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This chapter begins with an example from Jane Austen’s Emma. Austen has become a cultural commodity—that is, she is continually updated and revised to make her relevant to our society. On the one hand, there are the serious scholars of Austen, who analyze her work as central to the key canon of literature. On the other hand, there exists the Janeites, who are the ultimate fans of the novelist, groupies so to speak.
This tension leads to interesting updates. The 1995 movie Clueless, for example, is an updating of Emma, centering the courtship dynamics in a high school. Lost in Austen, a 2008 television series, is a kind of time-swapping story where a young Londoner of the twenty-first century changes roles with Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice (1813).Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813; Project Gutenberg, 2008), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1342/1342-h/1342-h.htm. Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club (2004) concerns a book club that meets to discuss Austen; it was made into a popular movie in 2007.Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club (New York: Penguin, 2004).
The most audacious reappropriating of Austen may be Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009).Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Philadelphia: Quirk, 2009). Hannah was interested in the popularity of such an update and explores possible reasons for this popularity in the following paper, which develops its argument by engaging in reader-response criticism.
Literature and Writing
May 22, 20–
The Death of Intellectualism in Grahame-Smith and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains” (Austen and Grahame-Smith 7). So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the surprise New York Times Best Seller mashup by Seth Grahame-Smith, in which the characters of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are faced with an imminent zombie apocalypse. When Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was first released in 2009, it marked the beginning of a slew of literary mashups. However, despite Quirk Classic’s best efforts, none of its subsequent works matched the popularity of the Austen mashup, which has since been made into a graphic novel and an iPhone game. Interestingly, when Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is re-imagined, even its re-imagined counterpart meets with more success than other literary mashups. The sheer replicability of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies suggests that its appeal extends far beyond a frivolous spoof and touches some cultural nerve. At its heart, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies attempts to grapple with contemporary fears of the death of intellectualism.
In recent years, critics have thought of a number of theories to explain the newfound interest in zombies which dominates popular culture, and our society’s interest in zombies has been attributed to everything from “the global financial crisis” (Hall 1) to “a fascination, paranoia and socio-politico-cultural movement of war” (Sulter-Cohen 183). In her article “The Living Dead? Construction of People with Alzheimer’s as Zombies,” Susan M. Behuniak draws attention to the damaging cultural trend of comparing zombies with individuals who have Alzheimer’s, triggering “emotional responses of disgust and utter terror” towards patients (72). Though Behuniak specifically states in her article that she wishes to dissect rather than encourage the connection between zombies and persons with Alzheimer’s (71–72), I think the cultural tendency to link them hints that zombies, to at least some extent, tap into our culture’s fears about intellectual loss.
Our society is obsessed with the possible failures of its own education system, and struggles with not only education legislation but also misgivings about the educational appropriacy of newer forms of technology such as texting, video gaming, and prolonged Internet exposure. The Bush administration’s controversial education reform act, No Child Left Behind, has given way to a slew of texts such as Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, and Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act Is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools, edited by Deborah Meier and George Wood, which herald the approaching end of creative intellect and the failure of the education system in the United States. Conservative educational critics, such as John Stossel in his special “Stupid in America,” blame perceived educational shortcomings of the United States on bureaucracy of the public school system and teacher unions. Conservatives and liberals alike have agreed that the United States’ education system is inadequate, and our culture is regularly confronted with critics warning of the imminent failure of education.
The success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, then, comes from Grahame-Smith’s ability to recognize and respond to current cultural fears. Our society no longer fears sea monsters, and even traditionally villainous creatures such as vampires and werewolves have become fairly innocuous (or, at least, brooding and misunderstood), because our society has come to either embrace or deny the fears which created these creatures. If one views zombies as the embodiments of the death of intellect, then zombies remain potent because of their immediate cultural relevance.
As Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice has defined our culture’s understanding of Regency-era literature and become virtually synonymous with cultured romance. However, the popularity of Pride and Prejudice comes at the cost of sacrificing the nonromantic elements of her work, such as her focus on social status and satiric commentary on decorum. In her essay “Austen Therapy: Pride and Prejudice and Popular Culture,” Marilyn Francus argues that modern adaptions of Pride and Prejudice—particularly chick lit such as Shannon Hale’s Austenland and Alexandra Potter’s Me and Mr. Darcy—“perpetuate Pride and Prejudice as a pure romance narrative” and “reinforce Pride and Prejudice’s power as a real, realizable narrative, rather than as a fictional one.” Audiences recognize characters such as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet but also reduce these characters to their broadest, most cliched sense, as models for romantic literature. Cultural re-imaginations of Pride and Prejudice have established the prominence and recognizability of the text, but also remove Pride and Prejudice from its larger social context, thereby creating an atmosphere for Pride and Prejudice which encourages readers to distance the text from its nonromantic elements. Pride and Prejudice is recognizable enough that readers understand how the characters ought to act and popular enough that some audiences will accept adaptions and updating as continuations rather than affronts, making it ideal fodder for parody.
The humor of this parody allows the Grahame-Smith to justify the “ultra-violent zombie mayhem” the book’s tagline promises. The violence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies reflects the fear of ostracization and irrationality which may accompany the end of intellectualism. The intellectual void of the zombies in the novel is so potent that the only way the otherwise-rational main characters are able to defend themselves is through brute force. The violence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies affects all of the characters, and becomes the only acceptable way to handle zombie attacks. In this sense, all the characters in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are affected by the zombie-creating plague, even if they are not directly afflicted. Because the “unmentionables” draw strength from their numbers, the sympathy of others, and the ease by which the infection is spread, the main characters must be merciless. Zombies, like the intellectual void they represent, are incapable of listening to reason. Furthermore, zombieism is transmitted through biting, which zombies do fairly frequently, and upon death, so virtually anyone can contract “the strange plague” (30). Any character can become a zombie at any time, and only violence can stop zombies.
The violence created by the presence of zombies affects nearly all of the characters in the text. Mr. Bennet, who was reading a newspaper at the beginning of the original text, is now polishing his musket when Mrs. Bennet tells him of their new neighbor (7). Lady Catherine de Bourgh becomes a famous zombie slayer, and her house comes equipped with a dojo and ninjas (129). The five Bennet sisters—Jane included—flip-flop between their original personalities and their hardened, warrior personas. Even Mr. Bingley’s values change, as he notices that he has “never seen ladies so steady-handed in combat” (32). Because the threat of zombie is always-present, the characters change the way they relate in order to accommodate their chaotic lifestyle.
Even when there are no zombies present, the characters’ methods of relating to each other change. Elizabeth signals her rejection of Mr. Darcy’s first proposal by physically attacking him (151), and at the end of the novel Lady Catherine challenges Elizabeth to a death match (289). When Mr. Darcy goes to London in search of Wickham after Lydia’s elopement, he beats Mrs. Younge into submission (259) and, after he finds Wickham, Darcy “render[s] him [Wickham] lame, as punishment for a lifetime of vice and betrayal” (260). Though presented comedically, the extreme amounts of violence in the characters need to use in order to vanquish their undead foes spills into other aspects of their lives, and the social discourse which marked all of the previously mentioned circumstances in the original Pride and Prejudice become characterized by violence. The characters lose their abilities to talk through their problems and express their anger pacifistically, and, in the face of the constant danger of losing their logic, actually forfeit their ability to coexist peaceably.
Of all the characters in the text, Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet undergo perhaps the least noticeable changes in character, perhaps because they already address the concerns raised by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As a character who lacks intellectualism himself, Mr. Collins reminds readers of how the perception of intellect has changed since Austen’s time. Both Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins lack the violent urgency of the other characters in the text, and seem blithely unaware of the looming zombie apocalypse—indeed, Mr. Collins fails to notice when his own wife, who had been “stricken” just before their engagement (99), gradually devolves into a slobbering brain eater (120). Mrs. Bennet is far too concerned with the future marital happiness of her daughters to register the dangers of attending social events, when zombies are most inclined to launch their ill-conceived assaults. Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins represent a different kind of intellectual death—pettiness and self-obsessed conceit. However, the pomp of these characters, while recognizable to modern audiences, is not as totalizing as the anti-intellectualism of the zombies. Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins are still foolish, but even they possess some grain of sense. The “unmentionables” which populate the novel do not.
Just as significant as the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the relative failure of subsequent texts. While Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters made the New York Times Bestseller list after its release, it lacked the enthusiastic reception and cult classic-style popularity of its predecessor because, unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters did not tap into a cultural moment. Our society has no reason to fear or relate to sea monsters. The mashup genre depends on cultural context for its success.
Through its use of dark comedy, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies both temporarily assuages its audience’s fears of the decline of intellectualism and subtly reminds readers that a society’s ability to cohere is directly related to its intellectual capacities. By taking characters who have become cultural staples because of their simplifications, Grahame-Smith creates a text which is at once highly recognizable and available for satire. The success of this novel directly hinges on its ability to recognize and reproduce cultural fears, allowing readers to achieve a catharsis.
Austen, Jane, and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009. Print.
Austen, Jane and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: A Graphic Novel. Adapted by Tony Lee. Illustrated by Cliff Richards. New York: Ballantine, 2010. Print.
Behuniak, Susan M. “The Living Dead? Construction of People with Alzheimer’s as Zombies.” Ageing and Society 31 (2011): 70–92. Cambridge Journals Online. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.
Francus, Marilyn. “Austen Therapy: Pride and Prejudice and Popular Culture.” Persuasions Online 30.2 (2010): n. pag. Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). Web. 3. Dec. 2011.
Freeverse, Inc. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Apple App. 3 June 2011.
Hall, Derek. “Varieties of Zombieism: Approaching Comparative Political Economy through 28 Days Later and Wild Zero.” International Studies Perspective (2011): 1–17. Wiley Online Library. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.
Kozol, Jonathan. The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. New York: Three Rivers P, 2005. Print.
Meier, Deborah, and George Wood, eds. Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act Is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools. Boston: Beacon, 2004.
Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Print.
Sulter-Cohen, Sarah. “Good as It Gets: Zombie Sociology and the Politics of Survival.” Zombies Are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead. Ed. Christopher M. Moreman and Cory James Rushton. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2011. Google Book Search. 183–94. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.
Stossel, John. “Stupid in America.” Stossel. FOX. 27 September 2011. Television Special.