Dickens's Early Portrayal of a Victorian Opium Den in "Lazarus Lotus Eating" (1866)

A Story of Fear and Fascination

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

25 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Opium, the Orient and the British Empire - Fears Relating to Matters of Imperialism, British Culture and National Identity

3. Fear and Fascination in Dickens’s “Lazarus Lotus Eating”
3.1. The Narrator’s Xenophobic Attitude towards the Beggar Lazarus and his Chinese Countrymen
3.2. Revealing Racial Stereotypes, Prejudices and Xenophobia in Victorian Society - The Narrator’s Fascinating Journey through London’s East End to the Opium Den .....
3.3. The Description of the Opium Den as a Place of Delight and Trepidation and the Ambiguous Portrayal of the Pitiful and Dangerous-looking Oriental Opium Smokers
3.4. The Secrets of the Mysterious Old Opium Den Owner Yahee
3.5. English Woman in the Opium Den - Anxieties about Racial Purity and the Destabilization of English Domestic Life
3.6. An Attitude of Tolerance and Understanding - The Narrator’s Changed Perception of Lazarus and the Oriental Opium Smokers

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
5.1. Primary Literature
5.2. Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

In the beginning and the middle of the 19th century only few non-Orientals had ever entered an opium den. Yet, their existence in the East End was common knowledge as Victorian sensationalist-press journalists went into opium dens looking for “sleaze, corruption and vicarious excitement or exotic danger” (Booth 211). Descriptions of opium dens started in great extent from the 1860s onwards, repeatedly representing London’s East End as “a miniature Orient within the heart of the empire” (Milligan 85). Even though opium dens were depicted as squalid, humble, poor, dilapidated and wretched places, they had nothing threatening or mysterious about them and their owners were neither regarded as cunning, horrifying or evil (Herrea 81). Many articles focused on the exotic otherness of the opium den and its connection to the mysterious Orient - a topic which intrigued, attracted, entertained and fascinated many Victorian readers (Booth 211).

Yet, during the last decades of the century a number of Victorian journalist and popular authors like Dickens, Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde lastingly transformed the image of opium dens by depicting them as appalling places of moral corruption, decadence and racial contamination and as dark, shadowy lairs controlled by cunning, deceitful and evil Chinese proprietors (Padwa 58-59).1 The authors succeeded in establishing an attitude of intolerance against opium smoking and opium dens in Victorian society and helped to consolidate racial stereotypes and xenophobic prejudices against the Oriental owners of the opium dens and their opium addicted Chinese customers (Berridge & Edwards 201). One popular example of these mid-nineteenth-century descriptions of opium dens is the article “Lazarus Lotus Eating” by Charles Dickens which was published in 1866 in his magazine All the Year Round.

The magazine article “Lazarus Lotus Eating” is often mentioned in academic literature as the first published Victorian nineteenth-century journalistic article which was indicative of a shift in the portrayal of opium dens.2 Dickens’s article is especially noteworthy it is still more ambiguous and complex in its attitude towards the Orient than the journalistic articles and fictional opium-den-portrayals that would follow it.3 Hence, in “Lazarus Lotus Eating” the narrator undergoes a great development as his initial racist and xenophile attitude towards the Oriental foreigners changes drastically in the course of the story to feelings of pity and empathy for the poor, pathetic and miserable Oriental opium addicts. However, there are very few academic texts which provide detailed analysis of Dickens’s “Lazarus Lotus Eating” which is necessary to understand the article in its full extent.4 Academic research has thus not yet fully spotted the article’s ambiguous attitude towards the Orient which constantly alternates between fear and fascination. The paper seeks to close this gap in research by analyzing how Dickens depicts the ambivalent British attitude towards the Orient in his article “Lazarus Lotus Eating” through the portrayal of Lazarus, the opium den, the Oriental opium smokers, the opium master Yahee and the English women in the opium den.

In order to understand Dickens’s way of portraying the Oriental components in “Lazarus Lotus Eating”, it is necessary to shortly outline and explain the complex relationship between the British Empire, Opium and the Orient. Therefore, one has to take into account the British attitude towards opium and its consumption, and the interrelated historic, economic, imperial, military and cultural matters that shaped the British perception of the Orient in the 19th century.

The main part will focus on the analysis of the article “Lazarus Lotus Eating” by examining Dickens’s ambiguous and complex portrayal of Oriental elements and by reconstructing the narrators mind-changing journey through London’s East End to Yahee’s Opium Den and the nightly celebration of the opium feast. It will be shown that the portrayal of Lazarus, the opium den, the Oriental opium smokers, the opium den owner Yahee and the English women in the opium den reflect Victorian people’s attitudes towards the Orient which constantly vary between fear and fascination, delight and trepidation, attraction and repulsion.

The most important findings of the paper will be summarized in the conclusion which will also point out further fields of academic research.

2. Opium, the Orient and the British Empire - Fears Relating to Matters of Imperialism, British Culture and National Identity

During the first half of the 19th century opium was a freely available, cheap and widespread drug in England which could be sold by any retailer, was sold in various forms and was regularly used as a medicine by many Victorians of all classes (Milligan 22).5 Opium was “recommended for everything from influenza and earache, to hydrophobia, haemorrhage, and heart disease” (Berridge & Edwards 441). The popular and influential writings of De Quincey and Coleridge created a Romanticized image of opium and its connection to the mysterious orient. Thus, the drug and the pains and pleasures caused by opium consumption became a widespread and highly discussed topic within the literary scene (ibid.).6

However, public perception of opium and its use began to change drastically by the mid of the 19th century. Opium was not longer considered as a drug which produced romantic and fantastic Oriental visions for its consumer, but was equated with something evil, immoral and unhealthy. Parssinen appropriately notes that “Romantic exuberance, which had extolled the self and sought out the unconventional, gave way to high Victorian moralism” (67). The enactment of the Poisons and Pharmacy Act in 18687 and the establishment of the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade in 1874 are testimonies to an increasingly negative perception of opium which was mainly propagated by the campaigns of the anti- opium-movement (Herrea 80). The changed perception of opium was therefore closely linked to the regulation of its consumption by the medical and pharmaceutical establishment and new perceptions of disease and treatment.8 The new negative perception of opium was additionally strengthened by criticism of the two Opium Wars between the British Empire and China (1839-1842, 1856-1860) and the dishonorable imperial politics of the British Empire in the opium trade with China.9

Whereas taking opium as “laudanum” was an accepted and common practice in the first half of the 19th century England, and eating opium was at least considered as morally ambiguous, smoking opium on the contrary was regarded as “foreign” and “oriental” from the beginning as it was intimately linked to the growing number of Chinese immigrants who settled in the dock areas of major cities like London or Liverpool where little Chinatowns and a Chinese subculture emerged (Herrea 79).10 Especially in the mid 1860s there was a dramatic increase of Oriental immigrants as merchant steamship companies employed hundreds of Oriental seaman and labourers for operations between England and the Far East (Witchard 98).11 Even though the Chinese communities were still small and the foreign immigrants were isolated by culture and language (Witchard 99), the Oriental immigrants were perceived as vicious foreign invaders, competing with the English for jobs and resources and posing a threat to the country’s national identity and its economic stability.

In addition to this, there were several anxieties about the possible consequences of the increased habit of opium smoking in 19th century Victorian England which allude to fears of social pollution and poison through opium. As Foxcroft suitably notes, the “public appetite for xenophobic anxieties and morbid fears of disease and pollution were fed and perpetuated” by the numerous worrying authentic journalistic and fictional descriptions of alien, vicious and depraved Chinese opium dens in London’s East End (Foxcroft 62).12 Edward Said calls this process “[t]he nineteenth-century academic and imaginative demonology of ‘the mysterious Orient’” (Said 26). Many Victorians feared that the Oriental habit of opium smoking will contaminate and infect English people so that the Orient can “enter, colonize, and conquer the English body in the form of a contaminating The Opium Wars were fought because the British East India Company wanted to “expand its monopoly on the production and export of Indian opium into China, despite a Chinese ban on the Drug” (Herrea 80). For more information on the Opium Wars, the British opium trade and the imperial policies of the British Empire in the Far East please see Booth 103-137.

contagion enabled by opium” (Milligan 83) which dissolves the user’s national identity and transforms former respectable and hard-working Britons into immoral, lazy Chinese. As Milligan notes, “Orientalness is thus [perceived] as a transmittable disease, and opium smoke as the means of transmission” (86). There was the xenophobic anxiety that the Oriental culture could become a permanent part of the British culture and that this process of cultural blending could reconstruct or even replace Britain’s culture in an unpredictable way (Milligan 117). Moreover, many Victorians had the vague anticipation that the Chinese would take revenge for Britain’s dishonorable imperial policies and controversial opium-trading practices in the East by undermining the British Empire from within and corroding British culture in a “gradual and subtle war of attrition” (Padwa 55). The Oriental drug was further threatening as China itself was seen as a growing powerful and populous rival to the British Empire who could compete with Britain for territories or reverse the British colonization of the Orient (Milligan 85). The anxieties about the consequences of a possible cultural blending thus not only relate to matters of national identity and the very definition of “Britishness” itself, but are also largely connected to the dynamics of the Empire (Milligan 5).

3. Fear and Fascination in Dickens’s “Lazarus Lotus Eating”

3.1. The Narrator’s Xenophobic Attitude towards the Beggar Lazarus and his Chinese Countrymen

Dickens’s article “Lazarus Lotus Eating” starts like a newspaper article by giving the exact information on the time and the place of the reported event in the first sentence: “Nine o’ clock on Saturday evening, the place Cornhill, and the want a policeman” (421). In order to appear authentic and objective, Dickens’s article claims to be fact rather than fiction. What follows is a short but quite literary description of the quiet, peaceful and placid atmosphere of the nocturnal London. The atmosphere is described with many repetitive adjectives like “[w]onderfully quiet and still”, “[c]uriously quiet” and “wonderfully free from the feverish traffic of the day” (421) to emphasize the city’s tranquility and peacefulness at night. As all respectable people are at home, the streets are almost empty and the busy and hectic atmosphere of the day is gone. Besides, the beauty of the nightly scene is highlighted by the description of the “blaze of light [which] glimmers out of […] the upper windows of the closely-shuttered houses” (421). The description of the beautiful and peaceful nocturnal city is disturbed by the appearance of the beggar Lazarus13 who comes “out of the shadows” (421) and stats up his way to the opium den. The shadows already hint at Lazarus’s mysterious Oriental background and indicate that he is a shady and dubious character who poses a threat to the respectable British society.

Dickens addresses the reader directly and creates an intimacy between the narrator and the reader to capture the reader’s attention and to arouse suspense: “[…] you and I look out anxiously for a policeman to aid us in tracing him home” (421). The reader thereby gets the impression to actually follow Lazarus on his way to the opium den and is more involved in the story. This impression is intensified through the present-tense, first-person-plural narrative of the story (Milligan 87). Dickens lists five different motives why the narrator and the reader would decide to trace Lazarus home. As each scenario is initiated with the anaphora “perhaps”, the reader can decide on his own which of the motives apply to him:

“Perhaps we carry with us a mysterious talisman which will at once enlist the sympathies and ensure the co-operation of the force; perhaps we rely on our powers of personal persuasion; perhaps we have justice on our side, and claim its officers as allies; perhaps we wish to test the truthfulness of the pitiful story he has told us; or perhaps we are merely animated by a holy hatred of beggars, and a wish to prosecute Lazarus to the death” (421).

By giving the reader the opportunity to decide what to think of Lazarus and how to position oneself to the Chinese beggar, Dickens grants the reader a considerable interpretative and imaginative leeway.

However, the first impression of Lazarus is entirely negative as the following description focuses on Lazarus’s filthy, squalid and unkempt appearance and depicts him as an animal-like creature: “Shabby canvas trousers, a loose and ragged blue jacket, high cheek-bones, small sunken eyes, a bare shaven face, and an untidy pigtail - such is Lazarus. […] See how he slinks and shambles along” (421). The description of Lazarus was disgusting and deterrent for Victorian middle-class readers as dirt was associated with immorality, depravity and poverty (Schülting 6).14 Cleanliness, on the other hand, was a sign of godliness and respectability in the eyes of Victorian moralists (Jackson 138-140).


1 Dickens, in particular, considered opium as a symbol of degeneracy, immorality and corruption and portrayed the evil side of opium dens in his writings. With his novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was published in 1870, Dickens introduced an attitude of intolerance in the public perception of opium (Booth 213). Several authors followed Dickens example. In 1891, Oscar Wilde used the opium den as the setting for the “dramatic, blasphemous revelation of man’s inner evil” in his novel The Picture of Dorian Grey (Booth 214). And in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ from 1891 the opium den became “an image for transformation from the truth to the deceit.” (Booth 214).

2 See Chang 129, Herrea 82, Milligan 88, Padwa 58-61, Seed 69.

3 A popular example for the radicalization in the negative portrayal of opium dens is the article “A Night in an Opium Den” which was published in the Strand Magazine in 1891. The article is full of ignorant racist prejudices and xenophobia and has a much more negative attitude towards the Orient than Dickens’s story.

4 In fact, Barry Milligan is the only one who provides a deeper analysis of the article “Lazarus Lotus Eating” while focusing on the portrayal of the opium smokers as animals and vampirelike living dead parasites, and the role of the Orientalized and assimilated English women in the opium den (83-102).

5 According to Milligan, opium was sold not only chemist and druggist but also by “grocers, bakers, tailors, publicans, and street vendors” who sold opium in “pills, powders, and plasters, liniments, lozenges, and laudanum, syrups, suppositories, and seed capsules straight of the poppy stalk” (Milligan 22).

6 Milligan provides a good and detailed overview about the literary criticism in the discussion of opium and the Orient in nineteenth-century England. See Milligan 4-5.

7 For more information on the Poison and Pharmacy Act which restricted the right to sell opium and other poisons to licensed chemists and pharmacists, and the Public Health Acts of 1866, 1871 and 1875 please see Parssinen 68-78.

8 For more information on the influence of medical establishments please see Foxcroft 72-74.

10 Due to Milligan, who refers to contemporary census reports, the Chinese population in England had been growing rapidly from around 78 Chinese in England and Wales in 1851 to 665 Chinese in 1881 (Milligan 84). The British myth places the origins of opium smoking in China, even though there is no clear evidence which would have supported such a hypothesis (Milligan 136).

11 For more information and a detailed discussion of the role of the steamship in colonial expansion and immigration please see Headrick 235-239.

12 As Berridge and Edwards point out, there were in fact only very few opium dens in London. In 1884 for example, there were just about half a dozen of London opium dens (201). Besides, most of the opium consumed in Britain did not come from China but from Turkey or Persia (Milligan 20).

13 “Lazarus” is the narrator’s nickname for the Chinese beggar (Milligan 136).

14 Schülting additionally argues that dirt often functions as a marker of class and race in Victorian literature (6).

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Dickens's Early Portrayal of a Victorian Opium Den in "Lazarus Lotus Eating" (1866)
A Story of Fear and Fascination
University of Frankfurt (Main)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
491 KB
dickens, early, portrayal, victorian, opium, lazarus, lotus, eating, story, fear, fascination
Quote paper
Sabrina Rutner (Author), 2016, Dickens's Early Portrayal of a Victorian Opium Den in "Lazarus Lotus Eating" (1866), Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/369942


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Dickens's Early Portrayal of a Victorian Opium Den in "Lazarus Lotus Eating" (1866)

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free