Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 823

Dream of the Red Chamber is a long and extremely complicated domestic chronicle—the novel contains more than four hundred characters—that is at once a lively comedy of manners, a realistic fable of moral seriousness, and a metaphysical allegory. The title is capable of expressing several meanings. For example, it may be translated as “Dreams of Young Maidens,” since the younger women of the Chia clan lived in the traditional “red chamber” of a palace compound. The term may also be interpreted as a reference to the metaphor “Red Dust,” which in Buddhist usage is a designation for the material world with all of its pleasures, follies, and vices.

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On the metaphysical level of the novel, the stone and the flower, originally located in the Ethereal, suffer a fall when they enter earthly reality in the Red Dust. Here the novel may be read as an allegory endorsing a Taoist-Buddhist system of otherworldly values (represented by the mysteriously recurring priest and monk) and rejecting the this-world view of Confucianism (represented by Chia Cheng). Interestingly, this novel’s critique of feudalist and Confucian China won praise from Marxist readers.

The Ethereal stone’s fortunes translate into a novel of manners when the stone falls into earthly existence as the protagonist, Chia Pao-yu. In this mode, the novel becomes, through its portrayal of the Chia family, a brilliantly realistic document of upper-class life during the Ching Dynasty. It encompasses financial affairs, sexual aberrations, fraternal jealousies, and tragic suicides. The Chia fortunes reach their apogee when Cardinal Spring becomes the Emperor’s concubine. The Takuanyuan Garden, built to honor Cardinal Spring, symbolizes these halcyon days; it becomes the domain of the younger Chia generation led by Pao-yu. In the garden, their way of life is carefree, innocent, almost Edenic, but, just as Pao-yu must grow into adulthood, so evil must invade this Eden. The fall begins when an indecently embroidered purse is found. A general search ensues, scandals surface, a tragic death results. Analogous disasters overtake the family. Their financial dealings incur the Emperor’s displeasure; Imperial Guards ransack the Chia compound. Then bandits raid the garden itself. Finally, Pao-yu chooses to deny the folly of this world and to join the Buddhist priest and the Taoist monk, journeying, presumably, to the Ethereal.

The eighteenth century Hongloumeng, or Dream of the Red Chamber, considered by many scholars as the greatest of Chinese novels, comes closer to Western aesthetics than any Chinese novel written before or after its publication. The book, perhaps first published in 1715, is generally considered to have been written by Cao Xueqin, with the exception of the last forty chapters, which may have been written by Gao E, the editor of the original printed novel. Some critics believe the last forty chapters are less effective rhetorically and were the sole inspiration of Gao E and others; other critics believe that Gao E simply redacted Cao Xueqin’s original wording of the last forty chapters. Most scholars agree that, and internal evidence points to, the idea that Cao Xueqin may have drawn upon his own experiences as the son of a once wealthy, powerful family.

Dream of the Red Chamber, with its vast scope and depth, has been called by both Western and Chinese critics a supreme study of psychological realism. The novel is significant for more than its autobiographical elements. The long, complex forward motion of the plot tests ideals in Chinese culture: Confucian teachings, with their tenets about married love, family, overindulgence, sexual obsession, and patriotism; Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, which condemns personal obsessive desire. Although the author’s inclusion of diverse Chinese thought may create confusion at times, this does not detract from the story’s powerful, rhetorical texture or its readability.

Dream of the Red Chamber uses allegory and symbolism to reflect Cao Xueqin’s interest in and study of tradition. Pao-yu, for example, is part of a creation myth. In further allegorical terms, the hero is put into a dream sequence. The author’s response to Taoist-Buddhist thought is reflected by the symbolic technique as well as by his response to the Confucian view of the material world.

In addition to the allegory, the author creates settings and actions suggestive of a novel of manners. Thus the highly praised realism of the novel, with its more than four hundred characters, softens the didacticism of allegory, although sometimes it falls into formulaic method. The realism, however, provides a brilliant document of upper-class life during the Ching Dynasty. The fact that the story line does not conclude happily and that Pao-yu, the noble hero, is subject to a series of climactic events toward the end of the book, introduces crucial reflections on compassion and salvation, fulfilling the criteria for serious tragedy. The novel’s significant power lies not only in its portrayal of decadent Chinese manners and crushed nobility but also in its incisive treatment of the complexity of human nature.

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