Recalling the pessimism of Ecclesiastes, Samuel Johnson's History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia is the fictional journey of 3 young travelers on a quest to find happiness. Growing up in the sheltered “Happy Valley,” prince Rasselas, his sister Nekayah, and a maid, tunnel out of the idle luxury of the valley to look for meaning and happiness in the world outside. Everywhere they question those they meet if their profession and “choice of life” have made them happy. Invariably, the answer is no. Those with power are hated and deposed, those without power are abused; those with money have enemies, those without money are without; those with learning have wasted their time, “in the attainment of sciences which can, for the most part, be but remotely useful to mankind” (113), those without learning are rude and discontent.
It would seem upon first sight that Johnson is saying: “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” Even the great pyramids that Rasselas and the princess visit are a testament to the futility of earthly achievement. According to the siblings' guide:
“I consider this mighty structure as a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyments.... Whoever thou art, that, not content with a moderate condition, imaginest happiness in royal magnificence, and dreamest that command or riches can feed the appetite of novelty with perpetual gratification, survey the pyramids, and confess thy folly!” (78).
This echoes Ecclesiastes where Solomon says: “I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.... Yet... everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 2:4,11).
Yet Johnson's narrative, like Ecclesiastes, is not without hope. Both enjoin us to enjoy each moment as much as possible and in the end both peer forward toward a dimly seen future significance. Near the end of the book, princess Nekayah puts it this way: “'To me,' said the princess, 'the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity'” (122). Ecclesiastes comes to a similar conclusion: “remember your Creator... Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken” (Eccl. 12:6).
Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. The World's Classics-Oxford University Press. 1988