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Rasselas by Samuel Johnson: Summary, Analysis & History

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson we will examine Samuel Johnson's 'Rasselas' by taking into account some context on Johnson's work and life, exploring the genre of the text, and summarizing its plot.

Samuel Johnson in Context

Samuel Johnson was an extraordinarily productive writer and thinker in the eighteenth century. He's actually among the most influential voices in the period, covering a wide range of cultural subjects. Not only did Johnson write periodical essays that covered subjects like politics, morality, and the arts, but he was also an accomplished poet. Johnson is perhaps best known for for his dictionary, which was the first of its kind, and was a arduous task that took a decade to complete. Among other things, Johnson suffered from scrofula (a glandular disease) from his childhood and also dealt with marked physical and vocal ticks. Neither prevented him from being a celebrated conversationalist at local coffee houses, where he imbibed in impressive amounts of tea.

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson

The Genre of Rasselas

Rasselas is a difficult text to pin down. In fact, it resists genre, which is a way of characterizing or categorizing different forms of art, like stories or music. Johnson wrote the text in 1759 hoping that its sales would pay for the cost of his mother's funeral. It went on to be a favorite of many readers in the eighteenth century and remained on bookshelves and in school curricula in the nineteenth century. But what is it? In 1759, the novel was still in its infancy. Samuel Richardson's Pamela, widely considered the first novel, was published in 1740, and was followed by a wave of imitators. Some seventy years later, Jane Austen would write several examples of what many would now recognize as the novel. But Johnson was writing something different and certainly was not out to capitalize on Richardson's example.

First, and perhaps foremost, Rasselas is short. Although it seems far too long for a short story (or a 'tale' in England), it doesn't really reach the length where we would consider it a novel. In addition to that, the characters aren't fully formed and exist as vehicles through which Johnson explores human nature. With these points in mind, it's probably best to think of Rasselas as a moral tract, or a treatise on the human experience. The point of the text is probably not to entertain, but rather to teach. Unfortunately, the moral of the story is that true happiness in unattainable in this world, no matter the socioeconomic or individual differences.

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