“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield. Can Elizabeth vanquish the spawn of Satan? And overcome the social prejudices of the class-conscious landed gentry? Complete with romance, heartbreak, swordfights, cannibalism, and thousands of rotting corpses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.
This is it. This is the worst book I read in 2017. I would make a strong case for this being one of the worst books I have read in my entire life. Now, anyone can tell you that I’m a critical reader, that there is a certain harshness in my reviews. However, what I am about to say is entirely justified.
This is probably one of the most poorly thought through, terribly written, ill-conceived, racist novels on the planet. Let me explain.
No where in the immediate description of this book is there any sort of warning for what I was about to get myself into. This was one of three books I threw into my bag while packing for an academic conference, and when a close friend of mine noticed it she suggested we watch the movie. She also mentioned that I would probably have some things to say about it, since it appropriates Chinese and Japanese culture. Of course I heard a record scratch in my head. After watching what I would later realize to be a practically benign film, with casual use of the Japanese and Chinese languages and some weird efforts at martial arts. After the movie was over I moved immediately into the novel with my friend’s warning of “the book is much worse” in mind.
She was right.
Seth Grahme-Smith takes Jane Austen’s piece that has been recognized for years as a piece of feminist humor and smashes it with 80’s Kung Fu movie cliches, a quick Wikipedia search of Japanese and Chinese culture, and misunderstandings. Now, I’m all for taking classic texts and engaging with them, challenging the stereotypes and ideas they represent. But anyone worth their salt in the literary world knows that Austen is the champion of irony, the world heavyweight for women’s humor, and that entering into any kind of match with her wit and literary work is like entering The Thunderdome with Hulk Hogan. During my reading of this book I took a look at various interviews with Grahme-Smith, none of which addressed what I wanted them to address. There were moments such as:
“”I’ve had a lot of them [Austen fans] tell me it’s a great way to bring people into the Austen tent.”Teachers and college professors have told Grahame-Smith that they use his book to ‘trick’ their students into reading Austen’s work.”
“I’ve been telling people it’s the ultimate date movie,” Grahame-Smith enthused. “Guys are going to go and they’ll love the bad-assery of it and watching these beautiful women kick zombie ass, and in addition to the girls watching their fellow women kick zombie ass, they’re also going to love the fact that it hews pretty closely to all the same romantic overtones of the original ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ We’re not actually taking anything away from ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ we’re simply taking that original story and adding zombie mayhem to it.”
Neither of these interviews managed to make me feel any less upset with this book. The fact that Grahame-Smith labeled Pride and Prejudice (the original) as something mostly women relate to is correct, because that was, as the majority of the literary community see it, Austen’s intention. It takes a society that wasn’t beneficial for women and satirizes it for the enjoyment of female readers. The immediate relegation to a romantic story that men won’t find interesting seems to me a way of devaluing Austen’s work as a writer and her acclaim within the cannon itself. But maybe this wasn’t his intention, maybe Leslie is overreacting. Maybe I am. But I raise you this:
“we’re simply taking that original story and adding zombie mayhem to it.”
But that’s not entirely true, is it, Seth?
First of all, these interviews fail to mention Grahame-Smith’s rampant Orientalism and homogenization of Chinese and Japanese cultures. In addition to the class struggle between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet there is an underling struggle of training. Those who are of the upper-class attend Kyoto, Japan to train in martial arts, while those of “lesser” value train with the Shaolin monks in Henan Province, China. This may have been a decision in order to agitate the struggle between characters, but in doing so it brings the weight of a complicated history between the two nations. Japan and China have been in constant flux throughout time, invasions and war and racial tensions always a part of any dealings. Grahame-Smith’s book takes this history and just, tosses out the window for novelty’s sake. Because who needs to address Westernization, hostilities, territory disputes, and centuries of warfare when you can have a cool layer to your class dispute?
Primarily, the novel focuses on “the warrior code” and the “honour” that must be protected therein. Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters trained under Shaolin monks, while the majority of other, upper-class characters trained in Japan. You wouldn’t know it though, as there is rampant disregard for the difference in fighting style, culture, and heritage items. Elizabeth is repeatedly referred to as using a katana, and her family has their own dojo. Both of these are Japanese items, which the Shaolin trained Bennets use. There is also blatant disregard for Chinese spirituality when it comes to Shaolin Kung Fu (I won’t speak on Japanese fighting, as I know next to nothing about it, and should anything I’m about to say about Shaolin spirituality be wrong someone please call me out.)
Shaolin monks associate their fighting with their daily lives. There is discipline of the self, control of the body and mind, and an adherence to Buddhism. There is no hint of this connection within the book, save for one comparison of Mr. Collins to Buddha in the form of this quote: “I shall not have my best warrior resigned to the service of a man who is fatter than Buddha and duller than the edge of a leaning sword.” (88) Buddha was never fat, and it is a gross Western imperialist notion to paint him as such. The man known as Gautama Buddha is described by texts such as The Brahmin Sonadanda as “handsome, good-looking, and pleasing to the eye, with a most beautiful complexion. He has a godlike form and countenance, he is by no means unattractive.” (D, I:115), he is also recorded as having a body strong enough to be recognized by a local king, which prompted him to ask Buddha to join his army (Buddha had military upbringing, and was a physically fit man). Later The Buddha starved himself, as he saw their was much hunger in the world. Grahame-Smith’s comparison is not only offensive, but completely uniformed and unintelligent. Also, by incorporating Shaolin fighting without the daily discipline and Buddhist principles, you are committing the sin of every American author and director before you; appropriating fighting styles. Martial arts makes little sense without it’s context, and it brought nothing to this text besides a poor attempt at making it into a D-grade Big Trouble in Little China wannabe in print form. Amazing.
Second of all, the cultures portrayed seemed to be more along the lines of Japanese culture, completely erasing Chinese identity within this novel. For time’s sake, here is a bulleted list of Japanese culture items scattered throughout the novel:
- Katanas used by everyone, including those trained in China
- Dojos, dojos everywhere, specifically the dojo that Lady Cathrine had “paid to have carried from Kyoto, brick by brick, on the back of peasants.” (129)
- The casual mention of abuse inflicted on the Bennet by their Master Liu, which is not canonical with any Shaolin denomination I could find, it also seems to simply serve as a way to exotify the Bennet’s time in China.
- The casual mention of Chinese/Japanese artifacts such as: “survivor of the thirty-six chambers of Shaolin, beholder of the scrolls of Gan Xian Tan.” (109), “the ancient secrets of the Orient” (145), They descended the hill, crossed between the stone dragons…drove to the solid jade door” (195)
- Ninjas. There are literally ninjas, which I actually have a lot to say about. For the sake of this list I’ll mention the fact that Ninjas were primarily used as spies, were considered lesser than the Samurai/warrior caste (mostly due to the fact that they used unconventional fighting styles that did not adhere to the Samuri’s Bushido code), and faded mostly into obscurity after the 17th century (1600s) following the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate. Pride and Prejudice was written in 1819. This means that in Pride Prejudice and Zombies it makes no historical sense for Lady Cathrine to have ninjas, especially when you consider that samurai were traditionally hired for protection and a ninja would have been used for espionage, assassination, or guerrilla warfare. This is no way fits with the books apparent ejaculation over warrior codes.
Third of all, this book uses terms such as “oriental trickery”, “cheap Chinese parlor tricks”, “Chinese peasants”, “Chinaman”, “Oriental wizardry”, “Orientals”, and so forth. While I will accept the argument that Oriental would have been the term used by British individuals when referring to East Asians in this time period, I think that when you consider the gravity of the other shortcomings of this book it rubs the proverbial salt into the gaping wound that is Orientalism. Also, martial arts is referred to as “the deadly arts” repeatedly, further exotifiying something that is not represented well at all in this novel. It is a show of weak writing and uncreativity that I had to read it so many times. Furthermore, there were two appearances that made me put my copy of the book down out of shock. The less shocking one was “Elizabeth saw that her waiting-geshia was in it.” (285). I mostly reacted to this because one, why would a Geshia be a lady-in-waiting? Two, a Geshia is an entertainer, and most likely would never leave Japan as far as I know. Three, white people have a nasty habit of using Geshias as a cute way of proving how much they know about and love Japanese culture. It’s almost like we have a weird obsession with Asian women and their apparent submissiveness. Wow. That’s probably why Mr. Bennet “had taken many a beautiful oriental to his bedchamber. master Liu had defended this as acquiescence to local custom, and Elizabeth had more than once felt the sting of wet bamboo on her back for daring to question her father’s propriety.” (189). Could this local custom possibly be the sex trade that white men helped spawn out of East Asia? Or is this just another moment to showcase Asian sexuality in an incorrect way so you can have the exotic punishment of “wet bamboo lashings” one more time since you don’t seem to understand Shaolin Buddhism or martial arts and discipline?
The second instance of me having to step away was when “The Housekeeper came; a respectable-looking English woman dressed in a kimono and shuffling about on bound feet.” (195) When it came to this my first thought was why would an English woman have bound feet? This makes no logical sense, as feet binding begins at a young age, and I do not see any reason for the English to want to take part in such a custom. Also, the fact that she is wearing a kimono is also erroneous, as the kimono is a traditional Japanese garment, while foot binding is a wholly Chinese practice. The entirety of this character’s appearance makes no sense and seems to simply exist to be offensive and uniformed.
Fourth, and finally of all I direct my readers back to the ninjas. There are two instances I want to point out, the first being when we are introduced to them. Lady Cathrine keeps a collection of guard ninjas, and enters into conversation with Elizabeth with “Have your ninjas left you?” (126) in response to the information that the Bennets trained in China. She is aghast at Elizabeth affirming that they never had any ninjas, wondering at how they were kept safe. This in itself is inaccurate as a Samurai would have been the one hired for protection. Ninjas existed for espionage. However, it becomes more complex at the physical manifestation of ninjas.
Lady Cathrine invites Elizabeth to spar with her ninjas, and their bodies immediately become disposable. Each of them are killed, some by “her Katana across his belly” (130) others by being beheaded, and another by “a vicious blow, penetrating his rib cage, and withdrew her hand-with the ninja’s still-beating heart in it.” (131) The kicker of this murder would be how “Elizabeth took a bite, letting the blood run down her chin…”Curious,” said Elizabeth, still chewing. “I have tasted many a heart, but I dare say, I find the Japanese ones a bit tinder.”” (132) This disregard for Japanese lives shows a lack of empathy for the culture and individuals who make up this nationality. But also, who can physically rip out a heart? I read this line two different ways, first was looking to the feminization of Asian men. A “tender heart” could be a double entendre, but it also invoked thoughts to Japanese war crimes during WW2, specifically cited sources of Japanese soldiers eating other humans while in the field due to lack of resources. Either of these references would be in poor taste, as Asian male sexuality is misunderstood, and Japan is more than just their war crimes.
The second instance is when Lady Cathrine and Elizabeth have their martial arts match (288). Again, Japanese/ninja lives are sacrificial, nonexistent, and unimportant. Elizabeth somehow manages to be better than everyone involved at martial arts, despite not dedicating her entire life to it, and once again shows no regard for Japanese lives. There is another, smaller part where Lady Cathrine has ninjas attack Pemberley Hall in reaction to Darcy and Elizabeth’s wedding, resulting in the disposal of more Japanese bodies, because that’s just what they are in this book. Bodies.
I’ve rattled on about this book for over 2,000 words. There is no consideration for East Asian voices in this novel, and honestly the story would have been much more interesting and benefited so much better if the entirety of what I discussed above was cut out. However, it exists, and it’s important to see exactly why this is an issue. In a world where Asian representation is limited to mostly East Asian and some Indian roles that are usually very stock it is crucial to begin recognizing these trends and challenging them. This book is an uniformed mess. It’s disgusting. It needs to be recognized as such.