The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia

The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia Summary and Analysis of Chapters 28-36


Rasselas and Nekayah continue their discussion of marriage. Rasselas counsels her not to be too dramatic, as scenes of extensive misery and despair are not all too common, and thousands of people live their daily lives without notice or care of national traumas. They only know their domestic issues, and life goes on. As for marriage, he believes that it is ordained by nature and must bring about happiness.

Nekayah is wary of this, and says that it seems to bring about a lot of misery. Perhaps it is only permitted, not celebrated. Rasselas counters that she spoke low of celibacy as well, and that the world must be peopled through marriage. Nekayah does not care about the peopling of the world – their task is to inquire for themselves, not the world.

Her brother responds that what is good for the world must be good for them as well. He ruminates on what makes a marriage miserable. He believes that if people marry too young because they are attracted to each other, and lack judgment and wisdom, they will be unhappy. They will have trouble with their children since they themselves are not ready to absolve themselves of fun and frippery. He believes, "surely all of these evils may be avoided by that deliberation and delay which prudence prescribes to irrevocable choice" (64).

Nekayah says that she hears that older marriages are unhappy as well, since the people in them are set in their ways and do not want to compromise – there is too much "pride ashamed to yield, or obstinacy delighting to control" (65). Rasselas believes he will find his wife and reason with her, but Nekayah says there are many things to discuss in marriage that reason cannot apply to. It seems as if people in younger marriages are happier with each other, and older ones are happier with their children. Rasselas wonders if there is a perfect age, but Nekayah believes "nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left" (66) and a person should choose and be content with that choice.

When Imlac enters the room, Rasselas tells the sage he is discouraged. Imlac tells them both that they are neglecting to actually live and should go out into Egypt and see the city. Both Rasselas and Nekayah are hesitant, wondering why monuments and piles of stone are relevant.

Imlac explains that one can never know man if he does not know their works. One must observe the passions that lead to creation, and appreciate how the past informs the present. Neglecting the study of history is ignorant and can even turn out to be unjust. The history of progress and advances is significant, and "example is always more efficacious than precept" (68). Both the siblings are willing now, and it is agreed to visit the pyramids tomorrow.

Their expedition begins the next day, and all are astonished at the size and grandeur of the pyramids. Imlac explains how they were made and preparations are made to go inside. Pekuah, however, is too afraid of the unquiet souls that are inside. Imlac explains that all societies, learned and ignorant, believe to an extent in the dead. Despite Nekayah's imploring, Pekuah refuses to enter the pyramids. Nekayah's heart softens toward her, and she says she can wait with the rest of their retinue at the tents they set up.

Inside, the small party visits the chambers and Imlac tells them about how no one knows exactly why so much money and labor was poured into the structures; it must be a "monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments" (71) because its patron built it for vanity.

Once the party returns to their train, they see the solemn faces and wonder what has happened. It seems a troop of Arabs rushed upon them and seized the lady Pekuah before a group of Turkish horsemen could fully rout them. The horsemen cannot find the Arabs, but Imlac tries to console them that if they were discovered, they may have killed their captives.

Back in Cairo, they reproach themselves for their curiosity, and lament the government's negligence. Rasselas asks the Bassa for a petition of redress, but it seems like nothing will come of it. Imlac uses private agents but little information is found.

The princess sinks into intense despair. She reproaches herself for not being sterner with her maidservant and forcing her to come inside the pyramid. Imlac consoles her that she behaved in the right by being kind, and that she should not regret this.

Nekayah's sorrow and silence grows. She broods for hours on Pekuah and finds no pleasure in life anymore. The prince and Imlac continue to do everything they can to locate Pekuah, but finally the princess claims that she is going to live out the rest of her life in solitude.

Imlac replies that she should not voluntarily bring misery upon herself – rejection of all pleasure because one pleasure is gone is foolish. She says that happiness in this world comes from wealth, knowledge, and goodness, and that she can no longer value the first two and will practice goodness alone. Imlac counsels her to remember the hermit who was dissatisfied with his solitude; she should not "suffer life to stagnate; it will grow muddy for want of motion" (77). Rasselas suggests she wait one full year to make sure that every attempt to locate Pekuah is exhausted. Nekayah agrees.

Now that this plan is in motion, Nekayah finds herself returning to common pleasures and cares. She still tries to meditate daily on Pekuah, but even that erodes over time; she eventually "released herself from the duty of periodical affliction" (78). However, her real love is not gone, and she hopes all efforts are still being made to find her favorite.


In these chapters Johnson imparts his understanding of the importance of history as well as the nature of suffering. In regards to the former, it is clear that Johnson believes history offers important lessons for those who live in the present. First, Rasselas will never be able to understand men if he does not understand what motivates them (i.e., the building of the pyramids, the Parthenon, Stonehenge) and he should learn from the lessons of history in order to act wisely and justly in the present. Most of the time our minds dwell in the past and the future – "recollection and anticipation fill up almost all our moments" (67). History is ultimately important because that is how men learn – "example is always more efficacious than precept" (68). Johnson was no doubt referencing one of Seneca's maxims from the Epistles in his "the way by precept is long and tedious; whereas that of example is short and powerful."

In regards to suffering, Johnson acknowledges that it is a natural part of the human experience but cautions letting grief become overwhelming. Nekayah's initial response to Pekuah's loss is acceptable, but once she decides to live in solitude and let that grief control her entire life, it is no longer okay. Solitude cannot decrease sorrow, and as the case of the hermit reminds us, is no guarantee of happiness. Johnson also imparts through the tale of Nekayah's grief his understanding that simply living a virtuous life is not enough to guarantee happiness. Nekayah behaved admirably in letting Pekuah remain outside the pyramids, but was rewarded for it with the girl's abduction. Humans should be cautious in assuming that living a virtuous life precludes unhappiness.

One of the common themes in the critical literature on the novel is that of its structure (also see the summary and analysis for Chapters 37-49). Rose Norman writes about how Johnson used the technique of the fugue to structure his work. The fugal form is one built on "repetition, balance, and counterpoint." There is a "continuous forward movement," not merely a series of discrete movements. Rasselas uses repetition of themes and motifs, with the most obvious being "the pilgrimage in pursuit of happiness that constitutes the main theme of the tale." Imlac's journey mirrors Rasselas's. The problem of grief is another recurring theme, with the experience of Nekayah echoed in that of the Stoic philosopher who lost his daughter.

Another theme is solitude, glimpsed in Rasselas's discontent in the happy valley, the hermit's uncomfortable exile, and the astronomer's mental instability. Norman also identifies "the importance of diversification, the problem of good government, and the related issue of marriage and the domestic sphere." All of these are themes found multiple times throughout the text, mentioned once and then looped back to. Overall the "technique is not linear...rather, it is circular, forming what one critic perceived as a 'spiral' pattern in the narrative." And, when the novel concludes with its starting anti-conclusion, it resembles a fugue because that musical form also ends abruptly.

Finally, Norman considers whether Johnson consciously modeled his novel's structure on this musical form. She writes that the form would have appealed to Johnson's mind, but that he always spoke negatively about music many times in his life. However, his Dictionary is rife with musical allusions and illustrations, and he no doubt learned most of what he did about music in his work on the Dictionary. This does not mean that he was well-versed in or enthusiastic enough about the medium, so, as Norman concludes, it "is most likely that Johnson knew very little about musical structure and technique. It is surely unlikely that he consciously drew on any musical form in creating Rasselas. The approach...through music suggests an analogue...not a source."