A Literary Coincidence

Eighteenth century literary scholars have always been a bit baffled by the similarities between Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Voltaire’s Candide. Both are short philosophical novels; both were published in 1759, and neither author knew what the other was writing. Both Voltaire and Johnson were publishing, in different forms, views long held and often expressed. Both books were composed hastily; Candide in less than four weeks and Rasselas in seven evenings. Johnson claimed he wrote his novel to pay his mother’s funeral expenses. Johnson was 50 years old, Voltaire 65.

With Candide, Voltaire was responding to the philosophy of optimism, i.e. everything that happens is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Although it may not always seem so, Voltaire’s novel is hilariously funny, mostly because Candide remains obdurately optimistic despite the catastrophes constantly overwhelming him.

In Rasselas, Johnson explores various notions of happiness, its evanescence, and the preponderance of discontent, both in Prince Rasselas’ ‘happy valley,’ where his every whim is indulged, and in the outside world, to which the Prince escaped in an effort to satisfy the insatiable hunger of his imagination.

 

-Joe DeSalvo, Owner, Faulkner House Books

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