Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism moves from personal history to cultural psychology, richly fulfilling the promise of a “cultural studies” approach to interpreting literary texts and an individual writer’s place in literary history. This is neither a standard biography nor a linear analysis of Thomas De Quincey’s lifework. Rather, John Barrell focuses on patterns of images in De Quincey’s fiction and nonfiction, carefully isolating the recurring fears that these images indicate in order to trace the links between one man’s psychology and the mindset of his era. While occasionally repetitious, Barrell’s analysis is usually eye opening and always courageous in its attempt to place De Quincey’s prejudices and anxieties in a complex cultural context.
Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) is best known for his infamous Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), in which he explored with shocking frankness his addiction to the drug and vividly detailed his drug-induced visions, but De Quincey also authored hundreds of other essays and fictional pieces over the course of his long and stormy life, one that stretched through the Romantic era and well into the reign of Queen Victoria. Full of colorful descriptions of imaginary landscapes and gruesome acts of violence, De Quincey’s autobiographical, critical, and fictional works seem perfectly suited for a psychologically based interpretation. But Barrell resists the tendency of many critics deploying this methodology who simply pick out scenes that “represent” the various crises and conflicts of some “universal” psychological development process. Barrell notes that many of De Quincey’s works share a common setting and atmosphere; their action takes place against an “Oriental” backdrop and contain Asian characters and images. These intersecting elements allow Barrell to explore the connections between literary representation and social policy, for De Quincey wrote during the years of British colonial expansion in India and the Opium Wars in China.
Before Barrell turns his critical eye to British social history, he examines in detail De Quincey’s own personal history. Barrell focuses first on the 1792 death from hydrocephalus (water on the brain) of De Quincey’s beloved sister Elizabeth. De Quincey, just seven years old at that time, was plagued by guilt throughout his life for not having saved her, even though her illness was then neither preventable nor curable. His guilt was exacerbated by an incident that occurred on the day after Elizabeth’s death. Secretly making his way to the room in which his sister’s body was lying, De Quincey kissed Elizabeth for the last time, an innocent enough act, but one that for him was forever associated with feelings of pollution and sinfulness. Perhaps it was the secrecy of the kiss, its occurrence in a bedroom behind closed doors, or its connection to hidden incestuous desires, but for some compelling reason that even Barrell admits no one will ever fully understand, this incident and De Quincey’s profound guilt were replayed time and again in various forms throughout his writings.
Inseparable from the above were other key familial relationships that played roles in De Quincey’s psychological formation. His father was a merchant whose business often took him away from home. His mother had pretensions to aristocracy and decorated the original family name “Quincey” with the aristocratic “De.” She later dropped the addition, but Thomas retained the new, elongated name throughout his life and passed it on to his own family. From his childhood relationship with his parents, De Quincey seemed to have developed a lifelong need for approval and recognition. While his mother and father remain shadowy figures in Barrell’s study and in De Quincey’s own work, their absence in fact tells us as much as their presence would.
De Quincey was an alienated, lonely child, which meant that certain isolated interactions with siblings inevitably and indelibly colored his personal memories and perceptions of himself and the world. Besides his guilt over the death of Elizabeth, his violent hatred for his older brother William is a key to understanding aspects of his adult representations. William’s bullying tendencies and status as a favorite son led to both jealousy and rage in De Quincey, feelings that did not die after William’s own death at age fifteen from typhoid fever. And as in the case of Elizabeth, the manner of this death is noteworthy, for it helps explain De Quincey’s lifelong references to similarly afflicted and peculiarly described individuals. De Quincey believed that Elizabeth’s hydrocephalus was a result of a long walk in a lush landscape, one that became inextricably tied to the landscapes of the Orient in his works. Similarly, William’s typhoid fever was a disease that even the medical community of the nineteenth century commonly associated with the East. Thus both the hated brother and the beloved sister become linked in death to differing cultural conceptions of Asia, ones that included both a fascination with and fear of Eastern mystery and danger, and perceptions of the Orient as a source of both potential pleasure and pollution.
Barrell argues that these complex elements find their way into De Quincey’s work in the form of “involutes”—De Quincey’s own term for inextricably interwoven sets of images and ideas. Involutes are personal archetypes that, for Barrell, suggest both psychological and social interpretations. Images of disease, a motionless woman, a closed door, and moist, threatening landscapes weave in and out of De Quincey’s writings, suggesting myriad personal and political fears. William is explicitly associated with tigers in De...
(The entire section is 2361 words.)
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