Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Confessions of an English Opium Eater Summary and Analysis of Introduction to the Pains of Opium


The narrative skips forward to 1812. De Quincey is no longer a student. He spends his time in a cottage some 250 miles from his old university, where he lives with a single housekeeper and studies German metaphysics. He continues to take opium in “moderation” (52) – that is, once a week – and has not suffered any noticeable health effects from this use. His belief is endorsed by Dr. Buchan, who insists only that De Quincey not exceed 25 ounces of laudanum. He stresses that advice of this sort is far better than that given by Anastasius, who would caution more strict and moral abstention. De Quincey does not believe he was addicted at this point because of the one-week breaks between his uses of opium.

The narrative moves ahead again to 1813. De Quincey begins to experience stomach pains. He says these pains were very extreme, but he won’t go into detail about them so as not to bore or horrify the reader. He hopes readers will take his word that he held out with all of his strength before increasing his dose of laudanum. However, he does admit that he has a generally low tolerance for misery in himself or in others.

Because of these stomach pains, De Quincey becomes a “regular and confirmed opium-eater” (54) and indulges in the drug daily. He warns readers not to try to dissuade him from using opium (which he still does regularly) because this is a futile exercise, and announces that the narrative is once again skipping ahead, this time to 1816. He considers this the happiest year of his life. He is able to decrease from 8,000 to 1,000 drops of laudanum per day, and was once again able to enjoy socializing and reading Kant.

One day, a Malay sailor knocks on the door of De Quincey’s cottage. His servant girl answers, and she is shocked by the man’s appearance, never having seen an Asian before. The Malay does not speak English, so he cannot communicate with De Quincey or the servant girl at all. De Quincey tries to speak to him in Greek (reasoning that Greek is geographically closer to Malay than any other country whose language he can speak).

This does not work, and despite their inability to speak to each other, De Quincey gives the Malay some opium, which the latter receives very happily. He immediately bolts everything De Quincey gave him, much to the latter’s surprise and chagrin, since he thinks that amount of opium is surely enough to kill someone if taken all at once. However, the Malay leaves and De Quincey assumes that he had a high tolerance for opium since he never heard anything about the sailor’s body being discovered. Although the episode was not noticeably unsettling at the time, De Quincey had many opium-induced nightmares about the Malay later.

De Quincey relates an anecdote that he says is his very definition of happiness. He asks readers to imagine a cottage in a remote valley in winter. Despite the horrific weather outside, the cottage is warm and comfortable inside. The walls are lined with books, and a beautiful woman pours tea. There is a laudanum-glass and a book about German metaphysics on the table, which signify De Quincey’s presence. He does not describe himself in the picture, and urges readers to “paint me, if at all, according to your fancy” (61). He explains that he experienced this happiness in the year 1816-1817, but after that succumbed to the pains of opium.


In the "Introduction to the Pains of Opium", De Quincey makes more extensive use of direct address than he has done anywhere else in the memoir up to this point. He uses direct address most prominently at moments of ellipsis in order to orient the reader and explain why he is omitting certain time periods or events. This demonstrates both his intense self-consciousness, his concern about how he might be perceived, as well as his constant awareness of potential criticism that could be made of his work.

Most of these imagined criticisms have to do with his use of opium; he is particularly defensive about his decision to increase his use when he began experiencing stomach pains. However, some of the imagined criticisms also pertain to the aesthetic merit of his work; for example, he takes care to justify his inclusion of the incident with the Malay by pointing out how it would affect his future mental health.

De Quincey’s use of direct address is accompanied by wild shifts in tone throughout the section. The opening paragraphs are grim and fraught with images of death and decay, but become manically humorous as De Quincey describes his life in the years 1812 through 1816. He shifts to a more argumentative rhetoric when he explains why he is omitting a description of his stomach pains, and becomes whimsical in the anecdote about the Malay. These shifts in tone parallel the shifts in De Quincey’s quality of life over time, and are perhaps meant to replicate the calming and rejuvenating effect that opium has when De Quincey is otherwise feeling unhappy. Or, put another way, one could see in the frenetic tone the rhythms of addiction.

Despite the more ostentatious style of this section, De Quincey is more willing than ever to invite criticisms of his personal character. This is most evident in the anecdote about the Malay. De Quincey takes care to emphasize the Malay’s abject situation, noting his “dingy” (56) pants and speculating on the long and difficult journey he must have taken to arrive at De Quincey’s cottage. However, he gives the Malay opium rather than food or money (although admittedly, De Quincey does allow him to nap on his floor). He also refrains from seeking help when he believes the Malay has overdosed on opium, although he justifies this by arguing that an emetic would only frighten the man, who did not speak English. This behavior suggests a growing solipsism on De Quincey’s part––he can no longer conceive of a person wanting something other than opium. One could draw a connection between that solipsism of addiction and the solipsism of such a deliberately-crafted memoir.

De Quincey’s daydream about the cottage is poignant and rich with symbolism. He represents it as a painting, a rhetorical move that reflects the author’s tendency to liken his life to high art (as is also seen in his explicit comparisons between Orestes and his own life). The only concession he makes to reality in this lyrical passage is his aside to his wife M., urging her not to be offended by his inclusion of a beautiful woman in his daydream because her appeal is much deeper and more enduring than mere physical beauty. Most importantly, De Quincey is ambivalent about whether or not he should appear in the daydream himself. This reflects a growing sense of self-loathing in De Quincey’s aging character, since he tends to experience even his greatest happiness as abstracted from himself. His absence from the scene also gestures toward the ephemerality of happiness – another major theme of the memoir.