Cao Xueqin

Dream Of The Red Chamber

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  • Features 26 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a college professor with an MFA in Creative Writing
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Dream Of The Red Chamber Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 63-page guide for “Dream Of The Red Chamber” by Cao Xueqin includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 26 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Social Hierarchy and Class and Reputation Versus Reality.

Plot Summary

The Story of the Stone, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China. Cáo Xuěqín wrote the work sometime in the 18th century, during the Qing dynasty—the last volume in the five-volume sequence was compiled and published many years later by Gao-E, who added additional chapters to complete the unfinished work. Many scholars consider the novel to be semi-autobiographical; Cáo Xuěqín was part of an eminent family that rose and fell during the Qing dynasty. The novel is significant in its portrayal of Chinese life during this period and for its linguistic innovations; Cáo Xuěqín wrote the novel in the Beijing Mandarin dialect rather than the traditional Classical Chinese. Later, linguists used the text to establish the vocabulary of Beijing Mandarin vernacular.

The book opens with a cosmic scene: A goddess creates a series of stones to construct the heavens and leaves one stone behind. Two monks who appear throughout the novel, Impervioso and Mysterioso, take this stone. The goddess inscribes the stone with stories and messages and then sends it down to Earth with Impervioso and Mysterioso by the fairy Disenchantment. For a few chapters, the stone’s whereabouts are unknown.

The narrative then continues with Zhen Shi-yin and Jia Yu-cun, two friends living near the Bottlegourd Temple. Shi-yin loans Yu-cun money to prove himself as worthy of becoming a magistrate at the capitol, and Yu-cun becomes a prominent figure among the ministry. On the contrary, Shi-yin’s daughter is kidnapped and sold into slavery, and his house burns down. He ends up becoming a Taoist monk and wanders the countryside with Impervioso. Yu-cun’s story eventually leads to a countryside tavern where the reader learns about a boy named Jia Bao-yu, from the prominent Rong family, who was born with a piece of inscribed jade in his mouth. This jade signifies him as a boy of high karmic energy, which makes him highly romantic. It is unclear whether the boy will use that energy for good or evil, but the potential lies within him.

From there, the narrator shifts to the life of Bao-yu and his family, living in the Rong mansion in the capitol. Lin Dai-yu, a student of Yu-cun, comes to live with the Rong family and makes a place for herself among the children living on the estate. Bao-yu struggles with his studying, which strains his relationship with his father, who is a scholar. Bao-yu is much more interested in spending time with the women in the house. His romantic nature leads him into the celestial world of the fairy Disenchantment, when he falls asleep in the bedroom of Qin-shi, the young wife of his nephew. He learns from the fairy that he must forget his lust and has his first sexual experience there. He also learns the secret fates of 12 beautiful young women living in the capitol, many of whom live with him in the Rong and Ning-guo estates, but he is too dense to understand the secrets that are revealed to him. Rather than leaving fairyland reformed, Bao-yu leaves with a desire for romance and sex that begins his trajectory into young adulthood.

Several other significant moments happen among the family members. An immoral distant cousin, Xue Pan, is accused of manslaughter over a lawsuit involving the kidnapped daughter of Shi-yin, now named Caltrop. Xue Pan, his mother Aunt Xue, his lovely sister Bao-chai, and the servant Caltrop come to live in a corner of the estate. Around the same time, Bao-yu befriends Qin Zhong, the younger brother of Qin-shi, and they become fast friends. When Qin-shi dies of a sudden illness, the family mourns, and Bao-yu and Qin Zhong become closer than ever. Qin-shi, just after her passing, prophesies a coming decline in the family, and encourages Wang Xi-feng, the wife of Jia Lian, to prepare for the inevitable.

Other characters are lost. Qin Zhong, who has suffered for most of his life from chronic illness, dies only weeks after the loss of his father. Bao-yu mourns his best friend for many weeks, even while the rest of the family celebrates because Bao-yu’s oldest sister Jia Yuan-chun has been selected as an Imperial Concubine. The family prepares for a visitation with the construction of an elaborate garden, which Bao-chai, Dai-yu, and Bao-yu, among other young women in the family, live in for years following Yuan-chun’s visit.

Near the end of the novel, the jealousy of Jia Zheng’s concubine Auntie Zhao and her son Jia Huan cause her to conduct some black magic against Bao-yu and Xi-feng. The monks Impervioso and Mysterioso return to realign Bao-yu’s precious jade so that it can protect Bao-yu from witchcraft. He and Xi-feng recover, and the family returns to a life of relative peace. Despite Bao-yu’s recovery, his life is only becoming more complicated as he grows up and becomes increasingly interested in women. The novel ends with the sadness of Dai-yu, the “ethereal beauty” that Bao-yu loves the most, weeping over what she anticipates is the loss of his friendship. It is clear that more is to come in the second volume of the book around the love triangle of Bao-yu, Dai-yu, and Bao-chai.

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Chapters 1-3