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Ideal and Actual in
The Story of the Stone

Dore J. Levy

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Title: Ideal and Actual in The Story of the Stone
Author: Dore J. Levy
Genre: Literary criticism
Written: 1999
Length: 181 pages
Availability: Ideal and Actual in The Story of the Stone - US
Ideal and Actual in The Story of the Stone - UK
Ideal and Actual in The Story of the Stone - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : a useful introduction to the classic work

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Chinese Qing Dynasty novel, The Story of the Stone (also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber), is among the greatest novels ever written (see our review). With near 2500 pages in its English translation (published in five volumes) it is a monumental work. While the main story -- of Bao-yu (the Stone incarnate) fulfilling his destiny, within the framework of a family saga -- is fairly straightforward and easily followed the sheer number of characters, the many complex themes interwoven in the story, and the setting that is foreign both in culture and time can appear daunting and make the novel something of a challenge for readers. Dore J. Levy's study serves as a useful introduction and guide to many of the novel's themes and subjects, as well as explaining stylistic and formal elements of the text.
       As Levy reminds us, in China "The Story of the Stone is a recognized scholarly field (called hongxue, or Dream of the Red Chamber studies), with its own history and specialist journals, like Dante or Shakespeare studies in the West." A vast amount of scholarly material on the novel exists, even in English. Levy's book "is intended as an introduction for first-time readers" (though she hopes aspects of it "suggest new ways for more advanced students and scholars to approach the text"). Written in an approachable manner it is certainly a useful starting point and companion volume to the actual novel.
       Levy addresses several major areas in the five chapters of her book. First and foremost (and carried throughout the rest) is the notion of "ideal and actual, real and not-real." Truth vs. fiction is one of the most significant threads through the novel, beginning with the Stone presenting the very text and continuing through the many dreams, poems, and other unreal aspects of the book. Similarly, the tension between the ideal -- the world as it should be -- and the actual -- specifically the fallible and often weak (morally, intellectually, and spiritually) Jia's -- is constantly shown.
       The family ideal is of particular significance, and the large Jia family offers sufficient examples of the many ways not to live up to those ideals. Bao-yu is, of course, the future of the family, and he does prove its saviour, ultimately living up to the ideal. Along the way, however, he also challenges many of the traditions, neither remaining in his proper place (preferring to be in the company of the girls for example), nor shouldering responsibilities as he should (whether regarding his studies (finally taken up seriously only at the last possible moment) or marrying (he has to be tricked into marriage and fails, initially, as a husband)). He and Dai-yu, not meant to be of this world, are a bridge between ideal and actual; significantly they do not remain in the world of the actual.
       In her chapter on "Preexisting Conditions" Levy usefully analyzes the medical aspects of the book. Given Dai-yu's terminal illness and various other instances of chills, blood-coughing, disease, and death it offers another useful perspective on the book, especially for an audience generally not familiar with Chinese medicine. Bao-yu is even diagnosed as suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder, a fairly convincing analysis that actually does provide some insight into aspects of his behaviour.
       In the last two section Levy pays particular attention to the poetry in the novel. Many of the characters write poetry, and Cao Xueqin uses it effectively as part of the larger tale. It serves as another layer of the multi-layered novel, and Levy explains its role and application well.
       Levy manages to bring across much of the novel in her brief, clearly written book. Though she concentrates only on a few larger themes she manages to cover a great deal of territory. The Story of the Stone can appear daunting, but Levy's broad introduction explains the most significant themes and currents running through the book and mentions many of the others. It is a useful overview and companion piece, and while The Story of the Stone can be enjoyed on its own Levy's insights can certainly help increase a reader's enjoyment and understanding. Her fascination with the novel (one that can be studied for a lifetime) certainly comes across.
       Recommended for those who want to delve deeper into The Story of the Stone

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Ideal and Actual in The Story of the Stone: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dore J. Levy is a Professor of Comparative Literature and East Asian Studies at Brown University.

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