Everywhere Imlac went he saw that poetry was regarded as the highest art, but he wondered why the ancient poets were the most revered. The consensus seemed to be that the older poets had mastered nature while newer poets had mastered art, and that the former “excel in strength and invention” (27) and the latter “in elegance and refinement” (27). Imlac wanted to be one of this “illustrious fraternity” (27) and read a copious amount of poetry.
He focused on nature and life, and observed everything with a fresh eye. As nothing for poets was useless, his scrutiny was absolute. All ideas could be useful to understand moral and religious truths. He continued to explain to the prince that the business of a poet is not to focus on the individual but the general, and that he must be “acquainted likewise with all modes of life” (28). He must go beyond the present and focus on general, transcendental truths.
After this discourse, the prince tells him to stop, as he is now convinced that it is not possible for anyone to truly be a poet. He asks Imlac to return to speaking of his travels.
Imlac speaks of the superiority of the Europeans, and the prince asks why they are as such. Imlac says it is because they value knowledge and shun ignorance. Wistfully, the prince sighs that he wishes he could travel. He asks about pilgrimages and Imlac explains how sometimes they are okay and other times they are false, as one does not need to go on a long journey to find truth.
The prince asks if the other nations are happier because they are more knowledgeable. Imlac says the world is an unhappy place but knowledge can bring a degree of happiness because one's mind has a wider range. In addition, those societies also have more conveniences developed because of their learning. Overall, though, while they are slightly happier, "Human life is every where a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed" (32).
The prince boasts that he would always be happy and that his life would glide on in ease. He asks Imlac to return to the story of his travels.
Imlac assents, and speaks of moving to Palestine to Asia to Egypt, where in Cairo he marveled at the diversity of people. He went to Suez and then decided to return to his native country, where he desired to return to his happy life.
Unfortunately, his father had been dead for fourteen years, his siblings dispersed, and the court noblemen reluctant to embrace him because of his "foreign" manners. He tried to ingratiate himself but was rejected by everyone, including women. His only option was the happy valley, which he secured entrance to and never left.
Struck, Rasselas begs him to tell him the truth – is he happy there or not? Imlac confides in him and tells him that no one who has come in to the valley does not regret it. He may have memories and mental pictures of his earlier life, but he feels imprisoned and stagnant. He cannot help but pity all those who clamor to get in.
Eagerly, the prince tells him of his own plan to escape, and asks if Imlac might not want to come with him and seek freedom together. Imlac warns that the world outside is not so great, but agrees to go with him.
Rasselas feels immensely relieved knowing that he has a confidante and companion. Once the rain stops, the two men traverse the grounds of the palace and look for a way out. After Imlac counsels Rasselas to pay attention to animals, as they have much to teach humans, they notice rabbits boring holes in the sides of the mountains and burrowing up obliquely. They realize they can do the same, and eventually find a small cavern. They bring tools back and persist in finding a fissure in the rock. After persevering, they are successful and find they can move far without obstruction.
Around the time they are preparing to leave, Rasselas is startled to see his sister Nekayah at the cavern. She tells him not to be afraid, that she is not going to tell. She had merely followed him out of curiosity and discovered his escape route. She is also stifled by the valley and begs him to let her come too.
Rasselas, aware that this is his favorite sister, agrees. Nekayah plans to keep an eye out for them as they work.
It is finally time to go, and Rasselas, Imlac, Nekayah, and her maidservant flee the happy valley. The prince and princess are both afraid, but the prince hides it because he does not feel it befits a man. Their journey is easy and they come to a populous land. They are dressed to fit in, but both of them struggle with not being treated like royalty and being condescended to. Imlac keeps an eye on them in order to insure they are not discovered.
Imlac decides that they must press forward, and leave Suez for Cairo. He tells them that Cairo is a wonderful land full of fascinating men, and celebratory of commerce. There, Rasselas can decide what he wants to do with his life.
The town and its loudness are disconcerting, but the prince, who knows something of money, buys a fancy house and fixes it up. He is soon revered by the townspeople, who take him to be an important person, and he is admired for his knowledge. He studies the language for two years while Imlac prepares to instruct him on all the ranks of life so he can make his choice.
The prince feels that all choices are good and everyone is happy, but Imlac counsels him that people may seem happy on the outside but when they are alone, sorrow slips back across their face. Rasselas wonders why they would choose a life they were not happy with, and Imlac says most men do not have a choice and their circumstances are beyond their control. Rasselas responds that he is lucky and will choose for himself.
The next day he decides to try to live like the young men to see if it appeals to him. After some time, he realizes their lifestyle does not. He even tries to warn them about living wisely, but they laugh him off. This hurts Rasselas, but he continues on his search.
One day Rasselas stumbles into a hall where professors read their ideas and philosophies to students. There is a man there whose words on the folly of fancy and passion, and the need to exorcise them both in order to live a life of calm and patience, appeals mightily to Rasselas.
Excited, he returns home to tell Imlac he has found a man he wants to emulate. Imlac warns him that teachers of morality might teach it but cannot live it. Rasselas brushes this off and goes to visit the teacher. He arrives to find the man in a tumult of emotion. He explains his daughter died and he is despairing. Rasselas asks him why he is not adhering to his own code of morality, and the teacher says wisdom can do him no good now. Rasselas leaves, convinced rhetoric is empty.
In this section the central questions of the text are posed: What brings about happiness on earth? What choice of life should one make in order to secure that happiness? Rasselas first approaches the idea of happiness through his conversations with Imlac. The elder man’s travels and quests intrigue him because Rasselas has felt the heavy weight of ennui and knows he is not happy, and now sees that someone else once felt the same way and sought to change it. Imlac relates his various adventures and concludes that he was “wearied at last with solicitation and repulses” (33) and thus entered the happy valley. When queried if he is happy now, Imlac admits that he and all the others there are not.
Interestingly, Imlac’s life story is enough to present the moral and message of the novel – mortal happiness is elusive – but Johnson does not stop there, and allows his protagonist to seek the answers out for himself. The rest of the novel follows Rasselas and Nekayah as they experiment with different types of lifestyles and pose various questions in their search for the fount of happiness. This is more instructive than merely listening to Imlac’s story, although, again, Imlac’s story carries within it the seeds of Johnson’s ultimate truth.
There are some particular class and racial biases present in the text that appear here. The characters are from an African kingdom, and while they do behave and speak as Europeans do, Johnson still spends a few moments praising the Europeans for their “advantages” (31) in science, commerce, and industry. Their knowledge makes their lives comfortable, and thus happier. In Johnson’s defense, though, he still has Imlac add that the Europeans are not unequivocally happy, and suffer like all men. As for class biases, Rasselas and Nekayah often exhibit the callous, selfish, and ignorant traits of the very rich, and none of their wanderings and wonderings lead them to consider what life is like for the very poor. The most telling statement Rasselas makes concerns his disbelief that anyone would not choose something that made them happy. Imlac counters with the wise observation that “very few…live by choice. Every man is placed in his present condition by causes which acted without his foresight, and with which he did not willingly cooperate” (42). Rasselas, however, spends no time pondering what life is like for the poor, and uses his money, education, and influence to pursue happiness in a manner befitting one of his station.
That pursuit first leads him to the young men, who indulge in sensual pleasures and avoid responsibility and wisdom. It is no surprise that Johnson does not advocate this type of lifestyle, so Rasselas moves on and finds a teacher of Stoicism that intrigues him. Stoicism is a school of philosophy from ancient Greece, in which virtue is assumed to be based on knowledge and exercise of reason, and that emotion and sentiment have no value. Those who adhere to these ideals would, in theory, avoid extremes of pleasure and pain. Rasselas finds, though, that it is easier for one to espouse such ideals than live up them. It is only one example of many of individuals failing to remain true to the lifestyle they chose for themselves. This particular scene is based on an episode from Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742).
It is not surprising that much of the action of the novel takes place in Egypt, particularly Cairo. Egypt was seen as a source for Greek and Roman accomplishments in the arts and sciences. Johnson’s own Dictionary uses a quote describing Egyptians as “the first masters of learning.” Cairo was a bustling and diverse city, both commercial and cosmopolitan. Contemporary English writers described its multitude of people and diverse array of manners and professions. Its history also proves to be instructive for Rasselas and Nekayah, as Imlac lectures them in the value of older civilizations in providing insight into the nature and desires of man.