[Originally recorded on 2-25-2023]
Waiyee and Eileen had other commitments this week, but Ann led the #ReadingTheStone group in a rich discussion of Chapters 105-109, on the dual plot strands of Baoyu’s marriage and also of the Fall of the House of Jia, and whether, even for those with power and money and connections like the Jia family, there might be an limit-point to their ability to evade the justice system of their time.
Many fascinating and overlapping strands this week on the exorbitant price of sea otter pelts in the early 18 century (thank you Kate!), the family’s list of corruptions and Xifeng’s culpability, personal messiness and public prominence (Stephanie’s early work experience with Ted Kennedy informed her thoughts here!), whether Baoyu’s trajectory might make for an anti-bildungsroman (thank you Shelly), and why it seems impossible to contemplate harmonious polygamy as an outcome for Baoyu Baochai and Daiyu in this fictional world, despite its acceptance in the ‘real world’ and in other instances in this story (Steve and Ann and Elena all weigh in here).
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Kate : In the 1750s a single sea otter pelt was worth enough to provide the Russian who brought it back to Asia (they’d been wiped out in Russia) with a house & a living. And that was before the middlemen selling it to a Chinese family. The ones on the list would have been probably equally valuable as Cao’s childhood was the time they were going extinct.
Stephanie : At the end of the day, I don’t think this shouldn’t have happened to a great family, and it was mostly their own fault. The system isn’t that draconian.
Kate : Didn’t Jia Zheng have his own hereditary title and then get his brother’s as a second one? Or am I mis-remembering?
Elena: “How can the cleverest daughter-in-law in the world make congee without rice?”
Horrible quote about Baichai “grafting” Baoyu’s affection for Daiyu onto her.
Kate : I think this would read very differently if there weren’t an acceptance of polygamy. It seems okay that Baoyu likes Daiyu, Fivey, Aroma, and Baochai simultaneously because everyone else has multiple wives.
Richard : Jia Lan seems to be the future of the family.
Maybe the Jia Lan story is supposed to be a kind of contrast – Li Wan throughout is the most conventional figure – the virtuous widow. Jia Lan’s success is a reward for her good behavior.
Stephanie : This reminds me of the point someone made very early on, Baoyu is a stone and Daiyu is a blade of grass, so we can’t have any large worldly expectations of either. So, the family’s ultimate fate isn’t their responsibility?
Elena : I didn’t really think much about Jia Zhu’s death. Wonder if that played into Baoyu being “stuck” in adolescence? Would be interesting to reread as a story about family grief/loss — is that why no one is paying attention to details of daily life?
Kate : It seems a bit harsh to blame Baoyu for failing to save the family when the family has been failing for two generations previously. He’s behind his schedule of exams and position of course, but is he so far behind that he could have had a high status job at this point?
Richard : On Baoyu and suffering there was also the death of Qin Zhong
Stephanie : I was a political aide to Ted Kennedy when he had a tough reelection campaign…going back to US political history, it was his eldest brother Joe being groomed for a political career, not John, Robert, or Ted.
Shelly : To what extent is the novel not at all a bildungsroman, a coming-into-maturity story of Baoyu? Does he change at all? Develop? or is he static, until he walks out, to fulfill his inner destiny?
Stephanie : Baoyu feels mostly static to me, at least before the exam, stuck in a less mature phase of life.
Elena : Shelley is going to send me back off to read Herman Hesse again.
Richard : A Zen enlightenment-in-an-instant does fit our literary expectations.