Confessions Of An English Opium Eater Summary
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In his autobiographical account Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), English author Thomas De Quincey chronicles his addiction to laudanum (a popular opium cocktail of the time) and the growing impact it had on his life. The first major work De Quincey published, it explores themes of addiction, drug culture, and the way addicts are treated in society; it is one of the first works to deal with these topics in modern times. It was controversial in its time for its overall positive depiction of the pleasure of opium, although De Quincey’s detailed depiction of its effects was praised for raising awareness of the impact of the drug. Originally published in two parts, the first devoted to how De Quincey fell into addiction and the second focusing on the effects of the drug, it was collected and revised in 1856. It is considered widely influential in the fields of abnormal psychology and addiction counseling. The opera Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz was loosely based on De Quincey’s memoir.
Confessions of an English Opium Eater is divided into two parts; part 1 begins with a brief segment titled “To the Reader,” in which De Quincey introduces the book as a segment from a larger autobiography. He hopes it will be instructive and explains he tried to resist the lure of opium but fell into it due to various painful ailments. He says addiction is more widespread than thought and the public has many misconceptions about its use. The second, longer segment of this part, “Preliminary Confessions,” is focused on De Quincey’s youth. His father died when he was young, and he attended a number of boarding schools. He often felt better educated than his teachers and had a passion for ancient Greek. He ran away when he was seventeen, traveling on foot with little to his name to North Wales. He stayed at an inn for a while until the innkeeper offended him by accusing him of being a con man. Running out of money, he did odd jobs for food and shelter. Eventually, he went to London where he nearly starved, staying in an unoccupied apartment which he shared with an odd little girl. He befriended a teenage prostitute named Ann, but when he tries to find her in later years he is unable. Tired of poverty, he eventually reconciles with his family and goes to Oxford.
Part two of the book focuses on the trials De Quincey endured later in life. He and Ann suffered greatly in London, and he believes that this period taught him how to endure hardship. This part is divided into two primary segments, “The Pleasures of Opium” and “The Pains of Opium.” He first tried laudanum in 1804, when he was suffering from a toothache and a friend recommended it. He describes his first experience as mystical and joyous, saying the high lasts much longer than one from wine. He claims opium allows people to be their best selves morally and intellectually by alleviating pain. He says that it gave him a greater appreciation for the arts, and he went from using it weekly as a social activity to becoming a frequent user.
In “The Pains of Opium,” De Quincey tells how he became dependent on opium while suffering from severe stomach pains while living in a cottage in the mountains. During this time, he was robbed by a Malay sailor, who took all his opium. This man appeared in De Quincey’s nightmares frequently. In this segment, De Quincey describes the intense symptoms he suffered from opium addiction, including hallucinations and nightmares. He often dreamed about foreign lands, of friends he had lost touch with, especially Ann. He was frequently haunted by thoughts of her, wondering what terrible fate she suffered after they lost touch. The Malay also appeared frequently as a terrifying figure. Eventually, he realized that he would likely die if he didn’t decrease his opium use, and the latter part of the chapter describes his painful withdrawals, which he barely survived. He ends the book by wishing other addicts luck in quitting, and noting that he still suffers from many of the symptoms, including nightmares.
Thomas Penson De Quincey was an English essayist best known for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which is considered the first example of the now-common genre of addition literature in Western writing. In addition to his memoir, he was well known for his literary criticism, especially in the area of Shakespeare. His works were often morbid, dealing with topics such as war and murder, but he was also well known for his in-depth exploration of seemingly mundane topics such as the English mail-coach system. His final work was a collection of autobiographical sketches drawing from many of his previous works. He is considered widely influential on later writers, including Edgar Allan Poe.
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, autobiographical narrative by English author Thomas De Quincey, first published in The London Magazine in two parts in 1821, then as a book, with an appendix, in 1822.
The avowed purpose of the first version of the Confessions was to warn the reader of the dangers of opium, and it combined the interest of a journalistic exposé of a social evil, told from an addict’s point of view, with a somewhat contradictory and seductive picture of the subjective pleasures of drug addiction. The book begins with an autobiographical account of the author’s addiction. It then describes in effective detail the euphoric and highly symbolic reveries that he experienced under the drug’s influence and recounts the horrible nightmares that continued use of the drug eventually produced. The highly poetic and imaginative prose of the Confessions makes it one of the enduring stylistic masterpieces of English literature.
Athough De Quincey ends his narrative at a point at which he is drug-free, he remained an opium addict for the rest of his life. In 1856 he rewrote the Confessions and added descriptions of opium-inspired dreams that had already appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in about 1845 under the title Suspiria de Profundis (“Sighs from the Depths”). But his literary style in the revised version tends to be difficult, involved, and even verbose, and his additions and digressions dilute the artistic impact of the original.