The prince decides to go visit a hermit near the Nile so he can ask him if happiness is found in solitude. The princess and Imlac go with him. Along the way they encounter shepherds, and Imlac tells them this is the pastoral life so celebrated.
When they talk to the shepherds, however, they realize they are petty and unhappy. The princess cannot believe that all lives intertwined with nature are unfulfilling, and holds out hope.
The travelers enter a thick wood and find that someone abides there. They hear music and then see young men and virgins dancing. A beautiful palace looms before them. Upon entering, they are well received and stay for some time. The prince thinks all is well, but the master of the palace confides that the Bassa of Egypt hates him and is jealous of him, and he may be taken away soon. Dismayed at his new friend's plight, the prince and his sister and counselor depart.
They finally arrive at the hermit's cell. He is kind and thoughtful, and serves them refreshments. His piety and cheerfulness win their approbation. Imlac asks the hermit if he might talk to Rasselas about the choice of life he made.
The hermit concurs, and states that he has lived alone for fifteen years and would not encourage anyone to imitate him. He was a military man who tired of the world and came to this natural retreat, but after an initial period of satisfaction, grew distracted, disturbed, and bored. He actually plans to leave the place tomorrow.
The group is surprised, and Rasselas asks if they might conduct him to Cairo. The hermit agrees.
Rasselas often spends time with an assembly of learned men who give their opinions on various matters and debate with each other. He tells them about his conversation with the hermit, and they reply with their thoughts, which are mostly negative.
One man, a philosopher, speaks up and tells the crowd that man already has everything to be happy at his fingertips – he need only live according to the laws of nature and he will find satisfaction. Rasselas is intrigued and asks him to elaborate, wondering how he might live by nature's laws. The sage responds, but is only vague and confusing. Rasselas realizes he is one of those wise men who, the longer they speak, become less clear.
When he returns home, Rasselas is clearly dissatisfied. He speaks with Nekayah, which he has been doing more often of late. She conceives of a plan for him to spend time with the highest echelon of society and for her to seek out the middle sorts to see which one brings real happiness.
Rasselas applauds the plan and the next day travels to the Bassa. He is welcomed for his magnificence and enters the inner circle. After some time in favor, though, he notes how all men there are envious of others and spend all their time in subterfuge and manipulation. One day the Bassa is even arrested and taken away. Rasselas wonders aloud to his sister if perhaps only the Sultan, the highest power in the land, could be happy, but not long after his musings the Sultan is murdered by a faction.
The princess, for her part, spends much time with various families. She is not impressed with them, however. She finds the daughters silly, narrow-minded, jealous, and full of superficial, fleeting emotions.
She and Rasselas discuss their findings. He says all houses are "haunted by some fury that destroys its quiet" (56). He says that there are many poor people in the land, but they always seek to cover up their poverty by some means.
Nekayah speaks next, commenting that families seem like kingdoms because they are riven by factions and revolutions. Parents and children do not have the same intentions and work against each other. Young and old people despise each other. Old people do not act in accordance with their dictations. There are disagreements and discord, and much evil in private life. People who do not marry are not safe, as many single people dream away their time without making friends, and, as they feel inferior, are peevish and spiteful. She concludes, "Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasure" (59). Rasselas wonders what they ought to do.
The siblings continue to discuss this. Rasselas sees that those in the higher stations of life are not prone to happiness. There are those seeking to undercut them, and actions might miscarry. A person is liable to trust those who do not deserve it, and has many opportunities to go wrong.
Nekayah adds that happiness does not exist in proportion to virtue. Virtue may bring patience, but it cannot stave off all evil or pain.
Rasselas is often categorized as an Oriental romance. This genre was popular in the 18th century, as it deviated from high-minded neoclassical literature and featured heavy helpings of eroticism, adventure, and exoticism, all set in faraway Asian or Middle Eastern lands. The Arabian Nights served as inspiration for many European writers. Most students today are probably familiar with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816), but there are many other works that typify the genre. Clara Reeve’s The History of Charoba, Queen of Egypt (1785), translator Antoine Galland’s Persian and Turkish tales, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), and Joseph Addison’s The Vision of Mirza (1711) are all examples of Oriental romances that utilized stereotypes and fantastical imagery to establish the conventions of the genre. The apotheosis of the genre is commonly assumed to be William Beckford’s Vathek: An Arabian Tale (1782), a massively popular work.
Johnson’s Rasselas is set in an exotic land, features marauding Arabs, luxurious palaces, and haunted catacombs and ruins. However, many critics do not feel that it fits into the genre exactly. Gwin J. Kolb writes that while it possesses some representative characteristics, such as the aforementioned points and its story-within-a-story structure, it “has nothing to do with exciting adventures, beautiful women, romance, and the happy conclusion in oriental tales.”
Rasselas's journey to his "choice of life" – Johnson's original title for the novel, in fact – leads him to question the peaceful, pastoral lives of shepherds (actually ignorant and rude), a solitary hermit (ready to enter the world again after the interminable nature of solitude manifests itself), intellectuals (full of sound and fury), and those in the high royal court (beleaguered by scandal and subterfuge). Johnson's writings in the Rambler similarly paid testament to his understanding that extremes of life, such as withdrawing from the world completely, do not often yield bliss. Critics also point to Johnson's derision for Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his belief that a "life led according to nature" (51) is an impossibility; he scoffed at freethinkers and deists with their "comfortable platitudes," as Johnson critic Thomas Keymer noted.
Nekayah visits the homes of families and discovers that private life, too, is beset by strife and misery – parents and children are at odds, and both marriage and celibacy are full of pitfalls. Each of these lifestyles and life choices are poked, prodded, and eventually deflated. Rasselas's hope and idealism are challenged by the realities of lived experience.
Of course, it is clear that Johnson believed celibacy was less preferable than marriage. He gives Rasselas the last word of, "Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures" (59), and was quoted by Boswell as saying, "even ill assorted marriages were preferable to cheerless celibacy." Johnson also wrote in the Rambler that "I am afraid that whether married or unmarried, we shall find the vesture of territorial existence more heavy and cumbrous, the longer it is worn." These comments reinforce Johnson's overall theme that nearly all conditions of life can be onerous, and there is no guarantee of happiness.