As Cao Xueqin’s immense 18th-century novel The Story of the Stone begins to wind to its close, ill omens are gathering around the Jia family. The twelve Jinling beauties who began the novel living together in the marvelous Prospect Garden built for the Imperial Concubine have been dispersed by death, by marriage (mostly ill-fated), and by vowing their lives to celibacy in a convent. The eldest men, Jia She, Jia Zheng and Jia Lian, are guilty of mismanagement, extortion, and living far beyond their means; the family is deeper and deeper in debt with every passing week. Others of the high-spirited women of the Rong-guo and Ning-guo mansions have also been laid low: Xi-feng, mistress of the quip and superb manager, has been ill for months and unable to see to things; Grandmother Jia is weak and elderly. And Bao-yu has lost his otherworldy precious jade, and his mind seems to be slipping away as a result.
I mentioned in my review of the fourth volume that I felt the tone of the work had changed since the first three books. This is even more the case in this final volume. In the first three, the focus is on the women, and their purity, intelligence, and charm. The luxury that surrounds them is like a lovely dream, and Bao-yu is there to witness it all. In the last two volumes, there is much more emphasis on the actions of the men than on the women. The family is falling apart, and one disaster occurs after another.
In many American and European novels I’ve read, there is a sense that something that was once great has crumbled, fallen into dust, changed for the worse. Think of The Great Gatsby, or Brideshead Revisited, or The Remains of the Day. There’s a strong sense of attachment to the glorious past, a sense of nostalgia, and an ache for what can never come again. By contrast, in The Story of the Stone, there is a strong message that what is gone is gone in some ways for the better, and we should sever our ties with the world whenever possible. This disenchanted view of things was a bit startling to me, and it took some time to get used to. I think it’s a cultural difference, tied to Confucian philosophy — this notion that the past is something that weighs us down more than something to be glorified is not in my repertoire.
I loved, loved, loved this novel. Even the parts that were less appealing to me were still wonderful. I read my way through 3500 pages of a time and place I didn’t know (frankly I think I should throw myself a little party), and now I feel as familiar with the two mansions of the Jia family as I do with my own home. If you have some time to devote to it, I could not do better than recommend this to you. It’s worth every minute, every chapter, every moment spent with Bao-yu and his beautiful cousins in their dream of golden days.