The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia

The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia Summary and Analysis of Chapters 37-49


In seven months they learn that Pekuah is in the hands of an Arab chief willing to give her back for two hundred ounces of gold. The princess immediately agrees, although Imlac is nervous about the good faith of the chief, suspecting he might be dangerous.

The meeting takes place at a monastery. Thankfully, Imlac’s fears do not come to pass, as the chief is amiable and hospitable according to his customs regarding people in his power. Pekuah is restored. She and the princess embrace with great fervor, and Pekuah prepares to relate her story to the group.

She explains how she was taken captive and was afraid that the Turkish horsemen would provoke the Arabs to violence. After that danger subsided, she became gloomy and depressed, but was surprised to see how well-regarded the chief was by his people. The women with him noticed how attentively Pekuah’s maids attended to her, and supposed her to be a princess. She told the Arab she was not.

He explained that all he desired was to increase his riches and that he felt he and his people had a claim to the land and thus would take by the sword what justice denied them. He was not cruel and lawless, and knew civil life’s virtues; he promised to give her back for a ransom.

Relieved, and pleased with his courtesy, Pekuah remained with the tribe for some time. Her connection to money made everyone treat her with respect. She also grew to appreciate the chief’s learnedness, as they discussed astronomy and architecture.

She was still gloomy, however, and was distressed that the chief’s women looked on her as a rival when they arrived at his permanent residence near the Nile. Once they learned she was only for ransom, they became flattering and sycophantic. The Arab spent more time with her discussing the stars and sky.

The princess breaks in and asks why the chief did not spend time with his own women, and Pekuah explains that they are silly and vapid. They could talk of little because they had seen little. They were not whom the Arab sought out for companionship or conversation. He even seemed to delay trying to reach Pekuah's people to offer the ransom, but thankfully he did not seem to be in love with her. Finally, though, the agent of Nekayah found him, and the exchange was made. Pekuah ends her tale.

Life goes on, and the prince spends more and more time learning. He finally tells Imlac that he has decided to spend the rest of his days in literary solitude. Imlac warns the prince about a man whom he knew – a great astronomer. Imlac befriended him some time ago and admired him greatly. He thought the learned man one of the happiest he knew, but he began to glimpse subtle signs that something might be wrong.

One day the astronomer sighed to Imlac, and told him that his friendship was exceedingly dear. The time had come for him to relinquish an office that he held for so long, and he told Imlac he was giving it over to him. He looked anguished, but finally confessed his secret: “I have possessed for some years the regulation of the weather and the distribution of the seasons” (90). He controlled the winds and the rain and believed he did it with justice and perspicacity.

He continued, telling Imlac that he believes himself to be the first human given this task. Imlac was polite and asked how long he had done it. The astronomer replied ten years, and gave his story of how it happened. He explained that he used to always pretend that he had that power to control the seasons and the weather, and one day when he was thinking about rain coming to the Nile, it happened. He was shocked and tried to think of other possibilities for the occurrence, laboring against his newfound power for a long time. He knew he could not prove it by evidence, and kept it to himself. Of late he became concerned about appointing a successor. He instructed Imlac how to do the task with wisdom and equanimity, and warned him not to “indulge thy pride by innovation” (92). Imlac promised to carry out the task with discernment.

Imlac now looks at his audience. The prince is serious but the princess and Pekuah are highly amused. Imlac rebukes them and calls attention to the seriousness of the disorders of the intellect. He explains that they happen far more often than one might assume. All men indulge in their imagination, but some spend too much time there. Being alone too often leads men to fix the attention on one thing at the expense of others, and “the reign of fancy is confirmed” (94).

Chastened, the three listeners pledge to give up their own mental indulgences. The princess says she will stop imagining herself a pastoral shepherdess, Pekuah pledges to leave off thinking she is the queen of Abissinia, and the prince plans to forebear dreaming of running the perfect government.

In the evening the group walks along the Nile toward their home. They see an old man also walking, and decide to talk to him to hear what his thoughts are on his own state. The old man is pleased with their attentions, and joins them back at the house, where he is requested to tell of his view of his situation.

The old man says that when one is old all they can hope for is ease. Life lost its novelty, and the physical truth of the world is no longer interesting. The prince asks him if he enjoys his recollections and praise for his honorable life, but the old man says praise is empty. He has outlived his friends and family and the praise of young men does not interest him. He thinks mostly of opportunities wasted, time squandered, and so on. He hopes to find happiness in the world beyond.

After he leaves, everyone is contemplative. The prince muses that these sentiments are not surprising because no one ever claimed old age to be a time of felicity. Imlac sees that they are all growing gloomy, and knows that he should not add to that. The girls, for their part, cannot stop thinking about the astronomer, and try to devise a way to meet him.

They consider how to do this, as the astronomer had never admitted female visitors before. They conceive of several schemes that involve misleading him, but Rasselas tells them deception is not the proper tactic. Finally Pekuah decides that she will ask if he would consider taking her on as a student so she could continue the studies she began under the Arab. Imlac is not sure if the great man would want a scholar and if he would grow weary explaining things, but when the astronomer hears the proposition he is intrigued and assents to meet Pekuah and Nekayah.

The ladies dress magnificently and the astronomer is delighted with how lovely and grand they look. Pekuah tells him of her study and he is impressed, agreeing to take her on as a student. They visit more and more, and the astronomer finds himself looking forward to the visits because he feels his thoughts are clearer.

Pekuah and Nekayah try to discover if he still holds his opinion that he controls the weather, but they cannot discern if it is the case.

The astronomer comes frequently to the house of Imlac now, and enjoys the hospitality he finds there. He begins to enjoy the things of this terrestrial world, and grows dear enough to the prince and princess that they tell him the truth about where they came from. The astronomer thanks them for telling him but says he is not one to offer counsel, as he chose wrongly in this life to spend it in solitude and reject the pleasure of other people.

Imlac is glad to see the sage’s reason breaking through his mental mist. One day the astronomer tells his friend that he mostly realizes his foolishness now, but that it is still difficult not to let fear and guilt crowd in on him when he is alone. Imlac advises him not to let his timidity take over, and to continue to engage with the world.

The astronomer says that he is grateful to Imlac for confirming his sentiments, and that he hopes time and interaction with others will dissipate the gloom.

Rasselas, Nekayah, and Pekuah discuss what they want to do the next day, and Nekayah muses that this state of change seems to characterize life. Rasselas observes that variety is what makes life interesting. He wonders how the monks of St. Anthony live their life of uniform hardship and rigidity, and Imlac explains it is because they relish order and duty and a lack of ambiguity.

Nekayah asks if monastic life is better than a life in the world, and Imlac concedes that that is a question that has long vexed the wise. Pekuah says she is attracted to that life. Imlac adds that there is nothing inherently wrong with pleasure, and that mortification is not inherently good.

Nekayah asks if Imlac might show her something novel, as she is inclined to retire with Pekuah to solitude. The wise man says that they should visit the catacombs of the dead, as there is little living that could be useful to contemplate in that mindset.

The next day they travel to see the Egyptian catacombs. Pekuah decides to venture down into them this time. They wonder at the Egyptians’ belief that the soul would remain if the body was preserved. They discuss the nature of the soul and immateriality before they venture back up to the world of the living.

Not long after the river rises with the unceasing rain. They are confined to the house, and everyone considers what they will do next with their choice of life. Pekuah decides to go the monastery of St. Anthony where the Arab chief traded her. Nekayah decides to devote her life to learning and start a college for women. The prince decides to rule a small kingdom. Imlac and the astronomer will continue to live their intellectual lives.

However, they all know none of these wishes will be attained, and once the rain ceases they will return to Abissinia.


These last few chapters continue Johnson's ruminations on the various ways earthly endeavors do not bring about happiness, as well as offer fruit for contemplation regarding what one is to do if such happiness is not easily, or ever, achieved. Johnson's enigmatic ending is also worth discussing for its role in imparting his message(s).

First, Johnson dismantles the idea that a completely intellectual lifestyle is one that can bear the fruit of happiness. His astronomer continues the same theme that living a solitary life devoted to a single pursuit can render one unhappy in the very least, and in this case, mentally disturbed. The astronomer's separation of himself from society only leads him to whim and fancy, and he must spend the rest of life disabusing himself of the wild ideas he once entertained. Imlac also censures a monastic life as one that, in its elision of all pleasure, does not seem likely to bring about happiness. Old age comes under scrutiny as well; the old man the group meets bemoans the fact that all novelty is gone from his life and the things that he once found important – praise, new pursuits, relationships – are completely useless now.

By this point it seems that every possible avenue in which it seems happiness can be secured has been shown to be misleading or outright false; what then, is Johnson's overall message? Renowned Johnson critic Gwin J. Kolb sums up his opinion thusly: "Human limitations make happiness in this world ephemeral, accidental, the product of hope rather than reality, and almost nothing compared to the miseries of life; consequently, searches for permanent enjoyment, although inevitable to man as man, are bound to end in failure. The wise man, therefore, will accept submissively the essential grimness of life, seek no more lasting felicity than is given by a quiet conscience, and live with an eye on eternity..."

That last part of Kolb's statement is important because critics tend to differ in their interpretations of Johnson's overall message. Some believe that the author is urging readers to focus on eternal life, while others do not believe there is such a moral message and that God does not factor in here. Duane H. Smith explains in his article on the novel that Johnson is neither trying to direct readers to eternal life or expressing a nihilistic viewpoint, but rather "Johnson presents a narrative that functions for us as readers in much the same way as the many activities of Rasselas and Nekayah: they divert attention from fear and boredom and provide some measure of entertainment." Smith believes that readers' expectations influence their interpretation of the book's answer to the meaning of life. Neither of the main answers are entirely satisfactory, but "both promise sufficient diversion or entertainment to help one avoid boredom and fear, the two scourges of human life."

As for the end of the novel, it is certainly ambiguous. The characters entertain ideas of what they might do after the rains stop, but decide that they will return to Abissinia. This is extremely anti-climactic, and it is not clear whether or not they want to go to the happy valley or elsewhere in their home kingdom. Kolb interprets the decision as "at once a sign of the inevitable human desire for change in life and, more significant, impressive evidence of the futility of searches for lasting happiness on earth." Smith writes about how Rasselas may have initially felt the pressure and loathsomeness of being enclosed (in the happy valley, in the palace), but that his and the others' ultimate desires were to be enclosed once more – a college, a monastery, a small kingdom. Clearly there is no hope that these desires will bring about happiness, and indeed the characters give up on their schemes. This reinforces the overall understanding that happiness is a continuously sought after and elusive goal, and one that the characters will spend their entire lives in pursuit of.