Feminism in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia

Topics: Samuel Johnson, Woman, Happiness Pages: 15 (5639 words) Published: May 19, 2006
Samuel Johnson's "The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia" and It's Feminist Conclusion, in which Nothing is Concluded

Feminism is described in many ways, but mainly it can be gathered as a movement against oppression, which fights for the civil and political equality of women and men, and towards the opportunity of self-independence. During the eighteenth century, Great Britain's society offered little opportunity for women to take part in the active roles of the male dominated world. Women were unable to participate in political, economic or social dealings. Society understood that women were supposed to be submissive to men, that their natural destiny was marriage, and that women needed only minimal education. Denying women a proper education was men's main weapon for keeping women subordinate. On the contrary, Samuel Johnson highly believed in the human condition, in the opportunity of equal considerations and that women should be educated. In The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759) Johnson explores much more than Rasselas' need for a choice of life and/or search for an identity by exploring the pursuit of happiness. In the novel, Johnson brings forth powerful characters, both male and female to transcend gender roles. These characters will travel around Samuel Johnson's feminist views on the meaning of happiness, touching on themes as oppression, marriage and education. This paper will explore through the male characters' consideration of women and through the women characters' experience, that education leads towards good human understanding and therefore towards happiness. Nevertheless, it will also point out that Johnson's Feminist thinking, which gives in to society's morals and ideals, falls short at the end of the tale, since nothing is concluded and all return to their imprisoned sate of life in the secluded "Happy Valley". The narrative begins with a pastoral description of the valley. The scene is practically picture perfect by description. However, no one can escape the "happy valley" and only once a year "the iron gate was opened to the sound of music; and during eight days every one that resided in the valley was required to propose whatever might contribute to make seclusion pleasant, to fill the vacancies of attention, and lesson the tediousness of time" (74). Artistic competitors arrived at this once a year event with the hope of being chosen to live in what was believed to be the happiest place on earth, a place where all needs and desires were granted and where no evil existed. The most successful of the entertainers receives a prize, which is no bargain: permanent incarceration. Even though Johnson's describes the valley as the perfect place to live in, he contradicts himself by also using words as secluded, tediousness and captivity. Rasselas dilemma is simple. He feels confined and imprisoned in this so-called "happy valley" and desires more to his life. At the beginning of the story, Rasselas does not know what he desires, but he does know that he is not happy. Chapters II through IV of the novel clearly demonstrate how education is used to oppress the inhabitants of the valley. Everything is given and offered in order to keep everyone happy. "The sages who instructed them told them of nothing but the miseries of public life, and described all beyond the mountains as regions of calamity, where discord was always raging, and where man preyed upon man" (75). Education is being used by the instructors of the valley to oppress its inhabitants; to create fear of the unknown and pity whoever was excluded from their privileged life. Education is being used as powerful tool. In this occasion, it only makes the people of the "happy valley" conform to their sate of life. The state of seclusion and the parallel education of the valley are clearly forms of oppression. It is cruel to be locked away, especially kept away from reality. When Rasselas' discontent...

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