The plot is simple in the extreme. Rasselas, son of the King of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), is shut up in a beautiful valley, "till the order of succession should call him to the throne". He grows weary of the factitious entertainments of the place, and after much brooding escapes with his sister Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah and his poet-friend Imlac. They are to see the world and search for happiness, but after some sojourn in Egypt, where they encounter various classes of society and undergo a few mild adventures, they perceive the futility of their search and abruptly return to Abyssinia.
Local color is almost nonexistent and episodic elements, e.g. the story of Imlac and that of the mad astronomer, abound. There is little of incident, no love-making, with few endeavours to charm the fancy, and with but slight recognition of the claims of sentiment.