Critical Essays Limitations of the Novel


As should be apparent by now, A Dream of Red Mansions is considered one of the greatest novels ever written, as well as the definitive classic Chinese novel. Nevertheless, it has its historical limitations.

It is true that Tsao Hsueh-chin loathes different kinds of decadence, and the crimes of the feudal aristocratic families had a profound effect on him, yet, in his descriptions and his exposure of their failings, he allows his aristocratic class to betray itself without, seemingly, being aware of the fact. On the one hand, he describes the scenes of a declining feudal Chia family and attacks their wrong-doings, but on the other hand, he expresses sorrow for the family's demise. His portrayal of the unfortunate people and the tragic events in the Chia family is full of sympathy, tinged with fatalism.

At the same time, he fails to comprehend or explain the significance of Chia Pao-yu's rebellious character. He simply looks upon Pao-yu as a "love idiot" or a "love seed," or as someone who is "too much in love." As a result, the delineation of some details is imbued with a kind of mysterious and sentimental atmosphere. Although the author clearly sympathizes with the rebels and unfortunate people and praises their just and right doings, he lacks definite ideals and is influenced by the concept of the "emptiness of everything." As a consequence, the theme of nihilism is reflected in the novel.

As to the love relationship between Chia Pao-yu and Lin Tai-yu, Tsao Hsueh-chi seems perhaps to put too much emphasis on romantic lovemaking, deliberately describing these scenes in a detailed and sentimental manner. Of course, these descriptions are consistent with the characters' behavior and had progressive significance at the time. However, the theme of "lovemaking above everything" might exert an unhealthy influence on readers — on young readers, in particular.