Imagination and the Pursuit of Happiness

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson

In Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, Imlac delivers of himself a speech on the topic of imagination and its effects upon individuals. Though Rasselas is a work of fiction, Imlac’s speech singles out works of fiction as a significant factor in inciting unreason and even madness:

To indulge the power of fiction, and send imagination out upon the wing, is often the sport of those who delight too much in silent speculation… The mind dances from scene to scene, unites all pleasures in all combinations, and riots in delights which nature and fortune, with all their bounty cannot bestow. […] Then fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or anguish (123).

Yet despite this, Imlac’s speech does not undermine Johnson’s work, fiction though it may be. In Rasselas, Johnson creates an fiction which is, by Imlac’s standards, an anti-fiction. Rather than giving readers an impression of manifold happiness attainable through many means, Rasselas is instead a fiction which presents a more reasonble view of the world, meant to divest people of “airy notions… beyond the limits of sober probability” (123).

Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson
Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson

The earnest agreement of Rasselas, Nekayah, and Pekuah demonstrates that Imlac’s treatment of this topic is no facetious persiflage. Pekuah and Nekayah had imagined their situations in some wise reversed, with the princess fancying herself a shepherdess and the servant imagining herself a princess. This inversion hearkens back to the moment when Imlac finally must “crush the hope of inexperience,” when he tells Rasselas that “we are convinced that happiness is never to be found, and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for himself” (75). Pekuah and Nekayah each suppose the other happy, based upon their outward behaviour, and consequently, motivated by their own internal discontent, they both imagine themselves as the other. Rasselas is no different: “all appeared to him equally happy,” despite that he feels “restless and uneasy… unsatisfied with the pleasures which I seem most to court” (75). Indeed, Rasselas goes on to say that he is “only loud and merry” as a means of convincing others that he is not sad, but happy, himself (75).

But as Imlac points out, this is the case for “every man”, each of whom employ a ‘counterfeit gaiety’ in the same mode as the prince, with the consequence that the outward behaviour observed by Rasselas may be no more genuine than the outward behaviour of Rasselas himself (75). This belief is, itself, the central fiction upon which other fictions seem to rest. For, by indulging in this “pleasing delusion,” Rasselas, Nekayah, and Pekuah come to believe that happiness does exist in other modes of being. Consequently, they begin to imagine themselves in those modes of being, even though the reality is that such positions are no more completely happy than their own.

1771 Map of Abyssinia
1771 Map of Abyssinia

Unlike the imagination–the “visionary schemes” which, when first formed, are known “to be absurd”–the “pleasing delusion” of the contentment of others is something which is taken as a truth almost from the beginning (124, 75). It is for this reason that it can serve as the central untruth on which other untruths must rest for, at not point along the way, do those who possess the belief doubt its veracity (unless it be called into disrepute by such a one as Imlac). Hence, Rasselas argues that a belief in the happiness of others is the means by which other fictions may enter in; fictions of which, “in time we lose sight of their folly” (124).

Works Cited
Johnson, Samuel. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Edited by Jessica Richard. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Editions, 2008.


  1. Wasn’t this reading so very different from Tom Jones? It was rather depressing hearing these fictional characters find that happiness cannot be found, and they end up right back where they started. I like how you brought up the idea of “masks” again; outward appearances of happiness don’t necessarily align with inner feelings. Perhaps finding themselves is a way to achieve that self-fulfillment? Yet the journey ended without that success, and the reader is left to wonder if they can ever actually be happy. Tom Jones seemed to have a much different ending; everything fell into place, and he could return home gaining a fortune and a wife. Yet there is no sequel to this work. How do we know if they ended up happy? If he didn’t cheat on his poor wife?

    Incredibly sad indeed…

  2. I really like that you pointed out that Rasselas is not like other fictions that fail to present a realistic portrait of what life is really like. Although pessimistic at times, the novel truly captures that there won’t always be a happy ending, and that people conceal their sadness with expressions of glee in the hopes that they may find perennial happiness. After all, Imlac warns against this superficiality: “Be not too hasty… to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men (78-79).” Although the characters never achieve the happiness they were in search of, this illustrates that one will never have pure happiness in life, but should continue to live accepting both the challenges and pleasures that come with it. This will allow a person the opportunity to live an honest and virtuous living.

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