The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia

The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia Themes

The Meaning of Life

The entire novel revolves around the question of the meaning of life, which it equates as the search for happiness. However, Johnson does not have a positive message regarding whether or not such happiness is possible. Critics point to two possible meanings of the text. The first is that earthly happiness is not possible but one should resign oneself to that fact and do the best one can. The second is that earthly happiness is not possible and one should turn one's focus to God and prepare for eternal life.

The Search for Happiness

The search for happiness is what motivates practically every character in the book - especially Rasselas and his sister - as well as, it is implied, every human being. What Johnson has to impart to his reader, though, is that while that search is a component of every person's life, and should not be forsaken, one should be careful about expecting a certain outcome. In fact, Johnson believes all human endeavors and life choices are unlikely to result in true and lasting happiness. This is because the reality of life in both the outside world and sheltered environments can be capricious, frustrating, lonely, complicated, and more. Traits common to human beings (like selfishness, pride, indecision, anxiety, ignorance) also render life unhappy, and these two realities do not leave many opportunities for satisfaction.


Johnson utilizes repetition throughout his novel to introduce and return certain themes. For example, Imlac's story is repeated through the wanderings of Rasselas, several characters experience the same disillusionment with their "choice of life," and the happy valley is returned to at the end of the novel. Numerous other repetitive themes and motifs point to the centrality of this technique in stating Johnson's message - that all humans, no matter what their station in life or point in history, are doomed to the same discovery that there is very little on earth that can bring about true, lasting happiness. We will undertake the journey for ourselves, of course, but that does not mean the outcome will be any different. Johnson could have stopped the novel at the end of Imlac's tale, but it was necessary to have Rasselas find out for himself that his story was unlikely to differ.

The Danger of Solitude

That prolonged solitude is dangerous is one of the most prevalent themes in the book. This is first apparent in Rasselas himself, who resents being captive in the happy valley because he does not have access to the outside world. The hermit also discusses why solitude is problematic: he is bored, distracted, and has lost the counsel of and interaction with the good. The astronomer is an equally damning indicator of the problems of solitude, for he has actually gone crazy due to his sequester from the world. It is not good for human beings to be away from society because their own thoughts will lead them to fancy and folly. Engagement with the world keeps people sane, active, and (relatively) happy.

The Importance of Moderation

Most of the precepts espoused by Imlac have the similar theme of encouraging moderation and avoiding extremes. It is not wise to entirely exile oneself from society, but one should also be careful whom one associates with as to avoid dangerous influences. Entering into marriage without considering its hardship is unwise, as is celibacy. A life dedicated to erudition and learning is fine, but can be lonely; a life spent in the simple pursuit of pleasure is immoral. Giving oneself over to emotions is equally as flawed as trying to live a Stoic existence and eliding all emotion. Imlac's counsels throughout the novel encourage Rasselas and Nekayah - and the reader by extension - to strike a middle ground and act wisely about their life choices.

The Pros and Cons of Knowledge

Johnson contrasts the pros of attaining a great deal of knowledge with their cons. He notes that knowledge can bring about better living conditions and material happiness, and that it contributes to humanity by bringing about positive changes in economics, politics, science, and culture. However, he believes that the quest for knowledge is problematic, as many of its seekers separate themselves from society and no longer know how to function. The astronomer, for example, almost loses his mind completely. Imlac and the hermit seek solitude but become disenchanted with it. Knowledge for knowledge's sake is no guarantee of true happiness, as, indeed, nothing is.


Johnson offers a sustained critique of marriage. He asserts that it is absolutely preferable to celibacy, but still delves into its conflicts and complications. If people marry too young or too late they are apt to be unhappy. Those who marry too young may clash with their own children as they try to assert their independence instead of settling down to raise the children. Nekayah notes that husbands and wives are prone to bad behavior and to make the other miserable. She is wary about the institution as a whole, contemplating celibacy and telling Rasselas that there is no perfect age to marry and people will most likely be unhappy. This situation is no different than any other Johnson presents, and the ultimate message is that while marriage may be hard and not always conducive to happiness, most men and women should still seek it out and make the best of it.