Johnson's only extended prose fiction is Rasselas, published in 1759, apparently to defray the costs of his mother's funeral. It tells the story of Rasselas, a Prince of Abyssinia, who leaves the Happy Valley of his birth with his mentor, Imlac; his sister, Nekayah; and her servant, Pekuah. In the episodic plot, the four travel through Egypt looking for the happiest mode of life. As anyone who has read The Vanity of Human Wishes could guess, they never find it.

The proper term for Rasselas's genre is sometimes disputed: it's probably most often called an Oriental tale, but some prefer to see it as a Menippean or Varronian satire. In any case, avoid calling it a novel.


The standard edition is Rasselas and Other Tales, ed. Gwin J. Kolb, vol. XVI of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990). A cheaper alternative is Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose, ed. Bertrand Bronson, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart, 1971), or the recent paperbacks from Penguin and Oxford World's Classics.


This is part of a Guide to Samuel Johnson by Jack Lynch. Comments are welcome.