Confessions of an English Opium Eater Summary and Analysis
The Pains of Opium, Continued
De Quincey continues here to trace the pains caused him by opium. Its first section is devoted mainly to a compendium of the dreams he suffered while in the drug's grips.
De Quincey takes an interest in history – especially in the British Parliamentary Wars and the work of the Roman historian Livy. Figures from these periods of history often appear in his opium dreams, one of which he traces out for the reader.
One day, De Quincey’s friend M.. Coleridge (possibly the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge) saw him reading a history book by Giambattista Piranesi, and told him about another one of Piranesi’s works, a set of plates representing Piranesi’s fever dreams. The is called Imaginary Prisons, but De Quincey, who had not seen the plates, refers to them as Dreams. De Quincey relates a summary of Dreams as summarized to him by Mr. Coleridge. He then cites a passage from Wordsworth’s The Excursion to relate the architectural splendor of his own dream landscapes.
Lakes also featured prominently in De Quincey’s dreams. He worried that this was a sign from his body that his brain was suffering from dropsy (an ailment in which a body part fills with water), and that he would soon die. The lakes sometimes morphed into oceans, which were then replaced by thousands of human faces that surged toward De Quincey and frightened him.
In May of 1818, De Quincey is plagued by dreams about the Malay. Many of these dreams take place in China or India. De Quincey is deeply uncomfortable with Eastern cultures because of their large populations and their age. He writes: “In China ... I am terrified by the modes of life, by the manners, and the barrier of utter abhorrence, and want of sympathy, placed between us by feelings deeper than I can analyze” (73). He then describes the horror of his dreams that are set in Asia, which is mixed with beautiful architecture and natural scenery.
In June 1819, De Quincey pondered death. He believes that summer is the worst time of year to experience the death of a loved one because the vitality of the season contrasts so starkly with “the wintry sterility of the grave” (75). Summertime, along with an unspecified incident in De Quincey’s personal life, seems to have inspired death-related dreams for him.
In one such dream, he is in a churchyard at the foot of a mountain, surrounded by beautiful natural scenery. He sees the grave of a child (unspecified in the text, but probably Catherine Wordsworth, the daughter of De Quincey’s friend William Wordsworth, who died at age three (Lithgow 243)). He decides to go for a walk to forget his sorrow about the child’s death, and arrives at an Oriental setting. He sees Ann, the prostitute from his youth, sitting on a stone. He tries to talk to her but she does not respond. The two are surrounded by vapor and when the vapor clears, they are walking together in Oxford Street in London, the same location where they became friends so many years before.
In 1820, De Quincey had a dream in which he is surrounded by a chorus of loud music. It evoked the “caves of hell” and “everlasting farewells” (77) and when he woke up, he resolved never to sleep again. Now that he has told about the pains of opium, De Quincey considers his tale complete, but says he will explain briefly how he broke somewhat free of his addiction, since some readers might be curious about it.
De Quincey initially believed suicide the only way to reduce his dependency on opium. However, he eventually realized that opium would kill him if he continued to take it at his current dose, and resolved that he would lower his dose or die trying. He did this as quickly as possible, reducing his use from fifty to twelve grains. De Quincey credits his success to “motives external to myself” (79) (motives he does not share) and wishes the same success to other addicts. However, he still suffers from the physical effects of withdrawals. Although he is still living with many misfortunes and continues to suffer from opium nightmares, he is happy because he has given up his opium habit.
In the memoir’s final pages, De Quincey focuses almost exclusively on the bizarre nightmares that opium gives him. These dreams feature colorful, surreal scenes that literalize many of the memoir’s themes. For example, De Quincey’s preoccupation with English nationalism appears in his nightmares about moving to China, where he is terrified by the foreign landscapes and culture. He also revisits Ann in a dream, and they walk together in Oxford Street in London. This is one of the few scenes in which Ann appears in which neither she nor De Quincey are helping each other; for the first time in the memoir, they seem to be equals.
De Quincey’s behavior in his dreams is consistent with his characterization in other parts of the memoir. He demonstrates a certain degree of emotional evasiveness when he sees the child’s grave in the churchyard. His decision to take a walk to get his mind off his grief parallels the scene in "The Pleasures of Opium" in which he takes opium to escape the sorrow that his impoverished friends are experiencing.
The dreams’ preoccupation with death also foreshadows some of the events happening in De Quincey’s real life. After he relates the dream about Ann and the child’s grave, he begins to contemplate suicide as the only way for him to end his opium dependency. When he finally does manage to reduce his usage, he compares the experience to dying and being reborn over and over again.
This final section maintains the same dense use of allusions found earlier in the memoir. De Quincey makes an extended comparison between his own dreams and those represented in the plates of Giambattista Piranesi in his Imaginary Prisons – a work he has not himself seen. By comparing his experiences to a description of a work of art, De Quincey shows that his life has become a shadow of what it once was. His tendency to compare his life to works of art and literature emphasizes the relatability of his experience; by referring to other works so frequently, De Quincey emphasizes that his sufferings could happen to anyone.
Throughout this section, De Quincey is noticeably circumspect about his personal life. He does not specify who the dead child in his dream is, nor does he elaborate on the “motives external to myself” that helped him to quit opium. He continues his habit in this section of omitting the names of all characters except for himself and Ann. This is quite distinct from the opening of the work, in which he made great pains to posit himself as an equal focus of the memoir. And yet one could argue that the intense focus on his own dreams, rather than on the likely more horrific physical symptoms of addiction, shows the same level of preoccupation that has characterized the entire work. For certain, despite its many shifts and arguable contradictions (many of which could be attributed to the serialized publication of the work), De Quincey remains a consistent individual, and is at least successful in giving us a sense of his preoccupations, both literary and personal.
Some editions of the work provide an Appendix which the author published later in London Magazine. In it, he admits that he had allowed his readers to have the impression that he had defeated his opium addiction at the end of the previous section, when in fact he maintained a steady though decreased habit. He traces how, since the publication of Part II, he has actually defeated his addiction by slowly weaning himself off, a difficult process he does not find it prudent to recount in too much detail. Nevertheless, this final appendix is heavier on the physical details of recovery than any section before printed, suggesting it was a financially-motivated decision, more exploitative than the work commonly taught in classrooms today.
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- Quotes and Analysis
- 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
- Summary and Analysis of The Pains of Opium, Continued
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