The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia


Irvin Ehrenpreis sees an aged Johnson reflecting on lost youth in the character of Rasselas who is exiled from Happy Valley. Rasselas' has also been viewed as a reflection of Johnson's melancholia projected on to the wider world, particularly at the time of his mother's death. Hester Piozzi saw in part Johnson in the character of Imlac who is rejected in his courtship by a class-conscious social superior.[1] Thomas Keymer sees beyond the conventional Roman à clef interpretations to call it a work that reflects the wider geo-political world in the year of publication (1759): the year in which "Britain became master of the world".[1] Rasselas is seen to express hostility to the rising imperialism of his day and to reject stereotypical "orientalist" viewpoints that justified colonialism. Johnson himself was regarded as a prophet who opposed imperialism, who described the Anglo-French war for America as a dispute between two thieves over the proceeds of a robbery.[1] Although many have argued that the book Rasselas had nothing to do with Abyssinia, and that Samuel Johnson chose Abyssinia as a locale for no other reason than wanting to write an orientalist fantasy, some have begun to argue that the book has a deep tie to Ethiopian thought due to Johnson's translation of A Voyage to Abyssinia and his lifelong interest in its Christianity.[5] Other scholars have argued that Johnson was influenced, at least in part, by other texts, including works by Herodotus,[6] Paradise Lost,[7] as well as other texts.[8]

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