One unexpected instance of deep emotional impact occurred when I read The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759) by Samuel Johnson. This task was accomplished for the Early Atlantic Reading Group at the university where I work. The only detail that I remembered about the author as I read his book is that he wrote the celebrated work within one week, and he did so as his mother lay dying in the next room. In fact, Johnson wrote Rasselas to pay for his mother’s funeral. Of course, I found myself questioning how the author’s emotional state affected the text.
Rasselas is the name of a prince from Ethiopia—in this instance, a highly idealized and ahistoric kingdom—who lives in the fictive Happy Valley. There, all his physical wants are tended. However, he is restless and so escapes with the poet Imlac, his sister Nekayah, and her servant-cum-friend Pekuah. They seek interactions with people and places in nearby Egypt that will allow them—an ultimately futile search—to understand contentment and cultivate a sense of well-being, which is their ultimate goal in life.
Johnson understands something profound about human interactions. But, as he waits for his mother to pass, he indulges in a fantasy that all of us who grieve have at some point (or, more often, many points). As it turns out, Pekuah is not dead! She has been living happily in the desert and learning astronomy! She returns to the fold and shares stories of her adventures with her loved ones! Nekayah’s grief as well as her guilt for moving on with her life is thus artificially resolved through a coup de théâtre, and I curse Johnson for being a coward. I will never know how Nekayah would have finally come to terms with the grief as well as her guilt for being yet another human being, one who just can’t long live in misery. It may have helped me to have such a literary road map.