E211 Samuel Johnson Questions



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Assigned: The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (Norton Vol. F 2856-2923); Rambler #4 "On Fiction" (2923-26); "Preface to Shakespeare" (2936-47).

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia

1. On 2857-60 (Chs. 1-2), Johnson describes the young prince Rasselas' childhood environment with much care. What state of mind does this setting allude to? What is the relationship between Rasselas and the world around him at the outset of the story?

2. On 2858-63 (Chs. 2-4), what causes Rasselas to become discontented with the way he lives? Why aren't his paradisal surroundings enough for him? What does his unhappiness have to do with the ancient problem of desire?

3. On 2863 (Ch. 5), what might the episode about the mechanic's attempt to fly suggest to Rasselas and to us about the proper relationship between imagination and experience?

4. On 2870-72 (Ch. 10), what most surprises Imlac about people's judgment of ancient poets? What comparison does Imlac make between the earliest authors and those who come after them? We have examined Johnson's insistence on a writer's duty to choose subjects judiciously. What new thoughts about the conjunction between morality and representation (imitation) does Imlac offer on these pages?

5. On 2870-72 (Ch. 10), Imlac claims that poets who know their trade do not "number the streaks of the tulip." Most readers today, as inheritors of the romantics' love for individuality and particularity, will surely disagree. But what is the basis of Imlac's argument -- in what vital way do "tulip-streakers," in his view, fail as artists and with respect to the potential of their audience? Furthermore, in what sense might Imlac actually embrace the notion artists should observe human nature and the environment closely?

6. On 2870-72 (Ch. 10), what does Imlac apparently mean when he says that the poet must write "as a being superior to time and place"? What is he suggesting about human nature and about the function of art? Can you recall echoes of this statement in later works of literary criticism? If so, which works and authors?

7. On 2872-73 (Ch. 11), what contrast does Imlac make between the east and the west? What does he seem to think about the impact of science and its favored "instrumental rationality"?

8. On 2879-80 (Ch. 16), why is Cairo an appropriate starting point for the intellectual and spiritual journey Rasselas has insisted upon undertaking? What is the first thing Rasselas learns while in the city?

9. On 2881-83 (Chs. 17-19), Rasselas consorts with the young and carefree, meets a wise philosopher, and then comes upon rustic shepherds while on the way to visit a hermit. What do these encounters teach Rasselas? For example, what does the philosopher's experience suggest about the relationship between philosophy and ordinary life?

10. On 2883-87 (Chs. 20-22), Rasselas and his companions finally meet the hermit. How does the hermit explain his choice of lifestyle, and what does he believe he has accomplished by it? How does Rasselas' encounter with the hermit prepare him to assess the claims of the sage philosopher he hears soon thereafter?

11. On 2888-91 and 2892-95 (Chs. 25-26, 28-29), Rasselas and his sister Nekayah discuss private life and the institution of marriage. What is the nature of their disagreement, especially with regard to the provenance of reason as a guide in marriage? Why isn't the family the ideal social unit that it ought to be, according to some?

12. On 2897-99 (Chs. 31-33), Rasselas and his companions, except the frightened servant Pekuah, visit the Pyramids. What lesson does Imlac draw from this experience? Why did the pharaohs build the Pyramids, according to him?

13. On 2909-14 (Chs. 40-44), the Prince decides to devote himself to learning. But how does his friendship with the Astronomer lead to disillusionment about the benefits of deep learning? According to Imlac, what error or tendency has led the Astronomer into madness, and why is that tendency due to more than just his own peculiarity?

14. On 2914-15 (Ch. 45), Rasselas and the others meet an old man to see what they can learn from him. What in fact does the Prince take away from that experience? What does Imlac understand that Rasselas does not?

15. On 2920-22 (Ch. 48), what reasoning leads Imlac to conclude in favor of the soul's existence?

16. On 2922-23 (Ch. 49), what paths do Rasselas, Princess Nekayah, Imlac and the Astronomer end up pursuing by the end of the story? Why is it appropriate that the conclusion should be so inconclusive, given the nature of what Rasselas has been seeking all along?

"On Fiction" (Rambler #4)

17. On 2923-24, how does Johnson sum up the "task of our present writers" as opposed to yesteryear's purveyors of romance epic and other such genres? In what sense has the gap between author and readership narrowed, and with what results to the status of the new texts? In addition, what sort of people does Johnson suggest are the main readers of the new kinds of fiction?

18. On 2924-25, why, according to Johnson, do "familiar histories" (realistic fiction, popular novels) prove more useful than "the solemnities of professed morality"? In what sense are they useful? What moral responsibility does Johnson suggest ought to be kept in mind by authors of realistic fiction, and why?

19. On 2925-26, what "chief advantage" does modern fiction have in comparison with the real-life objects it imitates or represents (ordinary people, events, and things)? How does Johnson turn this advantage into a moral imperative, and how does he refute those who insist that it's acceptable to represent morally ambivalent or composite characters?

20. General question: Johnson is obviously concerned about the moral welfare of the audience he says is reading his age's novels and stories, and some politicians, social critics, and religious folk show a similar concern today, even to the point of urging legal censorship (which Johnson isn't advocating). Plato, of course, is the father of all such moral arguments about the pragmatic effects of art. To what extent, if at all, do you think such arguments or concerns are valid? Discuss.

"Preface to Shakespeare"

21. On 2936-37, what test does Johnson suggest should be applied to literary works "of which the excellence is not absolute and definite"? How does Johnson reason in support of this test -- what alone can please the majority of people over long periods of time? How does Shakespeare's drama exemplify the kind of art that passes this test of excellence?

22. On 2938-39, what praise does Johnson bestow on Shakespeare's handling of human nature, and how does he defend the playwright from charges leveled against him over his handling of traditional heroic characters, historical periods, and generic expectations about tragedy and comedy? Why, in particular, is Shakespeare right to include comic elements in his tragedies, and tragic potential in his comedies?

23. On 2940-42, Johnson meets the censurers of Shakespeare half-way: what criticisms of his own does he level against the Bard? Which is the worst and least excusable fault, and why? Which faults seem less important, and partly or entirely understandable?

24. On 2942-44, how does Johnson refute critics who say dramatic illusion requires strict adherence to the "unities of time and place"? What is the exact nature of dramatic illusion, according to Johnson -- if we aren't taken in by what we see on stage, why, then, do we respond to it, and in what manner do we respond? Another way to ask this question is, "in what sense is the audience's experience at a drama genuine or authentic {my terms} in its own right, even though we don't believe we are witnessing a real-life event?"

25. On 2945-46, Johnson comments briefly on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and King Lear. What criticism does he set forth on the first play (a comedy), and then on the second? To what extent does he excuse the elements of King Lear that have been most harshly criticized by others? What do you gather from these pages regarding Johnson's personal response to the great tragic play?

26. General question: although it isn't evident from our excerpts, Johnson shows a decided preference for Shakespeare's comedies. (To adapt a line from Oscar Wilde, the charge is that Shakespeare put his genius into his comedies, but only his talent into the tragedies.) Which kind of Shakespeare do you prefer, and why? Does your response have to do mainly with your own personality (i.e. "brooders" usually go in for tragedy, while a sunny disposition may prefer comedy and romance), or with what you can point to as objective features of Shakespeare's language, plots, and stagecraft? Explain.

27. General question: Johnson writes on 2944, "if we thought murders and treasons real, they would please no more." He's probably right in the sense that direct viewing of such things in real life would horrify most modern people. But what about film? To what extent might it be argued that we come very close to taking the powerful images on a movie screen as real, at least during the time we are watching the film? Does that affect your view of Johnson's argument against extreme proponents of dramatic illusion? If so, how?

28. General question: how many of Sir Philip Sidney's ideas can you find in Johnson's "On Fiction"? In what ways do you think Johnson differs from Sidney's expressly religious moral framework, or has transformed some of his ideas? Alternately, how much of Plato or Aristotle do you find in Johnson? For example, how close does Johnson come to Plato's brand of moralism? How might Johnson's explanation of how we can take pleasure in watching a tragic play be compared with Aristotle's remarks on our response to representations of painful or otherwise troubling things?

29. General question: in Ch. 14 of Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge observes that his contribution to the Lyrical Ballads involved concentrating upon "persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." Compare his notion of poetic illusion with Johnson's ideas about dramatic illusion and the manner in which an audience "credits" a good play.

Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen and Carol T. Christ. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th. edition. Package 1: Vols. A, B, C. Paperback. Norton: 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0393913002.