Two major themes that are prevalent throughout the novel are the nature of "[[reality]]" and of the "[[truth]]."ref The name of the main family, Jia (賈, pronounced jiǎ), is a [[homophone]] with the [[Chinese character]] jiǎ 假, meaning false or fictitious; this is mirrored by another family that has the surname Zhen (甄, pronounced zhēn), a homophone for the word "real" (真). It is suggested that the novel's family is both a realistic reflection and a fictional or "dream" version of Cao's own family.
== Plot summary ==[[File:Sun Wen Red Chamber 5.jpg|thumb|left|A piece from a series of brush paintings by Qing Dynasty artist (1818–1904), depicting a scene from the novel.]]
The novel provides a detailed, episodic record of the two branches of the wealthy and aristocratic Jia (賈) clan—the Rongguo House (榮國府) and the Ningguo House (寧國府)—who reside in two large, adjacent family compounds in the capital. Their ancestors were made Dukes and given imperial titles, and as the novel begins the two houses are among the most illustrious families in the city. One of the clan’s offspring was made an Imperial Consort, and a lush landscaped garden was built to receive her visit. The novel describes the Jias’ wealth and influence in great [[Naturalism (literature)|naturalistic]] detail, and charts the Jias’ fall from the height of their prestige, following some thirty main characters and over four hundred minor ones. Eventually the Jia clan falls into disfavor with the [[Emperor of China|Emperor]], and their mansions are raided and confiscated.