Places: Rasselas

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: The Prince of Abissinia: A Tale, 1759

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Philosophical

Time of work: Eighteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedHappy Valley

Happy RasselasValley. Imaginary place in Africa, vaguely located in the mountains of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), a country that interested Samuel Johnson because his first published work had been a translation of a travel book about it. This fantastical and ideal location contains flora, fauna, human government, and even architecture that are all meant to represent nature as it should be. The valley is an advanced and highly civilized Eden. A key feature in the valley is a palace, or huge house, of many mysterious rooms; the valley also contains rugged and various natural phenomena. Despite its complexity and variety, however, the valley is boring to the main characters who decide they must move on in order to see the rest of the world. Once they have done this traveling, most of them return to the valley.


*Cairo. Egyptian city that for Johnson is meant to represent the actual metropolis but is far from a realistic depiction. Rather it represents the exotic and wise East. This is a key theme in the literature of the European Enlightenment. For Johnson’s readers, stories set in the Middle East or the far East carry with them wise and reliable philosophic information. The underlying principle seems to have been that since the dominant religions came from the East and since the institution of self-confident monarchy seemed to be so strong in the lush and exotic courts of the East, fiction set in the East could be particularly didactic and meaningful. In any case, much of the wise information in this story is expressed when the characters travel to Cairo.


Catacombs. Large vaulted underground tombs near the Nile River that are visited near the conclusion of the tale and provide a properly sublime and mysterious setting for some of the most advanced ideas on the nature of the soul and on the possibilities for immortality, key themes for Johnson.


*Pyramids. Ancient landmarks near Cairo that provide the location for a bit of melodrama in the otherwise highly intellectual narrative. Arabs kidnap two of the women when the group of travelers, who are eager to see the world, venture out of the city to these monuments.

Convent of St. Anthony

Convent of St. Anthony. Religious community on a remote island in the middle of the Nile to which the Arabs take their victims. When the Arabs decide to give them back, they do so at a Roman Catholic convent. At the end of the story, one of the victimized women chooses to return to the convent rather than to the valley. These locations and plot complications represent Johnson’s effort to convey the various religious and political options in the real world of his reader.


*Constantinople. Capital city of Turkey that provides another exotic location in the East, where one of the political thinkers, who is replete with wise ideas, is taken in chains. Johnson seems to want to hint at just enough detail to suggest that the thinking conveyed in the narrative is one of universal coverage of the entire human world.

BibliographyBurke, John J., Jr., and Donald Kay, eds. The Unknown Samuel Johnson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. Offers new interpretations of Rasselas’ theme and meaning in light of Johnson’s private life.Curley, Thomas. “The Spiritual Journey Moralized in Rasselas.” Anglia 91 (1973): 35-55. Generally positive review, focusing on the moral overtones of Johnson’s choice-of-life ideology as it relates to the circumstances and actions of the travelers in Rasselas.Ehrenpreis, Irvin. “Rasselas and Some Meanings of ‘Structure’ in Literary Criticism.” Novel 14, no. 2 (Winter, 1981): 101-117. A rather disparaging view of Johnson’s artistic abilities, noting the shallowness of his characters and the inconsistencies within the structure of Rasselas.Nath, Prem, ed. Fresh Reflections on Samuel Johnson: Essays in Criticism. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1987. Contains a broad range of critical essays dealing with Johnson’s writings, with particular emphasis on its artistic nature. Useful for its opposing interpretations of theme and meaning in Rasselas.Wahba, Magdi, comp. Bicentenary Essays on “Rasselas.” Cairo: Société Orientale de Publicité Press, 1959. Focuses on Rasselas as a positive message of hope and call from despair, offering a counterargument to the pessimistic interpretation in force since its publication in the eighteenth century.
Categories: Places