To the Reader
The memoir begins with a direct address wherein the author explains his purpose in writing the work, and some facts of opium at his time of writing.
De Quincey introduces the text as an extract from a longer autobiography, the whole of which he professes will not be published until after his death. He explains that he is willing to be frank about his failings and personal flaws because he hopes his story will be “instructive” (1) to his readers. He believes that this forthrightness is unique in English letters, since English writers in particular are reluctant to remove the “decent drapery” around their lives, and that is why the best English memoirs are by criminals and other people of questionable reputation. In his memoir, de Quincey hopes to provide a story of “self-humiliation from ... the decent and self-respecting part of society.”
He adds that although he freely admits to doing the things he describes in the memoir, he does not intend his recollection as “a confession of guilt” (2), since his temptation to use opium was strong enough to counter his considerable efforts to resist it. His opium use has taken such a toll on his life that he believes he has more than paid for the self-indulgence of drug use, and so does not feel morally guilty. Moreover, if he is able to educate the public about the dangers of opium, then the public service will compensate for his using the drug in the first place.
Based on both conversations with pharmacists in London and Manchester, and his own experience, De Quincey believes that opium use is more widespread than ever before. It is popular among the upper classes, but also, he argues, among the working class, who turn to opium because it is cheaper than alcohol. Finally, he adds that doctors are well aware of the “fascinating” (4) effects of opium, but don’t write about them from fear that awareness of these effects would spread the drug's popularity.
De Quincey explains that this section will address his youth prior to his opium use. He acknowledges that the reader interested in opium might be curious why he delves so deeply into his early life, but he provides three justifications: first, he wants to explain the seminal influences that later led him towards opium; second, he wishes to provide the content that would later populate his opium dreams; and third, to provide a personal context to improve the reader's interest in him as narrator. He explains that he considers himself a philosopher, a rare breed in England, and that by explaining that aspect of his personality, so might his story grow more interesting.
He then provides a general timeline of his opium use. He first began to use opium recreationally at age eighteen, but in moderate doses so as to preserve the drug’s “exquisite pleasures.” However, at the age of 28, he began taking it daily because of a stomach ailment he traced to being hungry in his youth.
De Quincey’s father died when he was seven years old. After this tragedy, he attended a number of prestigious schools, frequently transferring between them. This impermanence frustrated him, for although he liked one of his teachers at Eton, he disdained most of his masters thereafter because they were not as intelligent as they pretended to be. At the Manchester Grammar School (Lindop 235), de Quincey befriended two other boys, and the trio reveled in their command of Greek, which they held to be superior to that of their teacher. Because de Quincey came from a relatively wealthy background, he wished to drop out of secondary school and move on to university. (Because of his wealth, he could rely on being accepted to university even if he dropped out of secondary school, a luxury that his two best friends, who were poor, did not have.) His four guardians (whom he never specifies by name or relation) resisted this plan, so de Quincey wrote to an old family friend and asked to borrow five guineas. The generous woman sent him ten and insinuated she did not expect repayment of the loan. With this money, he planned to quit the school and set out for a while on his own.
As de Quincey went to the last evening church service he was to attend at the secondary school, he felt nostalgic and melancholy despite his disdain for the place. That evening, he gave a heartfelt farewell to his headmaster; although de Quincey did not think much of the man’s intelligence, he recognized the teacher's kindness, and that the man would likely die before de Quincey saw him again. The next morning, he took a moment to reminisce in his bedroom before leaving the school forever. However, the elegiac mood was quickly ruined when de Quincey was nearly caught in his attempt to run away. He had asked a groom to help him move a heavy trunk of books down the stairs from his room, but the trunk was so heavy that the groom dropped it directly into the headmaster’s bedroom door. Although they were terrified it would wake the headmaster, especially because he usually seemed such a light sleeper, it did not, and de Quincey and the groom shared a nice laugh. Once in the clear, de Quincey made his escape successfully. He mailed his trunk home and set off on foot with only two books and some clothes.
Although he originally intended to go to Westmoreland, de Quincey ended up staying for several weeks at an inn in Bangor, North Wales. He would have stayed longer, but he ended up in a quarrel with his landlord, Mrs. Betty, who had once worked as a servant in the local bishop’s household. In an aside, de Quincey notes that bishop’s families are the proudest, most snobbish people in England; according to him, the nobility is secure in their high status and don’t need to act proud, while families and servants of bishops are always trying to enforce their high status through snobbish behavior. One day, Mrs. Betty mentioned to the young de Quincey how the bishop had warned her that her new tenant might be a swindler, since swindlers were known to travel through Bangor when fleeing their debts in England or Ireland. De Quincey was deeply offended at the insinuation and forced an argument with her, which led to him quitting her residence. Later, he felt silly for taking such offense.
He continued to travel around Wales, but ran out of money quickly from staying at more expensive inns. He was so poor that he went without solid food for a while, subsisting only on coffee, tea, and wild berries. Finally, he began to perform odd jobs for villagers, with letter-writing as his main business. These jobs earned him food and shelter, and he grew very impressed by the hospitality of the people he met––especially that of a family of adult brothers and sisters who lived in a cottage together. De Quincey endeared himself to the sisters by helping them write eloquent and virtuous love letters. He stayed with this family for three days until the elderly parents returned from a Methodist meeting in a nearby town, at which point de Quincey sensed from the siblings that he would be made unwelcome, at which point he departed.
De Quincey eventually made his way to London, where he nearly starved in an environment very difficult to survive in without money. Luckily, a friend who occasionally gave de Quincey food offered to let him stay in an unoccupied apartment in his building. When de Quincey arrived there, he found a ten-year-old homeless waif also occupying the apartment. They became friends, and although de Quincey could not offer her food, he promised to protect her from nocturnal ghosts, of which the little girl was terribly afraid. He lived in this situation for a few months, over which time he sunk deeper and deeper into poverty. His hunger and heinous living conditions meant that he did not get much sleep and developed a nervous twitch.
The lawyer who owned the building, Mr. –––, occasionally checked in but rarely slept there. He seemed to move around frequently to avoid some unspecified legal trouble, and de Quincey explains he is the kind of man who could not afford either a conscience or any redeeming qualities (19). However, Mr. ––– nevertheless allowed de Quincey and the girl to live in the building rent-free. As the owner sometimes fed the girl but generally treated her as a servant, de Quincey speculates that she might have been his illegitimate daughter.
The “To the Reader” section serves two functions: to provide a complex and problematic apology for de Quincey’s opium use, and to locate his memoir within the English high-literary tradition. Throughout this section (and indeed, the rest of the memoir), de Quincey is densely allusive, referring to Wordsworth and Rousseau, allowing Greek and Latin quotations to go without translation, and continually comparing himself to Greek tragic figures. This insistence serves as a pre-emptive defense of the literary value of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. An obviously educated man with high aspirations to be considered a philosopher, de Quincey was clearly concerned that the sensational nature of his popular tale might overshadow what he considered equally valuable talents.
His concerns, however, do not entirely determine the work's structure. In fact, the memoir bears many structural similarities to the criminal memoirs that had been popular in England for more than a century. For example, the preface itself is very typical of the criminal-memoir genre. Crime literature from this period often came with a disclaimer explaining that the text’s salacious content was meant not to entertain, but to educate the public about the dangers of criminal behavior. This repentance was sometimes sincere and sometimes less so - for example, Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders, which closely adheres to the conventions of the British crime memoir, contains a similar apologetic preface that nevertheless employs elements of sarcasm.
Indeed, de Quincey uses the preface to justify his opium use as much as to apologize for it. He emphasizes that its “palliations” (2) made him especially susceptible to addiction, thereby absolving himself of any moral shortcomings. Despite his protestations, he seems to remain enamored with the “fascinating” (4) qualities of opium; at the end of the preface, he notes that many more people would use opium if they were aware of its pleasures. Likewise, his explanation about the popularity of opium use serves a dual function. By portraying opium use as common, de Quincey elevates the relevance of his memoir, thereby potentially helping the essay’s remarkable sales. But it also serves as yet another justification for de Quincey’s deviance from respectable behavior.
During the first half of the Preliminary Confessions, de Quincey matures quickly. In his early years at school – and even as late as age seventeen – de Quincey considers himself superior to his teachers because of his talent for Greek. In the first inn at Bangor, he fantasizes about telling off the bishop in Greek to prove his superiority. By the time he reaches London, however, he has adopted a more adult outlook on life, appreciating the hospitality of ‘humble’ people and taking a fatherly role toward the little girl with whom he shares his apartment.
Although they were largely self-inflicted, de Quincey’s unpleasant experiences in his youth lay the groundwork for his opium use later in the memoir. He explicitly states that the hunger he experienced contributed to the stomach problems that would drive him to opium use. However, his exposure to the harsh realities of life outside his cocoon of privilege appears to have been psychologically traumatic, as evidenced through his anxiety while living in the apartment. This emotional fragility might also explain why he gravitated toward opium.
All in all, in this opening section of the memoir, de Quincey is insistent on presenting himself not just as human being with a salacious, engaging story, but also as a literary hero. His profuse language and deep introspection are deliberate in a way that real-life criminal memoirs were typically not. Much of the work concerns itself as much with his struggle as with facts about opium, and for this structure to even attempt success, a reading audience must first become invested in its hero, and de Quincey makes several attempts in this section to produce that very effect. Consider the memoir's subtitle - "Being an Extract From the Life of a Scholar" - and his professed intention to pen a larger memoir of which this will be but a part, and it is difficult to deny aspirations greater than being remembered as the guy who took a lot of opium and then wrote about it.