Written at age 50, 10 years after “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and 6 years before his “Prefaces to Shakespeare”
1. How does this narrative differ from previous travel narrative or allegories you have read? What is its genre? (parable or moral tale)
2. Is the insertion of "History" in the title significant? Is Rasselas a novel, and if not, why not?
3. With what antecedent prose allegories or moral travel tales would Johnson have been familiar? (More’s Utopia, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) What might have been some important antecedents which treated similar moral themes? (Milton, in "Il Penseroso" and Paradise Lost)
--fallen Eden motif in Aphra Behn's Oronoko
--unlike Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" exhibits deeper skepticism about contentments of the humble life, 85
--like the Utopia, the use of a guide figure permits more conversation and judgment, more emphasis on viewers and less on objects viewed
--compare Swift on court life, 94; emulation of the court, chap. 25;
--less detachment form the object of satire than in Swift; in some circumstances in Johnson, we feel for the kingly victim
4. How do you find Rasselas similar to or different from Johnson’s other works? (e. g., "The Vanity of Human Wishes," "Prefaces to Shakespeare")
5. What features of this book seem unusual or attractive to you?
6. Do the themes of Rasselas suggest any biblical themes or passages? (Ecclesiastes: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”; edenic symbolism of the garden before the fall, need for the fall, guilt over wasted time)
7. Why do you think Rasselas is presented as a prince of Abyssinia? What views would the British have had toward Abyssinia at the time? (exotic, wild, closer to a state of nature) What is its current name? (northern Ethiopia)
8. Do the events of the tale progress through a careful sequence? How does the narrative's cumulative structure reinforce the tale’s overt conclusions?
9. How would you describe some of the distinctive features of the narrative?
--use of central protagonist intensifies the sense of subjective self; this enables a more direct expression of grief and frustration than elsewhere (chap. 2, paragraph 6, chapter 3, paragraph 4; heart unsatisfied; heavy sense of restlessness)
--the protagonist is the object of both sympathy and distancing irony, whereas the usual method employs one or the other; narrative presents statement of direct emotion but withholds full approval--the reader is forced to empathize but simultaneously disavows his/her own emotion. For example, in chapter 3, paragraph 4, Rasselas exclaims, "Give me something to desire!" (44), but in the next segment his illusions are mocked (45).
--the narrator feels for several different points of view at once; it is a Johnsonian trait that sarcasm is more painful because we feel it in several directions at once; each object of distancing is also treated with sympathy (e. g., chap. 28, 83, the philosopher mourns his daughter; both the narrator and the philosopher are objects of sympathy; the mad astronomer, touches near our sense of benevolence and order); narrative remains half-way between the detachment of prose argument and the direct identification of the novel.
--use of allegorical and romance elements to present a moral; this is the most directly allegorical of all Johnson's works. The series of metaphors in "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is now a direct series of images, as in the description of the Happy Valley.
--topical organization is deemphasized by the sequence of the narrative, seems to progress according to a psychological ordering.
--subjective expression is also more possible because the three travelers accompany one another
10. What are some features of Johnson’s style?
--laconic understatement, 42; chap. 22, last paragraph, undercut by gentle sorrow, 82;
--careful use of qualification, cahp. 26, 98; avoids overstatement, 140
--presents both sides of a set topic, e. g. chap. 11, 65, virtues of travel; chap. 29, virtues of early and late marriages, 104-106
--use of epigrammatic descriptions, 55-56, 66, 73;
--brief topical summaries (gives brief version of arguments in his prefaces to Shakespeare, argues the value of the Aeneid; set pieces on government, pyramids [transience], death, marriage, limits of rationality)
--use of more extended incidents towards the end (with Petuah visits the astronomer/madness; discussion of faith/the existence of God)
--parallelism; story of Imlac parallels that of Rasselas
11. Can you contrast Johnson’s style, for example, his use of balanced periods, with those of Alexander Pope?
12. What are some further methods by which Johnson’s style may be related to his themes?
--Rising-sudden fall pattern—in sentences, in paragraphs, in incidents, in the sequence of the entire narrative, e. g., in the first paragraph; the episode of the flying machine; Rasselas’ initial situation and optimism of the choice of life, contrasted with his later final opinions (also chap. 4, 47; chap. 9, 58)
13. What are the limitations of the happy valley? Can you compare this state with other literary locations or states of consciousness as postulated by psychologists? (e. g., Kristeva’a “chora”)
14. Would you say that the narrative offers a sympathetic expose of adolescent hopes? (45) Of literary illusions? (46)
15. What purpose is served by the introduction of Imlac? (parallel to Rasselas; they are similar in their initial good fortune and aspirations)
16. What is shown by the inclusion of the incident of the learned but mad astronomer?
17. What views does Rasselas express regarding the existence of God?
18. To what basic themes does Johnson recur?
--the value of the ancients;
--the limited value of learning (66, 148);
--the loss of friends over time;--
--the limitations of the personal life;
--the futility of military glory;
--the anxiety of royal princes
--the imminence of death
--the inability of the rational moralist to deal with painful aspects of life
Why may Johnson have been especially attracted to these themes?
19. Is it ironic that so learned a man as Johnson should find learning a limited resource?
20. What are some of the darker emotions revealed throughout the tale, and how are these expressed? (pain, guilt, regret, fear of death)
--Johnson himself hated solitude
--madness sequence concerns fear of death
--Rasselas regrets time lost in delay (49), sense of belatedness (chap. 4)
--Irene's statement that all inwardly suffer like himself (78, chap. 16)
--emotion appears suddenly; sense of passions carefully restrained and checked; protagonist is never directly self-pitying, and thus the comfort of the discharge of grief denied--sense of no egress
21. Has Johnson shifted his view of reality since “The Vanity of Human Wishes”? (for "The Vanity of Human Wishes," see below)
22. What are some forms of human hopes and aspirations which are undercut by the tale? For example, how does Johnson characterize the poet? What fate befalls him? (abruptly cut off before attaining his goals) The scholar? (chap. 22, lack of wisdom in the assembly of learned men, 90)The political leader? The religious hermit? The scientist? (his expertise and reasoning create a faulty flying machine) The monarch? The person who only desires peace in retirement and a humble life? Why are their goals found to be impossible of attainment?
23. Which of these vocations or desires have characterized Johnson himself?
24. How do Johnson’s characters relate to their fellow human beings? (often are lonely, solitary creatures who desire fellowship but are unable to attain it)
25. What form of consolation, if any, does the tale’s conclusion suggest? Will the consciousness of moral rectitude provide comfort? Is a stance of philosophic irony also beneficial?
--sense of moral conduct sustaining, 57; by contrast luxury seems to provide a limited pleasure
26. What is the effect of the tale’s mode of argument through presenting extremes? (no extreme gives pleasure, but no middle condition seems possible)
27. Are there ways in which this tale makes its point by avoiding some of the characteristics of the novel?
--characters don’t interact; they seem to lack an individual past or future;
--characters are not permitted the tensions and satisfactions of a fixed situation--family, work, ties to kindred and place
--characters don't seem to have an individual past or future
--lack of specificity contributes to the tone of melancholia--in life we are not so detached
--in Rasselas one misses a character who can feel specific hopes and disappointments; sense of varied human identities one of life's chief consolations--Rasselas noble but without many features of personality; humans are not only observers but participants and partisans, and the tension between the two comprises much of the interest of life
--presentation of old man, for example, omits comforts of memory, 144
28. Does this tale follow Johnson's prescriptions in pleasing by presenting just representations of general nature?
29. Can one make a case for Rasselas on the grounds of psychological realism? (presents a powerful psychological truth about one aspect of the human condition, not external truth)
30. What are some aspects of the narration which contributes to its melancholic or elegiac tone?
--context of its composition (e. g., directly after his mother's death)
--lack of specificity in describing characters and incidents;
--repeated grief for the death of hopes
31. Does it help in understanding this tale to know that it was written directly after the death of Johnson's mother? (He wrote it to raise money for her funeral expenses.) Are there aspects of this tale which verge on autobiography?
32. What views does Johnson hold of the nature of imagination? (reductive, deals with illusions; all imagination is wish fantasy) Is this one which would have been shared by the romantic poets?
33. What final judgments on human nature and life's possibilities does The History of Rasselas present?
"The Vanity of Human Wishes"
What are some thematic contrast between this poem and Rasselas?
--emphasis on political vice and sycophancy
--assertion that poverty is better than wealth
--use of specific historical examples (Democritus, Charles XII, Napoleon)
What are the poem's chief lines of argument? E. g., what are the temptations of a scholar's life? (ll. 135ff., especially 157-60) What are the limitations of military glory? The disadvantages of age?
What are some elements of Johnson's poetic style?
--Popeian elements, epigrammatic phrases
--sudden expression of bitterness, l. 174
Johnson's Shakespeare Criticism
What are some qualities of Johnson's prose? In what ways is it poetic? (essay a mighty antiphonal poem)
--able to state adversary position gracefully and fully, e. g., 139
--gives several alternatives within a sentence, 139--seems to refute all possible opponents
--capable of giving several points of view in succession, 139
--repetition of pleasingly moderate judgments between controversial extremes, 140
--periodic sentences both lull and excite--cmp. his poetry
--argument by long mellifluous repetition, 141--repetition without examples, 151
--understands necessity of qualification, 148, allows for exceptions; the process of qualifying necessary to intelligent prose
--beautifully indirect questions used for gentle sarcasm, 160, 178
--fine condensed treatment of topics, 161
--dry statement of verity, 165, often critically, 170, 173
--use of metaphor, 171, 191b
Are there some inconsistencies in his argument? (contrast 144 and 149, or 148 and 159)
What is Johnson's view of the unities? On what grounds does he argue that a play should have unity of action? (reflects nature of the imagination, possibly provides for unity of theme) What are some other unities?
Johnson's views of dramatic unity were much criticized by a later generation. To what degree do you think they are defensible? On what grounds might they be attacked?