The Choice of Life: Art and Nature in Rasselas

  • Charles H. Hinnant


The relation between Rasselas and the post-Newtonian perspective of his review of Jenyns’s Inquiry can be seen in a conception of desire which, inasmuch as it is located on a horizon of vacuity, can never be realized in the natural world. The movement of desire is that of a poignant yearning and a disillusioned satiety: the deficient ‘tedium’ of an expectation that precedes ‘endeavour’ and the excessive ‘disgust’ of a ‘fulness’ that follows attainment. Given this play of defect and excess, it is not surprising that the central issue for the characters of Rasselas becomes the means of achieving lasting satisfaction or happiness. In Johnson’s Oriental tale, the attempt to resolve this issue often takes the form of a distinctive conception of art in which the natural world is subjected to a logic of choice, and reorganized around a contrast between good and evil, purity and impurity, inside and outside. Within this system, art serves as the techné by which the ‘blessings’ of nature are systematically ‘collected’ and ‘its evils extracted and excluded’.


Total Domination Predator Function Late Marriage Endless Series Soft Music 
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  1. 1.
    My conception of an apparently unending dialectical conflict between opposites in Rasselas has been anticipated by Earl R. Wasserman’s point in ‘Johnson’s Rasselas: Implicit Contexts’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 74 (1975) 9, 11, that while ‘everything is bipolar, not multiple’ in Johnson’s tale, there is ‘no clear choice … but only an endless, directionless oscillation between opposites, neither of which is sufficient or stable’. See also Irvin Ehrenpreis’s observation concerning Johnson’s method of ‘offering a choice of alternatives and undercutting both’ in ‘Rasselas and Some Meanings of “Structure” in Literary Criticism’, Novel, 14 (1981) 113.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Thomas R. Preston, in ‘The Biblical Context of Johnson’s Rasselas’, Publications of the Modern Language Association, 84 (1969) 275, points to the resemblance between the Happy Valley and the Preacher’s Garden in Symon Patrick’s A Paraphrase upon the Book of Ecclesiastes (1685). To grasp what is unusual about Rasselas, however, one must take account of differences as well as resemblances. In striking contrast to the Happy Valley, Patrick’s Garden is not organized in terms of a system of classification and exclusion; we learn merely that ‘besides other delights’, it included ‘lovely Shades and Coverts for all Sorts of Beasts’, Symon Patrick, A Paraphrase upon the Book of Ecclesiastes (London: Royston, 1685) p. 30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    The idea that there is an underlying continuity between life inside and outside the Happy Valley has been noted by several critics, among them, Ehrenpreis, p. 106, and Alvin Whitley, ‘The Comedy of Rasselas’, English Literary History, 23 (1956) 51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 5.
    Critics differ as to the significance of the exchanges of the central characters in Rasselas. At one extreme, Bertrand H. Bronson, in ‘Postscript on Rasselas’ in Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1952), xvi, contends that the characters are voices in a philosophic dialogue. At the other extreme,Google Scholar
  5. Carol J. Sklenicka, in ‘Samuel Johnson and the Fiction of Activity’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 78 (1979) 214–23,Google Scholar
  6. and Catherine Neale Parke, in ‘Imlac and Autobiography’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 6 (1977) 183–98, contend that the role of conversation in Rasselas is therapeutic, protecting the characters from the world’s miseries and enabling them to achieve at least a degree of felicity.Google Scholar
  7. By contrast, Frederick M. Keener, in The Chain of Becoming (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), tries to show ‘the main character s disagreement, resentment, and estrangement from each other’ (p. 218).Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Howard D. Weinbrot, in ‘The Reader, the General and the Particular: Johnson and Imlac in Chapter Ten of Rasselas’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 5 (1971) 86–90, carefully traces the way in which the terms ‘species’ and ‘genus’ are opposed in Johnson’s critical vocabulary. What my interpretation emphasizes is the absence of any theory of analogy or correspondence that might serve as a bridge between the two terms.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    On the demise of patriarchalism in the English political thought of the early eighteenth century, see Isaac Kramnick, Bolingbroke and His Circle: the Politics of Nostalgia in the Age of Walpole (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968) passim; Google Scholar
  10. and Gordon J. Schochet, Patriarchalism in Political Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1975) pp. 192–4.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    I disagree with critics who view the conclusion as the culmination and perpetuation of a movement which is closed, circular, and endless. See, for example, Whitley, p. 69; Wasserman, p. 25; and Emrys Jones, ‘The Artistic Form of Rasselas’, Review of English Studies, N. S. 18 (1967) 400. The tenor of my interpretation of Rasselas inclines to the view that the conclusion should be seen in terms of rupture rather than continuity, succession rather than incessant motion, unpredictable reversal rather than monotonous circular repetition.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    For an interpretation that views Imlac as a normative figure, see the fine essay by Agostino Lombardo, ‘The Importance of Imlac’, in Bicentenary Studies on Rasselas, Supplement to Cairo Studies in English (Cairo: n. p., 1959) pp. 31–9. See, in addition, the importance attached to Imlac’s wisdom in William Kenny’s ‘Rasselas and the Theme of Diversification’, Philological Quarterly, 38 (1959) 84–9; and Frederick M. Keener’s The Chain of Becoming, p. 237.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    On the eighteenth-century intellectual background of the arguments Imlac advances in his debate with the astronomer on the immortality of the soul, see Carey McIntosh, The Choice of Life: Samuel Johnson and the World of Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973) pp. 202–4; and, more fully,Google Scholar
  14. Gwin J. Kolb, ‘The Intellectual Background of the Discourse on the Soul in Rasselas’, Philological Quarterly, 54 (1975) 357–69. For an interesting discussion of the role of Christianity in Rasselas,Google Scholar
  15. see Nicholas Joost’s ‘Whispers of Fancy; or, the Meaning of Rasselas’, Modern Age, 1 (1957) 168–73.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Charles H. Hinnant 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles H. Hinnant
    • 1
  1. 1.University of MissouriUSA

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