Confessions of an English Opium Eater Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Intense stomach pains drive Thomas De Quincey, at age twenty-eight, to take opium daily for relief. He had begun taking opium almost ten years before. These stomach pains are a legacy from hardships he had endured as an adolescent. His father had died when the boy was seven years old. The young De Quincy became the responsibility of four guardians. At school, he becomes an excellent Greek scholar.

At Manchester Grammar School, he is so superior to his teachers in Greek that he soon feels a desire to leave the school. His guardians are against this plan, however, so De Quincey asks an old friend for money. He receives it and plans to make his escape from a school that he feels has nothing to offer him intellectually.

The day of De Quincey’s escape comes. The groom of his hall, who is carrying De Quincey’s book-laden trunk down a narrow stairway, slips and falls, and the trunk clatters noisily to the floor below. De Quincey is sure he will be caught. The noise, incredibly, does not arouse the curiosity of the resident master, and the youth is able to get away.

Seventeen-year-old De Quincey heads westward, walking through Wales, where, in Bangor, he takes a room. His landlady is the former servant of a bishop’s family. On one of her regular visits to the bishop’s house, she discloses that she is taking in lodgers. When she reports her disclosure to De Quincey, he takes exception to the tenor of her remarks concerning him, moves out of her house at once, and finds lodging in inns. This type of lodging is relatively expensive, so the young man soon finds himself reduced to eating only once a day—a meal of only coffee or tea. The mountain air of Wales and the walking make him abnormally hungry, so that his having to subsist off berries and charitable handouts hurts him physically. As time goes by, he manages to earn a meager living by writing letters for the illiterate and by doing odd jobs. The damage to his health, however, has been done.

De Quincey’s travels take him from Wales to London, where, utterly destitute and afraid to reveal himself to any friends of his family, he lives for several months on little more than a small ration of bread. Also, he sleeps outdoors. At last, in cold weather, an acquaintance gives him shelter in a large, almost empty house; De Quincey’s companion is a ten-year-old girl. Pains in his stomach prevent him from ever getting a proper night’s sleep; consequently, he sleeps by fits and snatches both day and night. The master of the house is a legal representative of moneylenders, but despite the man’s apparent lack of principles, De Quincey finds him generous in his way. The little girl appears to be a servant in the large house, which is situated near Soho Square.

De Quincey walks the streets and often sits all day in parks, until Ann, a sixteen-year-old streetwalker, befriends him. One night, when he has violent stomach pains, Ann spends part of her scant savings on wine and spices for him. Soon afterward, he meets an old family acquaintance who gives him money, thus ending De Quincey’s period of extreme poverty. Previously, he had been afraid to appeal to family friends for help for fear that his guardians would send him back to the grammar school. It never occurs to him that he might have taken on literary work of some kind. Now, solvent for the moment, he makes arrangements to get an advance on his patrimony, which is not legally his until his twenty-first birthday.

After saying good-bye to Ann, he takes a coach to Eton to get a signature that is required for an advance on his patrimony. At Eton he calls upon an acquaintance, young Lord Desart, who invites him to breakfast. Finding that he cannot keep down the food, he takes wine to his great comfort. Lord Desart, who is only eighteen years old, is reluctant to sign for security, but he finally consents. De Quincey returns to London, where he finds that Lord Desart’s signature does not impress the moneylenders with whom he is negotiating for the advance. Again, he is threatened with hardship; again, however, he is saved, for his reconciled relatives send him to...

(The entire section is 1689 words.)