the reader does not need to be aware of them in order to enjoy the wisdom Johnson imparts through Rasselas, Nekayah, and Imlac, they do enhance the tale.
Abissinia was present-day Ethiopia, a Christian kingdom. Johnson's knowledge of the region came from his translation of Jesuit missionary Jeronimo Lobo's travel work, A Voyage to Abyssinia (1735), which chronicled the Roman Catholic Church's attempt to subject Abyssinia to the doctrines of the Church. Johnson knew that the royalty in Abyssinia was often given the title of "ras", or chief, and may have also named his protagonist after an actual 16th-century Ethiopian price named either "Rasselach" or "Ras-seelax." The confinement of Rasselas and his siblings also has historical precedent, as Lobo wrote of one kingdom he traveled to where the children of the emperor were imprisoned until succession. The idea of an Abyssinian paradise made its way into Milton's writing as well.
The episode with the artist who desires to fly demonstrates Johnson's engagement with myth as well as contemporary history. The Icarus myth is the obvious influence, but during Johnson's age and the previous century the attempt of man to fly was also of presiding interest and concern. A text in 1600 that Johnson was familiar with had information about a flying machine, and the late 1700s had the first balloon flights. Scientists at the time debated whether or not the bat indicated that other mammals once had the ability to fly. As for the fall into the lake, it is possible that Johnson was making reference to the craze in the 1730s of high-wire acts, and the tragic death of one performer.
Although it is difficult to apply the same standards of character development used in analyzing most novels to this particular one, we can still discuss Rasselas and Imlac, but must keep in mind that they are not intended to be realistic. Rasselas is an intelligent but restless young man, frustrated by his captivity and aware that there must be something else beyond consistent pleasure and ease. It is his musings that put the events of the novel in motion, and Imlac acts as the official catalyst, as it is his story and his agreement to help Rasselas that results in their leaving the happy valley.
Imlac's own story foreshadows that of Rasselas. Imlac is pleased with the life laid out for him, and desires to travel the world. He encounters fascinating cultures and people, and spends time plumbing the mysteries of what brings about happiness. He considers becoming a poet, and tells Rasselas why this is the highest art. These may or not be Johnson's own thoughts here: poets must observe and understand everything; they must focus on the general, not the specific; they must be "acquainted with all the modes of life" (28) and be the "interpreter and of nature, and the legislator of mankind" (29). Johnson expressed some ambivalence about the ability of poetry to incorporate the philosophical. Nevertheless, the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley would later use that same phrase regarding legislation to describe the role of poets, and Ben Jonson a century and a half before called poets the "interpreter, and arbiter of nature" in his 1607 Volpone.