Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Confessions of an English Opium Eater Summary and Analysis of The Pains of Opium


De Quincey prefaces this section with three explanatory points. First, this period of his life has been so confused in his recollection, and he is at present so physically weak, that he has not sorted its events into chronological order. Rather, the events will be presented as an impressionistic collage in the order that he remembers them. He will shift freely between the past and the present tense (something he has done periodically for the whole memoir, but will do with greater frequency in this final section). Secondly, he is aware that the content of this section is deeply personal and perhaps inappropriate to discuss in a public forum, but he wants the record of his life to be as complete as possible for posterity. Thirdly, he tried to reduce his opium consumption many times, but was not able to because the withdrawals were extremely painful.

De Quincey’s opium use has destroyed his ability to concentrate, so he can no longer study or write. He occupies his time by reading aloud for the entertainment of others, something he has always been good at. He digresses briefly to compliment the reading skills of his friend William Wordsworth, whom he considers the only poet who is actually good at reading his own work aloud. De Quincey finds that actors are often the worst readers of literary texts.

Over the course of two years, De Quincey only reads one book, although he had once been a prolific reader. Opium severely inhibits his analytical abilities, putting him into “a state of imbecility” (64). He gives up on studying mathematics and philosophy and turns his attention to political science, which, according to De Quincey, lends itself to such simplification that even an opium addict can understand it.

After reading up on political science and economics, De Quincey decides he dislikes these disciplines deeply. As he puts it, “any man of sound head, and practised in wielding logic with a scholastic adroitness, might take up the whole academy of modern economists, and throttle them between heaven and earth with his finger and thumb, or bray their fungus-heads to powder with a lady’s fan” (65). This attitude changes when a friend from Edinburgh sends him a book by David Ricardo, whom De Quincey admires greatly. He is so inspired by Ricardo’s work that he writes a treatise on political economy, which he dictates to his wife M.

Although De Quincey finishes the main text of the treatise, he is ultimately unable to publish it. He contracts with a provincial publisher and the work is even advertised, but when it comes time to write the preface and dedication, De Quincey cannot collect himself enough to do so, and the opportunity falls away. In short, he has lost his ability to manage everyday life. He relies on M. to take care of the household bills, and although he wants to return to his old industriousness, he “lies under the weight of incubus and night-mare” (67).

De Quincey begins to experience hallucinations. He compares his phantoms to the ghosts that children sometimes claim to see. He has some control over his hallucinations; he can consciously think of a particular topic and it will manifest itself in the apparitions he sees in the darkness. However, these conscious hallucinations often reappear in his dreams in more sinister forms.

The tone of De Quincey’s nightmares becomes depressing and melancholic, and this often affects his mood during the day as well, so that he feels “suicidal despondency” (68). The opium also distorts the proportions of the things he sees, and seems to make time pass more slowly. Seemingly insignificant incidents from his past that he had forgotten about come back to haunt him in his dreams.


Although De Quincey writes that "The Pains of Opium" will be the memoir’s most impressionistic and disorganized section, it is actually the most structurally rigid part of the text. De Quincey relates his thoughts in numbered lists, and clearly says at the beginning of each new anecdote what the anecdote is about and what its broader significance is. Unlike in the early parts of the memoir, which read similarly to fiction, "The Pains of Opium" utilizes the rhetorical conventions of the classical essay. De Quincey presents individual anecdotes as examples of broader changes in his lifestyle.

However, this section also forgoes some of the organizational strategies De Quincey used earlier in the text. For example, he no longer relates events in chronological order. Though he claims this change is due to physical weakness, there is in fact a rough thematic organization to this section's structure. For example, all of the content about his opium-dreams is related in one cluster, and the more bizarre aspects of his experience, such as the hallucinations, are only brought up after he has related less surprising events. In other words, his protestations do not entirely rid him of his attempt to create a work worthy of respect and literary criticism.

De Quincey’s emphasis on the past continues to play an important role in this section. He notes that opium has the potential to bring up memories that De Quincey thought he had forgotten. The idea that we can remember important events unconsciously and that these events can resurface later in life is a relatively advanced notion for De Quincey’s time, and it presages many Victorian psychologists’ ideas about the subconscious (Burwick 6).

One of the most important effects of opium on De Quincey’s daily life is his inability to write and study as he used to. Although it is vaguely put in the text, De Quincey had worked as a kind of independent academic, publishing essays and books on multiple topics (most prominently, philosophy) throughout his lifetime while living on his family money. Opium’s destruction of his inability to write presages the financial difficulties he will experience later in the memoir (and continued to experience for the rest of his life).

In this section, M. enables the little writing that De Quincey does manage to do, and his appreciation for her parallels his love for Ann, who similarly helped him when he was starving as a young man. Notwithstanding her presence, there are few other characters in this section, a fact that compounds its depressive and claustrophobic mood. This is also consistent with the moment in "The Pleasures of Opium" when De Quincey foreshadowed that he would spend much time in solitude later in life.