An Eastern Fascination

What exactly is Orientalism? It’s not a study of eastern cultures, learning about the languages, beliefs, or the countries that reside in Asian. In reality it is a westernized outlook on the East. It’s a lopping of all the asian cultures into one; there is no individualism of nations but a singular “Asian”

map_asia_china.gif     Because clearly non of these other countries must be the same in culture, language, belief, and ideology.


Orientalism is no new term, while it is used as recently as today’s time, a example of a well waited popular show Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to story telling from the 19th century years ago.

A perfect example, and a show of the Western idiocy, is Confessions of an English Opium- Eater by Thomas D. Quincey . This story, published in 1821 of the London Magazine (Abrams, 567), is an autobiography of the author, his tales while using Opium, and the troubles that came with it. imgres-1.jpgOf course being as an addictive drug as it was, there were plenty of stories to tell. But one in particular, the part that I wish to focus on, has a very highlighted point in the authors’s own blatant fascination with all things eastern.

The particular passage that I wish to look upon is the section from The Introduction to the Pains of Opium this section focusing on the strange visitor that had graced the author’s door. One day there was a knock at the door and the man that stood before our Narrator was a Malay, a native to the Malay Peninsula, and the narrator was transfixed how exotic this person was before him.

“- his turban and loose trousers of dingy white relieved upon the dark paneling: had placed himself nearer to the girl than she seemed to relish; though her native spirit of mountain intrepidity contended with the feeling of simple awe which her countenance expressed as she gazed upon a tiger cat” (Abrams, 570). 


What I found interesting about this passage was how the author was able to show the difference of the Malay to his surroundings by comparing him to the servant girl who stood near and to the side. The girl is compared to a mountain, using the word “Native” as reference. The servant girl is still native to the land, even though she is only that, a servant, she is still normal and that of a native to the land. Like a mountain, strong, firm, and imposing. While the girl is stable and strong the Malay is referred to as an animal, a tiger cat. A predator, an enemy, something meant to be hunted, something that is exotic and strange, not something part of the normal day to day life of a civilized person.

“And a more striking picture there could not be imagined, than the beautiful English face of the girl, and its exquisite fairness, together wither her erect and independent attitude, contrasted with the sallow and bilious skin of the Malay, enameled or veneered with mahogany, by marine air, his small, fierce, restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations” (Abrams, 570). 

This section focused more on their physical features, again comparing the servant girl born native to the english, and the exotic Malay. Even though the author is describing the physical features of the two the words chosen can also be how the author describes their characters as well. For the servant girl, though beautiful, shows a strong independence. That seems like a trusting person, seems like someone reliable, whereas the description for the man are not nearly as kind.  The Malay had an unhealthy look about him, his skin was not good, not pleasing to look at. His eyes are described as shifty and small, someone who seems to be sneaky and cunning. The descriptions given about the malay character show him as a seedy villainous person. Someone untrustworthy.

However what I find truly interesting about this section as a whole was that the author was not only comparing the native person to an exotic, he was comparing this stranger to a servant, to a female servant no less. Anything beginning the  advancements for women wouldn’t happen for at least another 20 years. And during this women are considered below the men, never mind the servants who belong to the lower class, they are not as valued as men in those days. Yet, compared to an exotic male foreigner, they are far more trusting. The author who, as the time revers, valued and trusted a female servant more so then this male stranger.

But the finality, the one that really sticks is the author’s arrogance of intelligence.

“I presented him with a piece of opium. To him, as an Orientalist, I concluded that opium must be familiar and the expression of his face convince me that it was” (Abram, 571). 

The author had no way of communicating with him, there had been a language barrier and it had been hard to understand exactly what and why this man was in his home. He made assumptions, he categorized this man claimed to know about him. He dubbed himself an “Orientalist” and that claim made him able to “understand” this person. The claim gave assumption and that made the author lump this person into an anonymity group, one without individualism. The naivety that he must be knowledgable about drugs and uses it as an offering/ gift instead. He doesn’t even truly try and attempt to communicate with the man, the author admires and examines him as if a nice cigar, and once he has looked and appreciated that is it.

Work Cited:

Abrams, Meyer Howard, and Stephen Greenblatt. “Thomas De Quincey.”The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 565-80. Print. The Romantic Period.