The University of New Mexico Best Student Essays

The Words of Unhappiness

The search for happiness is the driving force in Samuel Johnson’s History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia. Though the words happiness and felicity are used at least seventy-nine times throughout the book, more than any other noun or adjective, the repeated pattern is that no one is truly happy. This encompassing message is best stated by Johnson himself through the character Imlac: “Human life is every where a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed” (25). This somewhat pessimistic maxim is revealed, in part, through the use of a consistent word set that suggests a paradoxical conflict within man’s own nature, barring him from the very thing he seeks. By examining the two core words, quiet and novelty, and exploring the lexicon used in relation to each, it becomes apparent that man cannot be happy in Rasselas because the dual qualities that afford happiness are actually in fundamental conflict with each other.

The first word of consideration, quiet, confronts modern readers with the recognition that word meanings have changed over time, and a simple word such as quiet may not carry the same meaning now as it did in 1759, when Johnson wrote The History of Rasselas. The incredible circumstance that Johnson also wrote the Dictionary of the English Language in 1747 can be of immense help in discerning the slight differences of denotative meanings. Taking note of these details in word choices can reveal subtleties of Johnson’s underlying thought processes behind the idea of happiness. For example, the Oxford American Dictionary lists the first definition of quiet as “making little or no noise.” Johnson’s definition from A Dictionary of the English Language, however, has nothing to do with physical noise but, rather, is described as “still” and “peaceable.” The Oxford English Dictionary is consistent with Johnson in its definition: “Freedom from mental or emotional agitation; inner tranquility; peace of mind,” but it adds the note: “Now rare.” Because modern use of the word quiet seldom indicates peace and tranquility of the mind, the use of it in History of Rasselas may be easy to overlook.

In fact, quiet is used eleven times in the book and may be key in understanding Johnson’s premise, for when there is absence of quiet, it is always accompanied by absence of happiness. For example, after Rasselas and Nekayah split ways to try to discover whether the happiest way of life might be found among the rich or the poor, Nekayah reports, “‘I have… enabled myself to enter familiarly into many families, where there was the fairest show of prosperity and peace, and know not one house that is not haunted by some fury that destroys its quiet’” (49). Imlac visualizes quiet as a smooth lake, and disquiet as “a sea foaming with tempests, and boiling with whirlpools” (28), warning Rasselas that no quiet will be found in the world outside of the Happy Valley. Though it is clearly shown that quiet is something to be desired and which increases one’s happiness, the quiet of the Happy Valley is not enough for Rasselas; he is secretly followed by one of the Sages, who had “hope of discovering the cause of his disquiet” (4). This poses a terrible contradiction, for Rasselas lives in a place described by Imlac as being “the seat of quiet” (Johnson 28) and yet still experiences great internal disquiet and unhappiness.

Perhaps the problem is that man does not only desire quiet, but also the second word of consideration: novelty. It is a word used within a system of nine words with intricately related or exact meanings: novelty, new, diversity, diversion, variety/variation, vicissitude, discrimination, different, and change. Collectively, these words are used at least sixty times throughout the book and more than once per page on average. They work as a system in that Johnson’s definitions of these words in A Dictionary of the English Language nearly all overlap, such as the way both variation and vicissitude are described by the word change, and the definitions of diversity, diversion, variation, and change all include the word difference. They all have in common the same exact message: they are words applicable in situations where more than one item exists and so may be contrasted with another, resulting in some sort of novelty. This “item” may be a circumstance, a place, or a way of thinking. Non-sameness links all nine words, and, like quiet, they are nearly always accompanied by an occasion of pleasure. A few examples of this pattern include how: according to Imlac, the novelty of poetry is the cause of surprise (20), for the hermit, the novelty of solitude is the cause of pleasure (43), novelty of a place helps divert Pekuah from impatience and tedium (76), and Rasselas and Nekayah react with admiration to the diversity of lifestyles outside of the Happy Valley (32). Novelty is the contrast between what is currently known and what is unknown, and it seems that the process of transition between the two, called change, is a huge cause of human pleasure, but also of human dissatisfaction. Nekaya explains the relentless life cycle of this process: “Such is life that none are happy but by the anticipation of change: the change itself is nothing; when we have made it, the next wish is to change again. The world is not yet exhausted; let me see something new tomorrow which I never saw before”(93). The need for change seems to be the very first impetus to cause Rasselas to want to leave the Happy Valley. His complaint, quite plainly, is that, “in possessing all that I can want, I find one day and one hour exactly like another, except that the latter is still more tedious than the former”(6).

The reoccurring problem of tedium is surrounded, in Rasselas, by four other often-used words: knowledge, imagination, hope, and fear. The relationship between these words is found in how they attempt to abate tedium and thus bring about happiness, and why they usually fail. The first way to experience the happiness of novelty is through knowledge, used forty-five times in the book. Knowledge enables the expanding of one’s vicarious experience even if physically limited to one place. The scholar, Imlac, explained this important role of knowledge very clearly: “Knowledge is certainly one of the means of pleasure, as is confessed by the natural desire which every mind feels of increasing its ideas…I am therefore inclined to conclude that, if nothing counteracts the natural consequences of learning, we grow more happy as our minds take a wider range”(24). If humans require novelty for happiness, then it follows that new ideas would be pleasing. Johnson does not seem to suggest, however, that knowledge in and of itself is enough to make a person happy. To the contrary, Imlac warns Rasselas against pursuing a life spent in solitary study because of the resulting tendency to distance oneself from reality (79), and Nekayah tries to convince Rasselas that reason and logic—the natural fruits of knowledge—are often useless when it comes to actually making life decisions (57).

In these ways, knowledge is similar to the second dangerous antidote to tedium—imagination, the mind’s substitute for the experience of newness. Because Rasselas has no new experiences with which to entertain himself in the Happy Valley, he creates make-believe scenes, such as picturing himself saving a young maiden from harm (8). As seen through the example of the astronomer who began to lose his mind, the use of imagination to feed the need for novelty can be dangerous because the newness it offers is out of touch with reality and reason (84). This warning seems to be something Johnson is consistently concerned about, starting from the opening admonition to all who “listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope”(1). The word hope, used forty-five times, seems in many ways to parallel imagination, for, similar to a phantom, hope is a mere framework, a hollow form of something that does not actually exist. Interestingly, hope is accompanied by fear more than any other word. This occurrence is distinctly explained by Imlac, who declares:

The truth is, that no mind is much employed upon the present: recollection and anticipation fill up almost all of our moments. Our passions are joy and grief, love and hatred, hope and fear.
Of joy and grief the past is the object and the future of hope and fear. (60)

Johnson’s own definition of the word hope in A Dictionary of the English Language includes: “[placing] confidence in futurity.” Because the future is unknown, hoping and fearing imaginary possibilities of times to come is another way of losing touch with the reality of the present, and denying oneself the happiness of a tranquil mind.

The warnings and setbacks that come with the pursuit of novelty through the use of knowledge and imagination move in the same cyclical manner as all of the encounters in Rasselas: they always return to the conclusion that no man is truly happy. In the world of Rasselas, quietness of mind and heart quickly become tedious with the absence of diversity, newness, and change; conversely, the cures to tedium most often end in unhappiness. Johnson’s proposition, then, is that humans’ own desires are in conflict with each other. If a person cannot enjoy quiet without longing for variety, and cannot pursue novelty without upsetting the quiet of inner tranquility, then the two things most often linked to happiness are incompatible with each other. Man is, therefore, cursed to perpetually long for what he does not have, and imagine that somehow “the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow” (1), which is precisely the practice Johnson intends to warns against. Man in Rasselas is unhappy indeed! Perhaps there is another message, though, that Johnson hopes to impart to his audience as spoken through Princess Nekayah:

Those conditions, which flatter hope and attract desire, are so constituted, that, as we approach one, we recede from another. There are goods so opposed that we cannot seize both, but by too much prudence, may pass between them as too great a distance to reach either…No man can taste the fruits of autumn while he is delighting his scent with the flowers of spring. (58)

Just as Imlac warns the young travelers to not be so preoccupied with “making the choice of life, [that] you neglect to live”(59), Johnson points out discrepancies of human felicity so that people may stop waiting for the future to bring about perfection, and look to the present. This must be done in order that, like the fruits of autumn and the flowers of spring, quiet and novelty may each be enjoyed in their own season.

Works Cited
Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. London: Times, 1979. Print.

Johnson, Samuel. History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia. New York: Dover Publications, 2005. Print.

“Quiet.” Def. 1. Oxford American Dictionary. www.oxfordamericandictionary.com Web. 17 Nov. 2010.

“Quiet.” Def. 1a. Oxford English Dictionary Online. www.dictionary.oed.com Web. 17 Nov. 2010.

Added May 13, 2011

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Nominated By Richard Obenauf, University Honors 122, Legacy of Success:

“‘The Words of Unhappiness’ takes an obvious topic, the theme of happiness in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, and tackles it in a new way. In this essay, Melissa Hobbs focuses not on Johnson’s thematic context, but rather on the way words themselves were used in 1759. Through a close reading of the text and rigorous use of dictionaries, she shows that our definitions of even commonplace words are so different from Johnson’s that modern readers cannot fully appreciate the moral of Johnson’ allegory.”


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