Book Review: Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson


Written by the author who brought us such bestsellers as the dictionary, Rasselas is a somewhat fantstical adventure story. Something I didn’t expect. This is my first time reading Dr. Johnson and for some reasons I was expecting something on the dry side and overtly theological. Amazing what false notions we can harbor out of ignorance.

Rasselas is a Prince whose father keeps him and the rest of his family in an Eden-like magical kingdom that is cut off from the rest of the world. Nothing bad ever happens there. Everything is always hunky-dorey. But do you remember the episode of The Simpsons when Bart vexes his Sunday School teacher by wondering if one gets used to the fire and pain inflicted in hell? Well, I had a similar, but opposite thought about Rasselas. Doesn’t one get bored with everything being perfect? Apparently so, since Rasselas and his sister make a run for it after tunneling their way out of Eden with the help of a philospher friend. What they find on the outside are all the vagaries and vices of the real world. Not surprisingly, their years away make them long for the perfection of Abyssinia.

Obviously lots of morals in this story. And I can tell you why they didn’t have such a good time on the outside, because they were goody two shoes who never let themselves go and actually participate in the vice around them. I guess that is what happens when you unleash a staid, moralistic Englishman (Dr. Johnson) on the messy wide world. Nothing. Just lots of repression and the imposition of cookie-cutter moral uprightitude on the rest of the world.

The Verdict: I enjoyed reading this adventure tale, but upon reflection I think it could have been more interesting if Rasselas had gotten his…um…hands a little dirty.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson

  1. mel u August 30, 2011 / 2:39 am

    Samuel Johnson in fact very knowledgeable to of all aspects of late 18th century life-he knew of weakness in his own character so he kept himself in check but it was not from a squeamish puritanism-in his younger days he walked all over London at night-his dictionary was better than one it took 100 French men 20 years to do for France, he sheltered in his house numerous people that would have been homeless but for him-he wrote numerous speeches for famous politicians, his essays are powerful sources of wisdom, two of his poems are among the very best-many of his friends including Boswell knew well the pleasures of the taverns, the streets, etc etc-sorry to go on so but Johnson is a personal hero of mine


  2. mary August 30, 2011 / 7:02 pm

    I've never read it, but isn't this what Helen Burns was reading in Jane Eyre? I think that's what always put me off it!


  3. sarahsbooks September 17, 2011 / 9:31 am

    I agree with Mel on all points. Johnson was deeply religious but also got his hands dirty, throughout his life. I spent several months last winter reading books by Johnson and Boswell and came away with profound respect for both men, albeit for very different reasons. I interpreted “Rasselas” to mean that Johnson concluded, after much personal experience, that worldly pleasures were ultimately unsatisfying. He was anything but staid, by the way.

    As an aside – Roger Rosenblatt's first novel “Lapham Rising” contains much Johnson-worship. Loved it, except the very ending felt a little flat.


  4. mel u September 17, 2011 / 9:55 am

    Sarahsbooks -thank you for your support-in his younger days Johnson walked all over London days and nights (night strolls were actually pretty dangerous) in his younger days, often in the company of his good friend Richard Savage. Savage was very much a man of the darker side of the world of London as was James Boswell. Johnson was also very much a cat lover!-He supported freedom for the colonies and the theory of the divine rights of kings-both for very intelligent reasons-

    I have not before now heard of Lapham Rising and will look for it-

    Thomas-I know you meant no disrespect to Johnson-his portraits do give him a very severe look!


  5. sarahsbooks September 17, 2011 / 6:01 pm

    Yes, during the Savage years Johnson sat in taverns and talked with prostitutes about how they ended up becoming prostitutes. I wish he'd written a novel about that! He did write some pieces of journalism on the subject, though, hidden behind pseudonym initials. They are full of humanity.

    I live with a cat named Hodge.


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