Confessions of an English Opium Eater Summary and Analysis
Preliminary Confessions, Continued
Despite the wretchedness of his youthful London conditions, De Quincey looks back fondly on his time in that old building. He appreciated not paying rent and being the house’s only occupant save the little girl; he could go anywhere he pleased except M.. –––’s office, which he refers to as “the Blue-beard room” (19), an allusion to the famous folktale. In the present day, he sometimes goes out of his way to walk past the building, which is now occupied by a happy family. He has tried to trace the little girl, but never found out what became of her after they parted ways.
While living in London, De Quincey befriended a fifteen-year-old prostitute named Ann, who once won his undying loyalty when she bought him a bottle of spiced port wine as he was dying of starvation. (He admits to being “on familiar and friendly terms” (20) with many prostitutes, but says that he never paid them for sex.) Ann was driven into prostitution after her few possessions were stolen. De Quincey repeatedly urged her to seek help from the district magistrate, but she was too shy and insecure to do so. He eventually volunteered to speak on her behalf, but was unable to do this due to circumstances he describes later in the section.
One day, De Quincey ran into a family friend who was a gentleman in the King’s household. The gentleman gave De Quincey ten pounds despite initially doubting his identity. Although De Quincey could have asked other family friends for money, he was reluctant to do so because he worried they would alert his family as to his whereabouts, and he would then be forced to return to secondary school. Instead, he applied for loans from several Jewish moneylenders. Many of the lenders were unwilling to loan to him at first because they doubted that De Quincey was really a gentleman with the means to repay the money. However, through the use of old letters addressed to him, De Quincey was able to convince one moneylender to approve a loan to him. The lender’s only condition was that De Quincey convince one of his friends, the Earl of Desart, to cosign on the loan. This condition, De Quincey, assumes was less to validate the small sum he wanted and more so that the lender could become acquainted with the Earl, a man of reputation.
De Quincey accepted an advance from the lender so he could go to Eton in order to ask the earl to cosign. Before he left, he gave some money to Ann and promised to return in a week and give her more money if and when his circumstances improved. However, he forgot to ask Ann her last name; she never used her surname because she was a prostitute. Because of this, he was unable to find her later when he wanted to come back and help her, and remains unable to seek her through more official channels.
De Quincey rode to Eton on the roof of a mail-cart, since he could not afford a seat on the inside of the cart. The other man riding on the roof, a gentleman’s butler, was initially very annoyed because De Quincey keeps dozing off and leaning into the man. However, after De Quincey apologized and blamed his fatigue on his poverty and sickness, the butler treated him very kindly and even put his arm around De Quincey to keep him warm. Unfortunately, De Quincey slept so well that he got off the mail-cart six or seven miles past Eton, and had to walk back on foot.
This walk ought to have been a frightening experience, since it required De Quincey to pass through a heath where a murder had taken place a few days before. Nevertheless, he felt confident and unafraid because he had no money or possessions that the murderer would be interested in. That night, he was awakened an “ill-looking fellow” (30) standing over him and looking at him while he slept. However, the man left without harming De Quincey.
He found the Earl of Densart and the young men ate breakfast together. De Quincey procrastinated in making his request, instead drinking profusely with his friend, but he finally got the courage to make the request for a co-signature. Although the Earl was reluctant to associate with moneylenders, he agreed to cosign under certain conditions, which De Quincey brought back to them in London. When they refused to accept the Earl's terms, De Quincey fell back into poverty, but soon thereafter left the city and its misery for his university studies. In later years, he would search desperately for Ann, but nothing ever came of these efforts and he now suspects she is dead.
One of the most salient aspects of this section is its treatment of women as objects of pathos. De Quincey introduces two female characters who live in wretched poverty: the little girl who shares his lodgings, and Ann the prostitute. Both of these women are portrayed as innocent victims of circumstance – the little girl is young and terrified of ghosts, and Ann was driven to her questionable occupation after her belongings were stolen. Further, the extent to which he laments his inability to locate Ann later in life suggests he is plagued by a guilt for having abandoned her.
Neither of these female characters demonstrates much independence or initiative. The little girl doesn’t do much to alleviate her situation (such helplessness would be normal in our time, but keep in mind that in the early nineteenth century, many children of this girl’s age or younger had jobs). Likewise, Ann is unwilling to put her case before the district magistrate unless De Quincey speaks on her behalf. Although De Quincey depicts women sympathetically in this chapter, he also presents them as reliant on men for their survival and advancement in the world.
De Quincey survives his brush with poverty largely because of his connections to noble friends who lend him money. Although he makes a digression to explain that he is a merchant’s son and not noble, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he has a very privileged station in life, and endures his wretched living conditions largely by choice. This problematizes his migration between social classes; while De Quincey portrays himself as moving freely between the urban poor and the aristocracy, he never experiences true desperation like his friend Ann does. As his circumstances prove, he always has a way out.
Nevertheless, social inequality becomes an important theme by the end of “Preliminary Confessions.” Although De Quincey receives kindness and hospitality from both ends of the social spectrum, he takes special pains to emphasize the wholesome generosity of working people. For example, Ann is the only person there to help him when he is starving, and the butler becomes tender and kind once he realizes the extent of De Quincey’s reduced circumstances. Although De Quincey makes a point of noting how urbane and polite Lord Densart is, the young Earl still comes off as somewhat selfish; he worries about his reputation whereas Ann spends her own money to ensure that De Quincey does not die of hunger.
In this section, the non-linear structure of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater becomes fully apparent. De Quincey frequently stops the plot to add information about himself or to comment on the social issues of the time. He also frequently comments on his youthful follies from an adult’s perspective, and alludes to events that would happen much later. All of this serves to emphasize the generic difference between this memoir and other prose texts to which it might be compared, such as novels or short stories about similar topics. Although De Quincey’s life story has sensational elements and often reads like fiction, he never allows us to forget that the events described are true and in service of a broader moral point. By robbing the reader in many ways of suspense, De Quincey continues to stress that the true arc of his tale is not the plot of his life, but rather his own ruminations upon it.
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- Summary and Analysis of To the Reader and Preliminary Confessions
- Summary and Analysis of Preliminary Confessions, Continued
- Summary and Analysis of Part II (Introduction)
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- Summary and Analysis of The Pains of Opium, Continued
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