UMSL Prof Explains Appeal of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


  • Chronicle Books
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any pop cultural event involving both Jane Austen and zombies is bound to have huge appeal. (It is another truth universally acknowledged that any article or blog post concerning Jane Austen must begin with the phrase "It is a truth universally acknowledged.")

But why should this be? I mean, besides the fact that Pride and Prejudice is one of the most beloved English novels of all time and that there's just something delightfully chilling about the idea of a reanimated corpse (and that the word "zombie" just sounds cool)?

Joseph Carroll, an English professor at UMSL, thinks he knows why.

Carroll is one of the founders of the Literary Darwinism movement, which tries to explain how stories illustrate common human evolutionary behavior. He's supported in this endeavor by actual evolutionary biologists.

In the case of Pride and Prejudice -- both the original and its zombified version, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a "collaboration" between Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith -- Carroll and Jonathan Gottschall, another Literary Darwinist, hypothesized that it continues to find favor among readers not because of the sparkling banter between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy or hopes that the scenes of Mr. Darcy bathing, so popular in the movie versions, would be recreated in the book. (By the way, they're not. Sorry to spoil it for any of you.)

Instead, the Literary Darwinists find that the books' longstanding appeal comes from the fact that its protagonists, Elizabeth and Darcy, display cooperative, pro-social behavior, overcoming their early antagonism to form a happy and lasting union, promote similar happy and lasting unions among their family and friends and, incidentally, protect the village of Meryton from the undead.

This theory, you will be unsurprised to learn, has been borne out by a survey which asked respondents to identify characters from 19th century British lit as protagonists, antagonists or minor characters. All the characters identified as protagonists promoted social cohesion.

All of which points to Carroll and the Literary Darwinists' overriding theory that storytelling was originally a social adaptation to promote positive social behavior.

William Flesch, a professor at Brandeis Univerisity, argues in LiveScience that the Literary Darwinists' theory is too simplistic and does not allow for the evolution of characters throughout their stories.

Flesch added that the pro-social tendency could have evolved through more basic adaptations, such as costly signaling through altruistic punishment -- or costly signaling through rewarding altruistic punishment.

That might explain why readers of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" can feel an ancient thrill upon reading of Elizabeth and Darcy bonding over their mutual warrior prowess, despite a tongue-in-cheek joke that ensues when Elizabeth gives back some ammunition with the query, "Your balls, Mr. Darcy?"

"They belong to you, Miss Bennett," Darcy replies.

Oh, swoon!

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