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Literary Criticism Essay On Pride And Prejudice And Zombies

Richard Leahy currently teaches as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Chester, and has recently submitted his PhD Thesis entitled ‘The Evolution of Artificial Illumination in Nineteenth Century Literature: Light, Dark and the Spaces in Between.’ His research interests include uses of light in Nineteenth Century Literature, Victorian Consumerism, The Gothic, and Neo-Victorianism. Follow him on Twitter: @RichardLeahyLit

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Review: The Other and Austen’s Textual Unconscious

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016, Burr Steers) is the first major motion picture adaptation of the Quirk Books line of rejuvenated classics – others of which include Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina. Author, or re-author in this case, Seth Grahame-Smith, has suggested that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the novel of which the film is based on, was influenced by how suitable the focused world Austen created in the original novel was to a Zombie reimagining:

“You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there. It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence. From my perspective anyway”.[1]

Criticism of both the novel and its film adaptation has been mixed, with many reviewers focusing on the disparate elements of the novel of manners and the introduction of Zombies to such a setting. It is important to note at this stage that although Pride and Prejudice is not strictly a Victorian novel, published as it was in 1813, it is possible to witness Victorian ideals and early influences on the period and its ideologies. There is a fluidity to the text’s continuing influence from the period of Victoria’s reign to the present day – particularly in the cultural perception of its …And Zombies remake where critics often have difficulty in describing the film without discussing it in Victorian terms. Christy Lemire’s review of the film suggests: ‘The movie Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is predicated on a simple gimmick: It’s Pride and Prejudice… with Zombies. This is a vaguely amusing idea which somehow got stretched out to an entire book, which somehow became a bestseller, which inevitably means it had to be made into a film.’[2] What this article intends to do is to critically reevaluate the film, suggesting ways in which the subtext and nuances of Austen’s original text are reflected in the film, while also examining those disparate strands of tone and theme that do not work together cohesively.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies promises a much more insightful commentary on social othering than it achieves, any powerful allegory becoming more and more confused over the duration of the film. The Zombies, automatically ‘othered’ in their definition, are initially presented as a mass underclass, as they are tellingly given the ability to speak and coordinate in the film – resonant of nineteenth-century unionism. Austen often excised the true working class, as well as urban poverty and class difference, from her very microcosmic view of English gentility. Lionel Trilling, in his essay on Austen’s Emma, states: ‘Any serious history will make it sufficiently clear that the real England was not the England of her novels […] All too often is it confused with the real England, and the error of identification ought always to be remarked’.[3] Austen’s fictional England was one that often elided the social other in favour of a commentary of the manners and morality of the social ‘neighbourhood’. Class is obviously an important facet of Austen’s acerbic commentary, as it still is in …And Zombies, yet her social focus was on the relations of gentrified poverty, a great contrast to the urban poverty and industrial squalor that was invading the true England in this period. Christopher Kent writes:

“All this may seem rather a weight of history to place on a few slender passages from Jane Austen’s novels, but of course, the point is that the novels are not about the industrial revolution: only that being realistic representations from the time and place of the industrial revolution, they cannot avoid it, and it is in fact right where it should be. But what of the French Revolution?”[4]

It is this textual unconscious, the unsaid and unspeakable other, that the Zombies adhere to – at first anyway, as when the film’s narrative unravels towards the end, so does any potentially powerful metaphoric criticism.

The Zombies encapsulate the fear of change, the threat of imbalance to Austen’s idyllic England. They represent the ‘crumbling hegemony’ Terry Eagleton discusses in his analysis of Austen’s snapshot of English gentility: ‘[A] society already shaken to its roots by riots, spy scares, agrarian discontent, economic depression, working-class militancy, the threat of revolution abroad and invasion at home’.[5] These contemporary fears become superimposed over the gothic neo-Victorian reimagining of the novel’s circumstances in the opening narration of Mr Bennet (Charles Dance). In it he establishes the ruin and rule of the country, and explains how ‘From the colonies […] came a virulent and abominable plague’, further suggesting that ‘The French were to blame’ for bringing it to English shores.[6] Immediately, the Zombies are associated with the cultural and social ‘other’ that so threatened the genteel Austen bubble. This foreign threat leads to an even more segregation within Austen’s ‘neighbourhood’ of segmented gentry, as Mr Bennet informs the viewer of ‘The Grand Barrier’ erected around London, ultimately keeping not only the Zombie hordes away, but also the threat of urban industrialism at bay. Elizabeth at one point disparages London in the original Pride and Prejudice, stating ‘I cannot see that London has any great advantage over the country, for my part, except the shops and public spaces. The country is a vast deal pleasanter, is it not, Mr Bingley?’ By acknowledging the Zombie plague’s foreign origins, while also segregating the industrial and capital power of London, the film sets up the Zombies as an encapsulation of a variable ‘other’. Terry Eagleton provides a coincidentally accurate description of the oblique threat of change in Austen’s original novel which may just as easily apply to Grahame-Smith’s zombified adaptation:

“Nothing could be more ominous, then, than a governing class which is plagued by moral misrule. The custodians of English Culture have become infected by various forms of anarchy, from the disowning of parental authority to the giddy pursuit of fashion, from vulgar self-seeking to heartless economic calculation, from sexual flightiness to the worship of money”.[7]

The physical segmentation of gentrified life, and the excision of the other to peripheral spaces, creates a further gulf between Austen’s envisioned England and the reality of it; the misrule that England falls to under a Zombie epidemic reinforces the perceived threat of the lower classes and foreign revolution to the morality of Austen’s world and characters. This is further reinforced by Darcy adapting his disparaging comment on dancing to cover Zombies, originally reading: ‘Certainly, sir; and [dancing] has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance.’[8] Cultural and social otherness is here exemplified through Darcy’s inference of savagery, something that becomes yet more overt in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, as Darcy (Sam Riley) states ‘No, every savage can dance – why I imagine even Zombies could do it to some degree of success’ (14 mins).

The Zombies of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are unique in their abilities when compared to most other examples from film, television and literature. They are not the shambling, mumbling monsters of Dawn of the Dead, nor are they the hyper-fast twenty-first century beasts of 28 Days Later. Instead, these Zombies are able to speak, and as we find out later in the film, can apparently coordinate and organize themselves as a group. This is again reminiscent of the mass social movements of the unions and lower classes that threatened to destabilize centralized aristocratic power in the nineteenth century. Jackson J. Spielvogel suggests that this ‘mass society’ emerged from the ‘new urban and industrial environment […] with it came improvements for the lower classes, who benefited from the extension of voting rights’.[9] The similarity between the Zombies and the unacknowledged impoverished is emboldened by Matt Smith’s Mr Collins, as he says upon encountering a Zombie trap: ‘I must confess, I was unaware that Zombies possessed the required acuity to set such traps. Before we know it, they’ll be running for parliament’ (35 mins.). The Zombies, at least in the first half of the film, are continually established as ‘other’; they are a threat to the traditional upper classes in their number and organization. Aside from their communication skills, they align with Bill Hughes’ definition of the narrative function of the Undead as ‘very visibly what lies outside enlightenment, registering unease with foreigners, sexuality, modernity and women’.[10]

George Wickham (Jack Huston) and Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) in The Church of St. Lazarus

It appears as if we are initially meant to sympathise with these Zombies, although the film loses this compassionate strand towards its resolution. The first Zombie we see talking, who is shot in the head by Darcy while trying to tell Elizabeth something, is later deemed by her to be ‘quite civilised’ (19 mins.). Soon after, as Jane journeys to Netherfield, she encounters a Zombie mother and child, to which she exclaims ‘Merciful God, this cannot be’ (22 mins). The sympathy for the zombies, or the disdain against them, replaces Darcy’s perceived prejudice against those lower than him; indeed, when checking Jane’s wound (caused by her gun backfiring), Elizabeth protests that Darcy’s defect ‘is to be unjustly prejudiced against them.’ (29 mins.). The sympathy we are expected to feel for the Zombies is felt strongly in scenes set in The Church of St. Lazarus, where Wickham tries to convince Elizabeth of the Zombies’ ‘human identity’ (57 mins.). This further relates to Bill Hughes’s writing on the sympathetic aspects of the Undead, as he suggests sympathy ‘may be elicited through the depiction of pitiable, but non-human and barely sentient creatures, or simply through respect for the human beings they once were and for their families. More rarely though, the Zombie is granted autonomy and a voice’.[11] In this scene, sympathy is evoked through the pitiable and excised state of this Zombie communion, Wickham’s pleading with Elizabeth to see them as human, and the Zombies’ voice. The Zombie speaking at the altar intones the biblical proverb ‘The Locusts have no King, yet all of them go forth by bands’ (51 mins.), which further separates them from any kind of hierarchy, and suggests nineteenth century mass anti-establishmentarianism masses, particularly the French Revolution and its regicide. Indeed, after this event, Wickham attempts to persuade Elizabeth to join his cause and help the Zombies by telling her ‘That’s the problem, Aristos feel invincible in their great houses but how wrong they are. Their hubris will be their downfall’ (60 mins.).

The fact that the Zombies are given this autonomy and ability to communicate is at the same time the film’s cleverest and most allegorically ripe idea, while also being the biggest reason it fails to cohesively combine the Austen narrative with its more uncanny aspects. The film forsakes the groundwork put into establishing the Zombies as a pitiable other and a destabilizing influence on aristocratic power, and instead reverts back to traditional Zombie aspects at the climax of the film. Wickham’s revelation that he has always been a Zombie, around an hour and a half in, especially the awkwardly intoned line ‘You fool! I’ve been one of them all along!’ (1 hour, 27 mins) disrupts the value of the Zombies’ representation so far, destroying the subtle critique of the bias against zombies as other, and setting them up as traditional uncanny villains. It is worth noting that in the novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Wickham does not play such an important and action filled role in the denouement, and is instead married earlier to Lydia, soon after suffering an accident and becoming an incontinent quadriplegic. Similarly, in the novel, Mr Collins commits suicide after marrying the secretly zombified Charlotte Lucas, whereas in the film he officiates the join marriage between Darcy and Elizabeth, and Bingley and Jane. This extremely ‘Hollywood’ ending shatters liminal perceptions of humans and zombies as both being morally grey, and instead sets up a clear dichotomy between good and bad, and human and zombie. Andrew Horton suggests that the arbitrariness of happy endings in comic films ‘transforms strife into love’ and imagines that strife was in fact love all along.[12]Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can never truly reconcile its tone after Wickham’s reveal, and suffers from an inconsistency of focus and ideology. The Zombies, who were at first cleverly constructed as a threat to order, reminiscent of those that were so obliquely influential on Austen’s microcosmic image of England, become the starkly evil, mindless killers expected of a filmic tale of good against evil. In fact, the film follows this archetype so vehemently in its latter half that it even includes a comic-book style post-credits sequence of Wickham, one-armed astride a horse leading the Zombies to battle.

_______________

[1] Seth Grahame-Smith quoted in Liz Goodwin, ‘Monsters vs. Jane Austen’ from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/03/31/monsters-vs-jane-austen.html (31/3/2009) [accessed on 23/3/2016]

[2] Christy Lemire, Review of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/pride-and-prejudice-and-zombies-2016 (5/2/2016) [accessed on 23/3/2016]

[3] Lionel Trilling, ‘Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen’ in Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning (New York: Viking, 1965) p. 32.

[4] Christopher Kent, ‘The Big Bow-Wow of Social Change’ in Issues of Class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, ed. Claudia Durst Johnson (Detroit: Greenham Press, 2009) p. 83.

[5] Terry Eagleton, ‘Changes in Class Structure and Values’ in Issues of Class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, p. 93.

[6]Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, dir. Burr Steers (Lionsgate, 2016) 6 mins. All further references to this source will be made in the body of text.

[7] Terry Eagleton, ‘Changes in Class Structure and Values’ in Issues of Class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, p. 94.

[8] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (London: Penguin, 1994) p. 22.

[9] Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization, 8th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 2012) p. 484.

[10] Bill Hughes, ‘Legally Recognised Undead: Essence, Difference and Assimilation in Daniel Waters’s Generation Dead’ in Open Graves, Open Minds, eds. Sam George and Bill Hughes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013) p. 246.

[11] Bill Hughes, ‘Legally Recognised Undead: Essence, Difference and Assimilation in Daniel Waters’s Generation Dead’, p. 248.

[12] Andrew Horton, Comedy/Cinema/Theory (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991) p. 137.

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I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and it made me chuckle, but purists will vomit from the moment they read the opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains will be in want of more brains.” If ever a classic was treated with tongue in cheek irreverence, author Seth Grahame-Smith managed to do it. Oh, I imagine that the coldly calculated jingle of cash was also a great motivator. After all, Seth allowed Jane Austen to do the bulk of the writing (85% of the text is hers) and she had already plotted the basic outline of the book. To give him his due, he’s given her half the credit, although he and his publisher will be raking in all the profits of this high concept book.

So what’s all the fuss about and why are film studios fighting over film rights to this story? Well, long ago in the island of Britain a zombie plague threatened its inhabitants. Thankfully, zombies are slow moving, dead, and stupid, else they would have overwhelmed the English population, decimating the land. The longer zombies have been dead, the less recognizable as humans they become, having lost eyes and limbs and patches of skin, and wearing clothes that are rotten and in tatters. Some zombies are so gross in both looks and eating habits that they cause the observer to vomit, The merest scratch from a zombie will turn a human into one, as poor Charlotte Collins discovers. A comic character rather than a tragic one, her tongue and mouth degenerate early on, causing Charlotte to lisp and talk like, well, a zombie. The thing is, nobody but Elizabeth notices. Hah! In the land of the dead and stupid, even the living are stupid. This plague has been threatening England for at least a generation, but people are still dumb enough to sit near windows at Assembly Balls where zombies can get at them and scoop out their brains, or open doors and windows in steamy kitchens, as the cooks did at Netherfield Park, so that those who were making dinner BECAME dinner.

The Bennet family lives in an age when they must be ever vigilant if the girls are to survive until marriage and beyond. Mr. Bennet ships his girls off to China to learn the fine art of fighting zombies with sword and knife. Elizabeth Bennet becomes an especially talented fighter, and is renowned for the ease with which she can fend off an entire horde of zombies, slicing and dicing with the best of them. She had to do just that when she walked three miles to Netherfield Park to check on her ill sister, Jane. A skeptical Lady Catherine de Bourgh tests her mettle by siccing her Ninja Warriors on her at Rosings, but Elizabeth dispatches them so quickly that she nary raises a sweat. Mr. Darcy is a fine zombie slayer as well, but the Bingley sisters can’t even carry a sword or knife. You get the drift. In Seth’s book, if you’re a poor zombie slayer you are either the villain or your brain is toast. The entire book is a satire, from the inclusion of the gross but well-drawn illustrations to the suggested book club questions at the end, which are quite clever. You must read this novel with an open mind and maintain a sense of humor or, like the denizens of Meryton when they see a zombie feast on one of their friends, you will upchuck your lunch.

The Bennet Sisters in a perfect pentacle fight formation

Seth makes one huge miscalculation in his otherwise spot on satire. Not knowing the workings of the female brain, he makes a mess of Wickham, a bad boy who is secretly admired by over half of Jane’s female fans. While they admit he is a scoundrel, they would not mind having a go at taming this deliciously fun male character. But Seth turns Wickham into a diapered mess of a man, who must be constantly tended after wetting his bed. Not well done, Seth. That’s like forcing Willoughby to drive a donkey cart when you know full well he is a phaeton man. This plot development tells me that Seth wrote the book more for teenage boys and girls, not women.

I predict that Seth Grahame-Smith will become rich and famous from this endeavor. Drat the man for thinking of this high concept first, but there are still five Jane Austen books left to cannibalize and I thought I’d pitch a few ideas of my own. Like Seth’s, my books will be co-written with Jane. I readily admit a desire for earning cold hard cash and that I am willing to prostitute my high ideals in order to obtain the wealth that I think I so richly deserve. Are you reading this blog Quirk Books and Random House? Please tell Dream Works and Universal to hop on over too. My plots are available to the highest bidder, starting at a cool mil and upward. Let the auction begin:

Rosemary’s and Henry Tilney’s Baby – Inspiration: Northanger Abbey and Rosemary’s Baby

The book opens with Catherine Morland feeling she is the luckiest woman alive in England. She has married her Mr. Tilney, who turns out to be as witty in bed as out of it. Better yet, General Tilney died of apoplexy upon hearing that his son was to wed her, and Captain Tilney died in a duel over cheating at cards, making Catherine the mistress of Northanger Abbey. She has spent her days and nights dismantling General Tilney’s improvements, including the Rumford fireplace,  and returning Northanger Abey to its Gothic, spider-webbed origins. One day, Catherine follows the sound of mewling down a long, dark, and dank corridor. Opening a creaking door, she enters a redecorated space that is light and airy and (quelle horreur) modern. Catherine approaches a cradle and peeks inside. She gasps when she sees the baby – a miniature Henry, only with yellow slanted eyes, two horn buds sprouting from its forehead, and cloven feet. Catherine doesn’t know which emotion affects her more: the one of betrayal or disappointment that the nursery has been remodeled in the modern neoclassical style.

Willoughby’s Tell-Tale Heart – Inspiration: Sense and Sensibility and The Tell-Tale Heart

After Willoughby’s rejection, Marianne Dashwood falls ill. When she awakens from her fever, she overhears Willoughby reveal to Elinor that he loves Marianne but that he has no choice but to marry for money. The knowledge pushes the poor girl over the edge. While everyone is asleep, a still weakened Marianne sneaks out of the house, rides to Comb Magnum, creeps into Willoughby’s bedroom and stabs him in the heart as he lies snoring. She cuts out his still beating heart, wanting something of Willoughby to remember him by. Marianne tries to live a normal life and agrees to marry Colonel Brandon. But not once can she take her mind off Willoughby (whose murder goes unsolved), or his heart, which has now shriveled and dessicated to 1/10th its size. Regardless, she still can hear it beating 24/7. Desperate to get away from the sound, Marianne encases the organ in a cement box and buries it under the floorboards in the basement, but the constant thump thump thump of Willoughby’s beating heart drives her wild. Colonel Brandon, not knowing what is wrong with his crazed bride, tries to tempt her with sweetmeats and poetry and lovemaking. One day, a wild-eyed Marianne hands the colonel a small cement box.”There”, she cries out. “There is Willoughby’s beating heart!” Upon opening the box, the colonel sees only a shriveled up prune and has his wife committed.

Dr. Jekyll and Fanny Price – Inspiration: Mansfield Park and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Angered that Fanny has attracted the attentions of rich Henry Crawford, Mrs. Norris arranges for Dr. Jekyll to create a potion that will turn the sweet girl into a vicious and nasty harridan. Unbeknownst to Dr. Jekyll as he was making the potion, drops of Mrs. Norris’s sweat plopped into the boiling cauldron as she watched him stir it, infusing her evil personality into the liquid. After Fanny drinks some tea (which to her mind was foul and bitter, but which she politely sipped anyway), she feels Mrs. Norris’s anger and spite invade her bloodstream. While she remains sweet and tractable during the day, she turns loathsome at night, waking the servants at all hours to do her bidding, clean every nook and cranny in the house, and muck out the stalls. One by one the staff drop dead from exhaustion or quit, unable to perform double duty without a moment’s rest. While Edmund is turned off by the new Fanny, Henry is enthralled with her transformation, for he had harbored some doubts that she’d be capable of overseeing the staff of his houses. Servants come a dime a dozen, but a capable wife comes only once in a lifetime.

Persuading Moby – Inspiration: Persuasion and Moby Dick

Captain Wentworth and his new bride Anne are sailing the high seas on his fine boat as they ply the waters defending England’s shores from pirates, boot-leggers, and invasions. Anne revels in her life on board ship, loving the rocking motion of both the boat and marital bed. Then one day Captain Wentworth spies a white whale and Anne’s life changes. Her husband becomes obsessed, wanting to hunt the whale down and kill it, for, as he tells his bride, albinos lead a tough life out in the wild. They can’t camouflage their color and hide from danger. “We might as well put the poor creature out of its misery,” he gallantly says. But the whale, whom Anne had secretly named Moby, was not easily persuaded to swim within catching distance. The captain, consumed by his obsession, begins to neglect Anne. After a few weeks of putting up with the Captain’s distraction and lack of amorous advances, Anne decides to take matters into her own hands. She commandeers a rowboat and heads towards the whale, who, not scared of a puny boat with a mere woman in it, stays around long enough to listen. This provides Anne with ample time to persuade Moby to leave under cover of night and go blow his blowhole elsewhere.

Bride of FrankChurchillStein – Inspiration: Emma and Bride of Frankenstein

Jane Fairfax is no longer beautiful, having fallen asleep in her tester bed waiting for Frank to return from a night of gambling, carousing, and drinking. The spark from a sputtering candle ignited the bedsheets, burning the house down and rendering poor Jane lifeless and burnt crisp to the bone. Frank, distraught and feeling guilty for neglecting his long-suffering bride, directs a dissipated priest to unearth Jane from her grave and return her to him by enacting an undead ritual he found in an ancient Egyptian manuscript. Jane does indeed come back to life, but she is not quite herself, looking more like a roasted quail than a human. Angered that Frank yanked her out of Heaven to resume her life of living hell with him, she extracts her revenge with cool and deliberate calculation, murdering all of Frank’s cronies and mistresses. Frank, desperate to undo the spell, discovers to his horror that Jane has killed the priest. Frank sinks into despair knowing his cushy days of debauchery are over for as long as his reconstituted Jane roams the earth.

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Posted in Book review, jane austen, Jane Austen Novels, Jane Austen's World, Popular culture, Regency Period, Regency World | Tagged flesh eating zombies, Jane Austen and Zombies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith | 40 Comments