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
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
- Carey McIntosh, The Choice of Life: Samuel Johnson and
the World of Fiction (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973).
About more than Rasselas, but important to know.
- Gwin J. Kolb, "The Structure of Rasselas," PMLA, 66
(September 1951), 698-717.
- Emrys Jones, "The Artistic Form of Rasselas," Review of
English Studies, n.s., 8 (August 1957), 241-48.
- Harold D. Jenkins, "Some Aspects of the Background of
Rasselas," in Studies in English in Honor of R. D. O'Leary and
S. L. Whitcomb (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1940), pp. 8-14.
- Donald M. Lockhart, "'The Fourth Son of the Mighty Emperor': The
Ethopian Background of Johnson's Rasselas," PMLA, 78
(December 1963), 516-28.
- Thomas R. Preston, "The Biblical Context of Johnson's
Rasselas," PMLA, 84 (March 1969), 274-81.
- Howard D. Weinbrot, "The Reader, the General, and the Particular:
Johnson and Imlac in Chapter Ten of Rasselas,"
Eighteenth-Century Studies, 5 (1971), 80-96.
- Robert G. Walker, Eighteenth-Century Arguments of Immortality and
Johnson's "Rasselas," ELS Monograph Series, 9 (Univ. of Victoria:
English Literary Studies, 1977). Slow going at times, but useful for
setting up some of the philosophical background.
This is part of a Guide to Samuel
Johnson by Jack Lynch. Comments are welcome.