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  • Nature and the Choice of Life in Rasselas
  • Robert J. Mayhew (bio)

The Structural Function of Nature in Rasselas

Rasselas (1759) was written at the end of the most active decade in Samuel Johnson’s writing career and closes a twenty-year phase in which his position as a moralist was forged. It is a critical truism that Rasselas epitomized the moral views Johnson had expressed in his periodical essays; like most truisms, this one contains a substantial portion of truth. An element of Johnson’s moral position was outlined in his discussion of the role of landscape, place, and nature in human life, and the ways in which Johnson concentrates his ideas on this theme in Rasselas is my subject.

Most commentators who have analyzed imagery of landscape and the natural world in Rasselas have looked at the paradisiacal description of the Happy Valley from which Prince Rasselas and his party escape. 1 To approach nature and landscape in Rasselas in these terms is to see it as something that Rasselas and his group reject in order to begin their quest for an acceptable “choice of life.” This is to suggest that landscape and the natural world do not have a major role in that quest, as the still-naïve Rasselas can already reject nature’s fascination as the source of a happy life before he is educated by the experiences which constitute the narrative. By contrast, I wish to suggest that Rasselas’s party is confronted by what might be called the “choice of nature”—the hope that life in natural surroundings will be of lasting happiness—at a later stage during its travels and that such a choice of life is pictured as a seductive and recurrent delusion which besets moral actors. As such, nature and landscape are far more than a “background” or “springboard” in Rasselas, and it follows that [End Page 539] they are important as an exemplification of Johnson’s Christian view of moral choice. The contours of Johnson’s view of moral choice will be further illuminated by juxtaposing the response Ellis Cornelia Knight made to Johnson in Dinarbas, her 1790 “continuation” of Rasselas. In Dinarbas, Knight recognized Johnson’s skepticism about the role of nature and landscape in a happy life, and responded to it by establishing a positive vision of the “choice of nature” in a moral life. I will suggest that these conflicting views of the “choice of nature” relate to the differing theological positions of Johnson and Knight.

Many structural divisions of Rasselas have been suggested, 2 but the most important section from the present perspective is chapters 19–22, which deflate delusions about place, nature, and landscape and their relation to human happiness. These chapters act as a unit (although I will not speculate on whether Johnson intended this), with the claims being made for the pleasures attached to place ascending from the aesthetic to the sensate, from the sensate to the mental, and from the mental to the divine. Johnson treats these delusions about place with increasing firmness and ridicule, accordant with the increasing danger of the error being committed in the choice of life. 3 Johnson returned to these delusions throughout Rasselas, but these four chapters concentrate the message he had been making since the Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) and throughout the Rambler, redirecting our hopes from happiness in a specific location to virtue as transcending place and nature. The four chapters act as a chain of events, a structure characteristic of philosophical tales such as Rasselas. Frederick M. Keener argues that the logic of an empirical chain of events opposed the rationalism of the Great Chain of Being: 4 appropriately, Johnson’s chain of events in chapters 19 to 22 ends with the destruction of rationalistic conceptions of the Chain of Being, incorporating them as the highest and most profane delusion about man’s relationship with nature, and completing a sequence which begins with the farcical (but potentially pernicious) errors of the pastoral.

Place and Literary Aesthetics: “A Glimpse of Pastoral Life”

After escaping from the Happy Valley and an initial period in Cairo, Rasselas’s group sets out to find a hermit...

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pp. 539-556
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