Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Confessions of an English Opium Eater Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Analyze the relationship between De Quincey and Ann.

    Ann inverts the paradigm of charity that De Quincey typically uses to think about poor people. Rather than receiving help from De Quincey, she helps him, using her limited funds to buy him spiced wine when he is starving. Although he tries to return the favor by taking her to court to receive compensation for some stolen belongings, he never has the opportunity to do this because he loses touch with her. Although she is not the only poor person who helped De Quincey (he also received aid from a family in Wales), she is the one that he thinks about most in later years, and she assumes an almost saintlike character in his memory. He never gives any indication that theirs was a sexual relationship, which suggests then that she serves almost as a symbol in his mind - a symbol of nostalgia, of regret, or the kindness of which the poor are capable, or of the beauty that simply acts of kindness can bring into the world.

  2. 2

    How does De Quincey move between social classes in the “Preliminary Confessions” section of the memoir? Why might this be significant?

    De Quincey uses the "Preliminary Confessions" section to establish himself as someone who moves freely between the classes. Although he is wealthy and attends upscale private boarding schools, his friends are scholarship students from the working and middle classes. When he runs away from school, he quickly runs out of money and must rely on the charity of poor people to survive. However, he resolves this situation by swallowing his pride and attending college at Oxford. His rapid shifting between social classes allows him to opine on many different sides of English society, and it lends credence to his arguments that the poor are morally superior to the wealthy. The contradictions that arise from these conflicting interests also make him a more interesting literary character, one necessarily set apart from the normal world, which perhaps helps explain why he was drawn towards a life of solitude with opium as companion.

  3. 3

    What does the “Preliminary Confessions” section of the memoir suggest about social inequality?

    In the "Preliminary Confessions," De Quincey argues that people like Ann are ostracized by 'respectable' society even when they don't deserve it – she is kind and generous and only became a prostitute to survive after her money and belongings were stolen. He makes some practical suggestions for alleviating social inequality, like more effective publicity for charities. De Quincey's descent into poverty also suggests that the divide between the rich and the poor is not as rigid as it seems, and anyone could end up suffering due to society's inequities.

  4. 4

    Does De Quincey romanticize poverty? Why or why not?

    In the "Preliminary Confessions," De Quincey describes the experience of poverty in explicit detail, emphasizing the horror of destitution while acknowledging that he was still better off than most of the city's poor. However, at other points in the memoir, he romanticizes poverty. When he eavesdrops on poor families, he claims that their lives are defined by tranquility more often than hardship, and he often visits the city's poorest neighborhoods for fun on Saturday nights. One can argue he romanticizes it by focusing on the virtues of poverty rather than the misery, but one can argue the opposite by stressing his own misery while in London, and how this shaped his optimism about poverty. In other words, it is not an unearned romanticizing.

  5. 5

    Why does De Quincey allude to Greek literature so frequently? What is the significance of these allusions?

    De Quincey frequently references works of high literature and philosophy from Greek civilization. This suggests that he wants his memoir, despite its salacious subject matter, to exist in conversation with earlier masterpieces, and wants it to be considered seriously for its artistry as well as its content. The allusions are also consistent with his characterization; he spends much time in the "Preliminary Confessions" praising his command of Greek, and considers himself superior to some characters because he is more fluent in Greek than they are. The fact that these allusions are untranslated also implies that De Quincey is writing primarily for a highly educated audience that would be able to understand the quotations.

  6. 6

    Is De Quincey making an argument for or against opium?

    De Quincey claims that his Confessions are a treatise against the dangers of opium. Certain facts reinforce this, like the horror of his opium dreams and the fact that "The Pains of Opium" section is significantly longer than the section about "The Pleasures of Opium." However, De Quincey presents the drug's pleasures in rapturous terms and remarks at one point that it might be a good thing if the public were made more aware of these pleasures. He also refrains from describing his physical sufferings under the drug, explaining that he does not wish to bore the reader. Perhaps, as a continued addict (an Appendix published later reveals he continued to use the drug even as he wrote the memoir), he is unable to fully condemn the drug, or perhaps he merely wishes to suggest its virtue while stressing the vice that comes from its immoderate use.

  7. 7

    Why does De Quincey keep so many of his characters anonymous?

    Part of this is for the simple reason of anonymity: some people in De Quincey's life would not have wanted to be featured in an article about taking opium. However, the anonymity of many of the characters also gives a sense of life's ephemerality. Very few characters appear more than once, which evokes how relationships deteriorate over time. Although he interacts with people superficially, the fact that De Quincey is the only named major character besides Ann (with whom he has lost touch) suggests that he is utterly alone in the world. It also helps create the atmosphere of addiction, in which the user becomes solipsistic, uninterested in anything except his own relationship with his substance.

  8. 8

    How does De Quincey portray other cultures? Why are other cultures significant in this memoir?

    De Quincey portrays other cultures with a mixture of romance and horror. For example, he says he would go insane if he had to move to China, and he appears terrified of the culture, although he expresses awe and respect for its great age relative to English culture. The Malay becomes a symbol of Oriental culture for De Quincey, and he is often terrorized by this character in his dreams. Further, he thinks of opium use in Turkey - the culture with which opium believes it is most affiliated in the minds of his contemporaries - as base and dirty. Although De Quincey does not leave Britain in this memoir, his fear of other cultures helps to explain his nationalism, and it informs his ideas about what it takes to be a civilized man. This understanding of civilization provides him a context to praise opium if used in a 'civilized' manner, since it can improve the intellectual faculties, while stressing its more ugly qualities when used for uncivilized purposes, as he believes are practiced in Turkey.

  9. 9

    What is the significance of de Quincey's wife, M.?

    Although M. appears briefly and infrequently in the memoir, she serves a symbolic counterpoint to Ann. Both women help De Quincey in times of need, but De Quincey compares his wife to Aurora while describing Ann in terms typical for prostitutes. The type of work M. does for De Quincey – dictation and paying bills – contrasts sharply with Ann's line of work. M.'s work is intellectual and requires education and skill, whereas Ann's is atavistic and closely associated with the lower class. De Quincey's transition from Ann to M. parallels his intellectual growth and his choice to reclaim his high social status. In real life, his wife Margaret was a farmer's daughter, so it is telling that he leaves this detail out, since her common ancestry would work against this symbolic growth that is otherwise suggested. And yet, despite this shift, his continued guilt over having abandoned Ann parallels his unceasing interest in nostalgia and the relevance of seminal experience towards shaping our later, more mature, lives.

  10. 10

    Discuss De Quincey's use of direct address.

    De Quincey frequently uses direct address to preface a new subject. He usually employs this technique to preempt potential counterarguments or to explain how an anecdote is significant to his broader point. Although some fiction authors used direct address (like, for example, William Makepeace Thackeray, who employed the technique extensively in Vanity Fair), the technique appeared more often in argumentative essays. De Quincey's use of it suggests signposts shifts in the text from the narrative mode to the argumentative mode. Further, his use of direct address touches on his insecurity about his work being considered simply an exploitative tale of salacious behavior. His literary ambitions are clearly greater, and he protests both implicitly and explicitly throughout the memoir that it should be read more closely than a simple tell-all autobiography would. His use of direct address reveals the deliberateness of his craft, and his hopes that it will find an enduring legacy as a literary work.