The Infection of Thomas De Quincey


You are viewing an older version of the Yalebooks website. Please visit out new website with more updated information and a better user experience:

A Psychopathology of Imperialism

John Barrell

View Inside Format: Cloth
Price: $60.00
Our shopping cart only supports Mozilla Firefox. Please ensure you're using that browser before attempting to purchase.

Thomas De Quincey, best known for his book Confessions of an English Opium Eater, was a journalist and propagandist of Empire, of oriental aggression, and of racial paranoia. The greater part of the fourteen volumes of his collected writings concerns the history, the colonial development, and increasingly the threat presented by the Orient in all its manifestations—human, animal, and microbiological. This remarkable book, which is an account of De Quincey’s fears of all things oriental, is also an extraordinary analysis of the psychopathology of mid-Victorian imperialist culture.


John Barrell paints a picture of De Quincey as a happy family man, apparently at ease with himself and with the rest of the world, but in fact harboring and expressing the most ferocious and brutal denunciation of Orientals of all kinds and dreaming of exacting from them a terrible retribution. Barrell shows that throughout De Quincey’s writings there is a repeated story of the murder or violation of a female victim—either within or outside De Quincey’s family—by an oriental criminal This story finds its way into almost everything he wrote: the various versions of his autobiography, his novels and short stories, his biographical and critical writings, his essays on politics, history, and science. Barrell attempts to understand this European terror of the East by an approach that is both historical and psychoanalytic. In particular, he explores the relation between childhood anxiety and imperial guilt in a body of writing in which the fear of violence within the family is imaged as a fear of the oriental, and the private and the public, the sexual and the imperial, the feminine and the exotic are endlessly intertwined.


This book will be fascinating reading for those interested in Victorian literature, in psychoanalysis and its relation to literature, in the history of imperialism, and in debates about the characteristics and effects of colonial discourse.

"A tremendously absorbing, eye-opening analysis, a deeply engaging piece of writing and scholarship. I couldn't put it down."—Roy Porter, The Wellcome Institute, London

"Very good, well and boldly written, sometimes indeed with a gratifying coarseness. . . . A remarkably confident, intelligent and vigorous piece of criticism."—Frank Kermode, London Review of Books

"[An] ingenious . . . book. . . . Brilliantly convincing."—John Carey, The Sunday Times

"[A] fascinating study. . . . The analysis is riveting."—C. A. Bayly, The Observer

"An astonishing feat of Freudian literary art in its most attractive mode of detective pursuit. . . . John Barrell's intriguing and unsettling book treats not just a minor detective case of biography but a more widespread infection."—Chris Baldick, Times Literary Supplement

"The source material is kaleidoscopically fascinating and it is gratifying to see attention directed towards it. . . . [A] painstaking and often inspired pursuit. . . . This is a striking introduction to De Quincey's tortured/tortuous mind, and offers a chance to put your own interpretation on his haunted/haunting prose."—Theresa Brookes, Literary Review

"John Barrell's growing reputation as one of England's most interesting romantic scholars can only be enhanced by this absorbing and original study. . . . Brief summary cannot do justice to the richness and complexity of Barrell's work, which is ultimately an assault on `the psychopathology of imperialism' in Victorian society. . . . This book deserves to be widely read and would be an appropriate acquisition for academic libraries (all levels) and for public libraries."—Choice

"An intriguing story, and Barrell's recounting of it is absorbing. . . . To position De Quincey as a Victorian writer participating in contemporary political life is a welcome antidote to criticism that reads him anachronistically as a late Romantic. This context is useful for it suggests that accounts of Victorian literature should take seriously the practices of imperialism not just on the level of content, but as a network of desires and guilt operating in the primary processes of literary production. De Quincey's is a neglected but defining voice of Victorian consciousness, and this book begins to expose the complexities of its interests."—Josephine McDonagh, The Times Higher Education Supplement

"This is an astonishing, wonderful book, successful as literary criticism, as history, and in its use of psychoanalytic theory to address a past subjectivity. It should be read by anyone with reservations about the place of psychoanalysis in history. It will undoubtedly become a set text on historiographical courses, as well as those dealing with history, literature, and literary theory. . . . What a study!"—Andrew Blake, Magazine of Cultural Studies

"A brilliantly inventive, resourceful study, which combines subtlety and lucidity in more or less equal measure."—Terry Eagleton, New Statesman

"Fascinating"—Patrick Brantlinger, Albion

"With imagination and patient skill Barrell weaves together a remarkable web. . . . The enthusiasm of John Barrell's book . . . inspire[s] the reader to think again, and he draws attention to a whole side of the prose work which . . . is remarkably characteristic of a particular strand in early Victorian writing."—Bill Ruddick, Literature and History

"In nearly every line of this book, we watch the 'cooperation of internal and external.' of psychological and political, 'each disguised as the other, that makes De Quincey's world'—and, by implication, our own—'such a terrifying place.' . . . It is easy to lose sight of Barrell's extraordinary command of his psychological, narratological, historical, and literary materials in our fascination with his subject's extravagant fantasies. . . . Compelling. . . Leaves the reader in the same sort of titillating suspense as that produced by a good horror movie. . . . In order to locate the indeterminacy of subjectivity, Barrell describes a landscape of global guilt, fear, and bloodshed. A sobering note trails after The Infection of Thomas De Quincey, as we recognize the violence we are ready to imagine on behalf of fragile subjectivity."—Mary A. Favret, Victorian Studies

"Barrell's book is a pleasure to read — his close readings of the recapitulations of DeQuincey's persistent "involute" are bracing, and his range of reference within the sprawling DeQuincean oeuvre are impressive. . . . Barrell's book represents a considerable step in the task of plumbing the imperial unconscious, and the methods he develops to uncover the peculiar infection of Thomas DeQuincey will prove useful and suggestive to future students of British colonialism."—Mark Parker, Nineteenth-Century Prose

"Brilliant. . . . Should be required reading of any reader who enjoys great prose, perceptive analyses, lucid explications, rigorous exercises in semantic detection; the exciting, engaging experience of a vastly read, compassionate, vigilant mind at work on recalcitrant texts. It is an indispensable book for scholars, psychohistorians, and students of the theory and practice of the literature of empire."—Razak Dahmane, Psychohistory Review
ISBN: 9780300049329
Publication Date: June 26, 1991
288 pages, x