Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

book 11 of 24 books in 28 days: confessions of an english opium eater

Filed in Books, Writing :: February 23, 2010


Initially published anonymously in 1821, Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater  opens with De Quincey's worrying about telling his story: "I have for many months hesitated about the propriety of allowing this, or any part of my narrative, to come before the public eye, until after my death . . . .  Guilt and misery shrink, by natural instinct, from public notice: they court privacy and solitude."  He decides to tell his story ultimately, he says, for "the benefit resulting to others." 

If the purpose of his writing is dissuade others from eating opium, he spends a disproportionate number of words in Part I ("To the Reader" and "Preliminary Confessions") on the story of his childhood and young adulthood, the hardships of which led to "excruciating rheumatic pains of the head and face."  He eats opium for the first time in order to relieve this pain, and seems determined to gain the reader's sympathy and understanding. 

If this were a cautionary tale of the egg-cracking-in-the-pan-this-is-your-brain-on-drugs variety, this first use of opium would lead to immediate, negative consequences.  Instead, De Quincey finds opium wonderful, and describes its superiority over wine.  He takes pains to say that opium does not lead to "torpor" as people might think, but instead to exquisite pleasure.

Part II ("The Pleasures of Opium," "Introduction to the Pains of Opium," and "The Pains of Opium") begins about half way through the narrative and, as the headings suggest, devotes significant space to the pleasures of opium, and then, as if he has a hard time getting to the pains of opium, pauses again with an introduction to the pains.  Even in the "pains" section, he seems to want to justify his habit and wries that the suffering "is a state of unutterable irritation of stomach (which surely is not much like dejection), accompanied by intense perspirations, and feelings such as I shall not attempt to describe without more space at my command."

At the end, though, he tells what he hasn't really shown to me: "I triumphed: but think not, reader, that therefore my sufferings were ended; nor think of me as of one sitting in a dejected state.  Think of me as of one, even when four months had passed, still agitated, writhing, throbbing palpitating, shattered . . . ." 

He concludes, "The moral of the narrative is addressed to the opium-eater; and therefore, of necessity, limited in its application.  If he is taught to fear and tremble, enough has been effected." 

Opium, rather than De Quincey, controls these confessions.  De Quincey uses his section divisions, and within those sections, frequent lists, seemingly in attempts to gain control of the material, but his ambivalence about opium comes through more than anything else.

Filed in Books, Writing

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