“Britannia was rich with the fruits of worldwide trade. From the colonies came . . . a virulent and abominable plague.”
—Burr Steers, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
It is a truth universally acknowledged that art has the potential to disturb contemporary pride and historical prejudice. Realizing this truth, however, requires us to locate the literary worlds so artfully created by Jane Austen in relation to the economic realities and colonizing impact of the British Empire around the turn of the nineteenth century.
Consider the scene at Pemberley in which Elizabeth sits with Miss Darcy, Mrs. Hurst, and Miss Bingley in a drawing room. While this scene from Pride and Prejudice can be considered in relation to plot development and character portrayal, it also calls for an economic analysis, attentive to the realites of colonization. Servants offer the women a range of “the finest fruits in season,” “beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches” (268). While likely to be hot house grown (Lane 146–47), peaches and nectarines originally arrived in England by way of Spanish exploration in the Americas. The fruits at Pemberley, when placed alongside the description of the Bingley family’s fortune as “acquired by trade” (15), invite the reader to consider the relationship with imperialism, including the interplay of exploration, trade, and military power in the expansion of the British empire. Further, the military camp at Meryton is a reminder of the symbiosis between British economic and military interests. How might the modern reader, aware of the ways in which the British Empire implemented an economic model predicated on slave labor, stolen land, military might, and an unfair trade system, read the romantic drama of Elizabeth and Darcy while remaining sensitive to issues of justice and inequality?
The British empire was powered not only by economic and military might but also by Britons’ understanding of Christianity, including the claiming and exploitation of overseas territories. Desmond Tutu famously declared, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land” (West 326). Tutu’s challenge invites us to consider the religious practices of Austen’s England. How might the sacramental practices of communion and the prayers and sermons heard by Elizabeth and Darcy make them complicit in the economic injustices that accompanied colonial expansion?
These questions—essential to post-colonial enquiry—are addressed in this paper through an analysis of a recent disturbance in Austen’s literary world in the form of a popular twenty-first-century cultural trope: zombies. In 2009, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was published. Considered by some to be parody (Halford) designed to exploit the burgeoning Austen market (Dargis), the book was followed in 2016 by a movie of the same name, directed by Burr Steers. Rather than dismissing zombies as an example of popular culture hubris, the argument presented here suggests the zombies in Steers’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies provide viewers with an ethical trope, post-colonial in both sense and sensibility. Analysis of the zombie trope as socio-cultural phenomenon is followed by an examination of Steers’s film—a hermeneutic “zombie-gesis,” if you will—with particular attention to a scene in which zombies partake of holy communion at the Church of St. Lazarus. This scene brings into focus the portrayal of Lazarus in the Christian Gospels, particularly Jesus’s parable in Luke 16:19–31 and what it means to consume the body of Christ. It also arguably exposes the entanglement of Anglican religion and the English colonial project in Austen’s world, pointing to the culturally constructed conjunction of Biblical texts, Western Christianity, and the social world of Regency England. The zombies make visible the economic and social inequalities in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and point to ways that Christian understanding and religious piety might support the status quo.
The meaning of zombies in academic discourse
Zombies are a rapidly multiplying trope in literature and popular culture. Zombies star in numerous science-fiction novels, including Richard Matheson’s influential I Am Legend (a book in 1954 and a film in 2007) and George A. Romero’s horror films Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985). They are central to video games like Resident Evil, which, released in 1996, has sold more than 25 million units (Stratton, 266 citing CAPCOM, 2004) and has spawned a series of films from Resident Evil (2002) to The Final Chapter (2016). On television, The Walking Dead has for four consecutive years been the most popular show in the world among adults aged eighteen to forty-nine (Garrett 6, drawing on data from 2016). Thus the question arises: what socio-cultural needs are being catered to, given the increasing popularity of the zombie figure in a range of literary and popular cultural genres?1
In response, scholars argue that zombies function as a mirror to society, offering a commentary on our activities, needs, and fears in the twenty-first century. For Todd Platts, zombies are cultural objects that invite reflection on the dark side of human existence. Similarly, Tina Pippin argues that “zombies emerge out of Empire, from imperial injustices, economic inequities, environmental destruction (nuclear, viral), and despair about the future” (40.2). For Peter Dendle, the recent resurgence in zombie movies speaks to a society “preoccupied with alienation,” particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 (47–48, cited in Stratton 269). For Greg Garrett, zombies provide case studies into the moral choices humans make when they find their world is plunged into crisis.
Scholars like Pippin, Jon Stratton, and Joan Dayan argue that zombies disclose a post-colonial sensibility, unmasking the power of Empire. For Pippin, these armies of the living dead are a representation of capitalism, a multiplying system that consumes life (40.6, 40.7). For Stratton, zombies are displaced peoples, unmasking past and present colonization and colonialism as experienced in non-Western states (265). For Dayan, likewise, zombies narrate the story of colonization, the reduction of human beings to objects serving the ends of capital (33). Despite their similar analyses, each of these scholars has a different approach to eschatology. Pippin looks forward, seeing in zombies a future hope that colonial empires will be destroyed. Stratton and Dayan look to both the present and the past, seeing in zombies a state of living death that is reflected in the way that the migration process removes human rights and multiplies human indignities. These different approaches to eschatology offer a typology through which the portrayal of religion in the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can be examined, in terms of both sacramental theologies and its use of Lazarus narratives drawn from the Christian gospels.
Applying zombie theory to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
The zombie motif in Western culture originates in Haitian Vodou—the word “zombie” can be traced etymologically to an African tribal word for “soul,” nzambi. Discussing a significant Vodou ceremony held in 1791, Thylefors Markel argues for the centrality of Vodou in the liberation of Haiti from colonial rule in 1804. The timing is significant, given that Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. The novel provides an imaginative literary connection, inviting us to consider zombie “souls” seeking liberation from colonial rule not only in Haiti but also in the context of an expanding Great Britain as the center of Empire.
Upon publication in 2009, Grahame-Smith’s zombie version of Pride and Prejudice rose to third place on the New York Times bestseller list, selling more than 700,000 copies in its first year. In his novel, the tensions between Darcy and Elizabeth remain, as do many of the best-loved lines from Austen’s original. The “truth universally acknowledged” is no longer the human search for a life partner but the zombies’ quest for human brains upon which to feed. In response to the presence of zombies in England, the Bennet daughters have trained themselves to resist the unwanted attentions of the dead returned to life. Mr. Bennet encourages his daughters in martial arts and weapons training while (as in Pride and Prejudice) Mrs. Bennet longs to see her daughters married to husbands of suitable social status. Bingley and his friend Darcy arrive at Netherfield Park, which has been abandoned following a zombie attack. Wickham and other soldiers are stationed at Meryton in order to destroy the dead bodies upon which zombies feed. The misunderstandings and misinformation of Pride and Prejudice are carried into Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, including in the relationships between Jane and Bingley, Elizabeth and Darcy.
Along with its popular appeal, the book soon garnered academic interest. While my main interest is in the movie, it is instructive to consider two scholarly responses—one narrative-based, the other post-colonial—to Grahame-Smith’s book.
According to Garrett, zombie literature has a stable narrative core. It portrays a world in crisis as the result of the spread of creatures who are intent on turning humans into grisly revenants like themselves. In Grahame-Smith’s novel, the zombies are driven by their endless search for human brains to sustain them (11). A small group of heroes, including the Bennet sisters, resists their relentless assaults. Driven together, they explore the ethical cost of survival (Garrett 6). This scenario offers a novel way of reading the quest in Pride and Prejudice for a single man in possession of good fortune, not only as a search for love across the class barrier but equally as a critique of the way that colonialism provides a select few with great economic rewards—wealth derived from economic models that are based on slave labor working land seized by the military power evident at Meryton.
Stratton’s more general argument for a post-colonial reading of zombie literature includes a particular focus on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Drawing on the work of Edward Said,2 Stratton describes the wealth appropriated from the New World that enriched Jane Austen’s England. The endless rounds of dancing, card games, and idle gentility all had to be funded from somewhere. Noting that Grahame-Smith fails to name a specific source for the zombie invasion, apart from beyond England,3 Stratton argues that the invaders are motivated by the injustices imposed on them by British colonialism. Pointing to Mr. Darcy’s naming of the zombies as “savages” (Grahame-Smith 31), Stratton suggests that this appellation might refer to their taste for human flesh. Equally, it could refer to their identity, as zombies “have some similarity with the black slaves who were thought of as savages, who work the colonial Caribbean plantations that supply the wealth which supports the lifestyle of the gentry” (273). Hence, for Stratton, the zombie trope represents the “movement of the displaced from the Caribbean colonies to England. It is a zombie apocalypse . . . that can be read as making clear the connections between English wealth and colonial slavery which, in this early novel at least, Austen had elided” (274).
The zombies thus make visible the reality of slavery. The focus is not on Austen’s awareness of slavery (see White) but on the literary function of zombies and how they tell a story that includes the transformation of human beings into mere instruments for economic ends. As art should do, Grahame-Smith’s novel disturbs the reader, refiguring Elizabeth and Darcy in relation to the colonial project of the British Empire.
Afterlives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke
In 2016, Grahame-Smith’s book was released as a movie. The movie begins with a puppet show entitled “An Illustrated History of England. 1700–1800,” making clear connections to the Empire. A voice, which could be Mr. Bennet’s, describes how “[a]s this century began, Britannia was rich with the fruits of worldwide trade. From the colonies came not just sugar and spices but a virulent and abominable plague.”
The movie, in a more pointed way than the book, thus locates the zombies in the context of the colonial project of the British Empire. This context informs another central point of difference between the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and its cinematic adaptation, in which Elizabeth’s encounter with Darcy at Pemberley is replaced by a visit with Wickham to a church called Church of St. Lazarus. This building and the sacramental activities that occur inside must be read in the context of the religious piety of eighteenth-century Britannia.
While the term “zombie” does not appear in the Bible, Stratton’s definition of zombies as dead people “resurrected to a state that remains nearer death than life” (267) opens the way for an examination of biblical texts attentive to portrayals of the afterlife. While existing zombie-gesis of biblical material tends to focus on Matthew, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies references another gospel and a very different narrative.4 In the film Elizabeth and George Wickham visit the Church of St. Lazarus. Although Lazarus is a central figure in the narrative of John 11, this biblical text provides limited scope, given that Lazarus is raised to life and that biblical scholars read this story as foreshadowing the death and resurrection of Jesus. Another Lazarus, however, is mentioned in Luke 16:19–31, in a passage describing the fates of two men: one rich, the other poor. Both die and move into what seems to be an in-between space, a limbo that sits well with Stratton’s definition of zombies as resurrected but near death. This in-between space is described as a place populated by the dead, including the Old Testament patriarch Abraham. Yet in this place, the beggar Lazarus is portrayed as an active agent, potentially able to move and speak. The rich man requests that the beggar become an intermediary both in a place populated by the dead, to comfort the rich man (Luke 16:24), and in the world of the living, to warn the rich man’s family to avoid a similar fate (16:27–28). Luke’s narrative thus portrays people—to reprise Stratton—in a “state that remains nearer death than life.” In this in-between world, in which there are active agents, what is important is an eschatological concern for justice and the consequences of human actions in both this world and the future.
The descriptions of the agony and fire suffered by the complacent rich man in Luke 16:19–31 invite ethical reflection. I have already noted that scholars have associated zombies either with a future apocalypse or in terms of a present unmasking of injustice. So what are the eschatological typologies at work in Luke 16:19–31? The biblical text points to a future judgment in which justice is enacted: “The rich man is punished not simply because he is rich, but because he does not respond to Lazarus’s need” (Tannehill 252). Biblical scholar Joel Green notes, however, that while the motif of the “dead returning to visit the living was common in the ancient world,” this passage is remarkable in that it prohibits such a return (609). In Luke 16:19–31, the return of the dead is not needed, for the Scriptures of Israel provide warning enough; the historic scriptural injunctions regarding care for the poor are judged to be sufficient (Tannehill 252). A trust in the efficacy of already existing (past) scriptural teaching offers a second ethical typology, in contrast to that of trusting a future apocalypse. But what if approaches to justice based on historic codes or the proclaiming of future consequence are insufficient to stop injustice in the present? What if these warnings are not heeded, whether because a future horizon is ignored, (past) biblical texts are domesticated, or (present) hearers refuse to listen?
Another approach to interpreting the Lazarus figure of Luke 16:19–31—as an apocalyptic one—is offered by the movie. On a number of occasions, four dark horsemen are seen in the distance. When Elizabeth meets Lady Catherine for the first time, the camera focuses on a painting of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. During this meeting, the Reverend Mr. Collins frames the presence of the zombies in apocalyptic tones, quoting from the book of Revelation to the effect that the Antichrist will lead the undead on mankind’s last day on earth. And where biblical scholars tend to read Luke 16:19–31 as a parable, an approach that comes with conventional guidelines for interpretation, including an emphasis on themes of reversal through the inbreaking of divine agency, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies instead invites a reading of Luke’s story as apocalyptic literature. What emerges is significant in understanding how the Church of St. Lazarus might be understood in symbolic terms. Exegetically, apocalyptic literature is characterized by the presence of dualisms, intermediary beings offering divine access, the vindication of the righteous, and the promise of a new beginning. Each of these features can be applied to Luke 16:19–31, including the division between this world and the region in which the rich man and Lazarus now dwell, the role of Lazarus as a (desired) intermediary, and the vindication of those who live in poverty in this world through a loving intimacy with Abraham in the next.
In the light of the biblical apocalyptic tradition, the Church of St. Lazarus can be understood as an intermediary zone, one in which divine access is possible. This argument is strengthened when we consider the sacramental practice that takes place inside the Church of St. Lazarus.
In a further departure from the book, in the movie version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Wickham invites Elizabeth to travel with him to a secret place, a journey that replaces Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley. Instead of Elizabeth setting off with the Gardiners and meeting Miss Darcy, Mrs. Hurst, and Miss Bingley in a drawing room, Elizabeth accompanies Wickham, enters the Church of St. Lazarus, and is surprised to find some zombies at their worship. Luckily, they are not “normal” zombies, as they fail to attack the pair. Wickham explains to Elizabeth that the zombies gather to hear a sermon and partake of communion. The host on which they feed consists not of a sacramental wafer and communion wine but pigs’ brains. This meal satiates their hunger yet ensures that they do not develop a taste for human brains. By participating in a church service, they are choosing to enact a set of spiritual disciplines that keep them in an in-between state, as proto-zombies.
According to one reviewer, Joseph McAleer writing for the Catholic News Service, this episode was nothing more than a “ghoulish, quasi-sacrilegious parody.” Despite Catholic disapproval, however, it is instructive to read this zombie communion alongside the Christian sacramental theologies, including the ways they were understood in Austen’s own time. How does the (un)sacramental theology of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the film offer a social commentary on Christian practice? Two avenues of inquiry are possible: consideration of the theologies of communion common in Austen’s England and an analysis of the sermon preached at St. Lazarus.
Jane Austen was raised in a clerical family, familiar with a sacramental theology formed by the Anglican prayer book. The characters in Pride and Prejudice participate in “morning service” (65), which, given the sacramental focus of Anglicanism, would have included the eucharist. For Austen’s early-nineteenth-century Anglicanism, the sacraments would have offered a number of blessings. They provide sustenance for God’s pilgrim people on their earthly journey (Allen 294). They are also a seal, creating a genuine fellowship between those who share in them and the risen Christ (295). Both are consistent with the way in which the zombie communion is understood in the film version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: consuming the host, even if it comprises pigs’ brains, acts not only to sustain the proto-zombies but also to “seal” them in their current state.
Austen was writing at a time when the Methodist church was gaining an identity as a denomination distinct from the Church of England. In the Austen household, the theology of English theologian John Wesley (1703–1791), including his understanding of sacramental practice, would likely have been a topic of conversation. For Wesley, Holy Communion was a “converting ordinance,” an event through which believers encounter Christ: “For many now present know, the very beginning of your conversion to God . . . was wrought at the Lord’s Supper” (188–89). Thus, enacting a spiritual discipline of partaking in communion was understood by Wesley to be participation in a process of change.
An extra layer of complexity is added when these understandings of communion, Anglican and Wesleyan, both prevalent in Austen’s time, are considered in relation to the ethical and eschatological typologies of past, present, and future. For the zombies in Steers’s movie, taking communion keeps them in a state of proto-zombie-hood. In this sense, taking communion in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is an unconverting ordinance, delaying change. It is the opposite of Wesley’s converting ordinance. In retarding the zombies’ full development, it also has parallels with the motifs of both sustenance for the journey and the seal of identity achieved by regular communion. The act of communion seals their identity and sustains their journey as proto-zombies.
In these ways, the St. Lazarus communion scene presents a challenge to religious practices and Christian piety. In participating in the sacrament of communion and thus sealing proto-zombie identity, the status quo of colonial presence and power is maintained. To rephrase Tutu: “We close our eyes as proto-zombies. When we open them, the economic injustices of colonialism remain, and we are not able to participate with other zombies in the quest for liberation.” The film offers a post-colonial challenge not only to Western economic systems but also to religious practices.
Three scriptures are referenced in the sermon preached in the Church of St. Lazarus. None would be out of place in conventional sacramental theologies. One scripture cited in the sermon alludes to the Israelites moving “from Exodus to the Red Sea, and when they cried to their Lord, he put darkness between them and the Egyptians and brought this upon them.” Referencing Joshua 24:7, the preacher names the God of Exodus, who acted in history to separate the developing community of Israel from the power of Egypt. Thus, the sermon proclaims deliverance and communal identity formation. The proto-zombies, in partaking of communion, are being formed as a community protected, presumably from the fate of becoming full zombies, consistent with the understanding of communion as a seal creating genuine fellowship between those who participate and the risen Christ.
The second scripture cited during the sermon is “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” Referencing John 11:26, this scripture proclaims life in Christ. It captures the reality of being a zombie, of inhabiting an in-between space (“though he were dead”), yet in a way that assures ongoing life. Engaging in religious practice protects communicants from the fate of becoming a zombie by maintaining a unique state of being as proto-zombies, poised between death and life. A third reference to scripture—“Jesus cried out with a loud voice”—conflates Matthew 27:50, Luke 23:46, and Mark 15:37. Just as Christ had to endure present suffering, painful enough for him to cry out to God, so the proto-zombies partaking in communion are offered a shared connection with Christ, who endures the pains of injustice as the Empire enacts its cruelty.
These three sacred texts can be woven together in a proto-zombie theology of the sacraments that offers ethical guidance at the same time as it upholds the existing order and the values associated with it. The value of communal identity formation is affirmed. A unique proto-zombie identity is maintained, a genuine fellowship that is blessed by relationship with the risen Christ, providing a sense of solidarity in which God is present in the midst of injustice. What begins as a pop culture story about the living dead becomes an investigation of ethics. Scripture is being used to maintain the status quo, to encourage a sense of shared solidarity, and to provide resources that maintain the existing order. Pigs’ brains do indeed produce piety.
The present problems of piety
The movie offers two responses to the religous piety on display at the Church of St. Lazarus, represented by the characters of Wickham and Darcy. Both provide insight into the dangers that arise when attempts are made to resolve injustice in the present, and thus they provide a contrast with ethical typologies of past and future (as discussed earlier in considering Luke 16:19–31).
Following her experience at the Church of St. Lazarus, Elizabeth meets Lady Catherine at Rosings. Wickham and Darcy are also there. Wickham presents Lady Catherine with a strategy to combat the proto-zombies, one based on co-existence. He suggests offering the zombies a diet of religious piety and pigs’ brains, in the hope that as proto-zombies they can be reasoned with, and ways found by which zombies and humans might live together in England. Wickham’s plan represents an optimistic approach, in which religious practice encourages tolerance and harmony. As he outlines his proposal, Elizabeth seems to be in alliance with Wickham. She whispers to him that she has provided him with the opportunity to meet Lady Catherine, the wealthiest woman in the kingdom. Elizabeth supplies details to Lady Catherine in support of Wickham’s argument, describing how religious piety and pigs’ brains can be used to quench the appetites of proto-zombies. When Wickham’s proposal is scorned by Darcy, Wickham sounds a warning. Zombies are looking for leaders. If a way to co-exist is not found, the zombies will find a leader, and since zombies reproduce faster than humans, they will triumph in the end.
In terms of eschatological typologies, a contest between present and future is being outlined here. For the present, Wickham offers a strategy for co-existence through a judicious combination of religious piety and pigs’ brains. If this plan fails, then a predicted biblical apocalypse will eventuate. The future judgment, named in Luke 16:19–31, will become a present reality.
Later that evening, Wickham asks Elizabeth to elope with him. When she refuses, Wickham announces that the hubris of the powerful will be their downfall. He leaves in an angry mood, and later Elizabeth hears that Wickham has eloped with Lydia, leaving behind a seal from the Church of St. Lazarus.
Wickham’s actions set the scene for his climactic encounter with Darcy, in which, again, pigs’ brains are viewed as a means of resolving injustice in the present. Seeking to free Lydia, Darcy arrives at the Church of St. Lazarus. He sees the pigs penned outside and glimpses the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Once inside the church, Darcy switches the host of pigs’ brains for human brains. He also discovers Lydia, chained, and Wickam, confident that he has now trapped Darcy. The proto-zombies, having consumed the host of human blood (planted by Darcy without their knowledge), are turned into a horde of fully fledged zombies. In the confusion, Lydia escapes. Darcy and Wickham fight, and Wickham reveals that he has been a proto-zombie all along.
He announces to Darcy that the Four Horsemen have risen from hell and that the future apocalypse is at hand. For Wickham, these events are a response to injustice, in particular his own treatment by Darcy. As we read Luke 16:19–31 as an apocalyptic text—consistent with the appearance of the Four Horsemen and the location outside the Church of St. Lazarus—it is apparent that Wickham has become a Lazarus figure. He is an intermediary, a proto-zombie. But unlike the Lazarus of Luke 16:19–31, Wickham is stepping into the present, into this life of enduring torment.
In terms of a post-colonial critique, it is important to recognize that in both cases, whether we consider the actions of Wickham or Darcy, agency is being removed from the proto-zombies. At the meeting in Lady Catherine’s mansion, the proto-zombies have no socially legitimated voice. They are deprived of agency as English aristocrats and military leaders discuss the possibility of co-existence. At the Church of St. Lazarus, following Darcy’s switching of the host, they lose all agency. Darcy’s move is an act of cruel trickery whereby, without any choice in the matter, the proto-zombies find themselves transformed, converted by the ordinance of communion. To reference Bishop Tutu once again, as the proto-zombies open their eyes after partaking in communion, they find they have been coerced into becoming zombies.
While Wickham and Darcy are very different characters, the actions of both are motivated by spurned love, by Elizabeth’s refusal of their respective marriage proposals. This situation illustrates the danger of seeking justice in the present. It places justice in the hands of fallible humans, individuals like Wickham and Darcy, people with hearts vulnerable to the distortions of politics and love. Both act in ways that continue the exclusionary practices central to colonialism. Hence in the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Darcy emerges as a character of greater complexity than in Pride and Prejudice. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the hero of Pride and Prejudice acts as a colonizer, making decisions on behalf of, rather than with, the marginalized.
In these ways, Burr Steers’s film holds up a mirror to society, both Austen’s and our own. In the characters of Darcy and Wickham, we are faced with the complexities involved in seeking justice. The film version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies extends the post-colonial critique of Grahame-Smith’s novel, noting how those in positions of power can act in ways that remove the agency of voice and choice from those on the margins. In this reading, the role of zombies in the movie is neither parodic nor simply a money-making device. Rather, the movie inserts an ethical trope, post-colonial in sense and sensibility, that questions the economic system on which the literary world of Austen is built, the ways in which religion can use piety to maintain the status quo, and the complexities involved in seeking to enact justice in the present.
The film thus throws out a challenge to those who would argue that religion offers future hope. The biblical text of Luke 16:19–31 offers a future hope, whereby the poor, including those experiencing the reality of British colonial expansion, will experience relief in the bosom of Abraham, and whereby the uncaring rich will suffer torment. Yet the reality of Luke 16:19–31 is that, when used uncritically in the present, the status quo remains.
A careful reading of the Exodus story, however, suggests that a third option is possible. John Coffey has argued that political readings of the Exodus are often powerfully informed by modern conceptions of liberty and slavery. In scripture, the Exodus narrative begins with the Israelites’ collective experience of living in bondage in Egypt. Michael Walzer identifies themes in the story of oppression by another people and the corruption inherent in a life lived in decadence. Both themes appear in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, in which slaves are oppressed and in bondage, and the English aristocracy live self-indulgent lives, evident in the dances and social gatherings of the Regency elite.5
The Exodus narrative includes the story of time spent in the wilderness, which for Walzer is a place of moral formation in which the people of Israel learn a “discipline of freedom, the obligation to live up to a common standard and to take responsibility for their own actions” (53). A people previously enslaved, lacking in agency, must learn what it means for them to practice justice and equality. Claiming agency includes finding a voice and learning to exercise choice. Similarly, the religious piety of the proto-zombies can be interpreted as a seeking of formation, of moral discipline. This approach is supported by the ending of the Exodus narrative in the promised land. Walzer argues that the promised land holds the hope of equality: “if no member of the holy nation is an oppressor, then no inhabitant of the promised land is oppressed” (109). Such an understanding provides a way for the proto-zombies to enact a disciplined freedom that would also be a way of applying justice in their present. As inhabitants of England, the proto-zombies are a physical reminder of the need for justice. By holding themselves back from becoming full zombies, they seek partnership in a promised land in which none, whether genteel English or zombie, is oppressed or oppressing.6 Their deliberate formation provides a critique of the actions of Darcy and Wickham and also of the mobilization of religion only in the future tense. It suggests that Luke 16:19–31 can be read as an apocalyptic text. The dualisms of proto-zombie and human can be respected. There is value in an intermediary state in which proto-zombies are still being formed.
The film, read in light of the Exodus text preached at the Church of St. Lazarus, thus offers a vision of a new beginning for England as a place of justice for all. The servants at Pemberley need no longer be silent; those who grow the finest grapes, nectarines, and peaches will be justly rewarded, and the soldiers at Meryton need no longer be deployed to maintain the power of a colonial Britain. This future vision begins now, in the sharing of a moral formation in which all—colonized and colonizer, zombie and human—share a common set of standards and take responsibility for their own agency.
The actions of Darcy and Wickham demonstrate the dangers inherent in enacting justice in the present. As Wickham becomes a Lazarus-like figure, an intermediary thwarted by Darcy’s manipulation of pigs’ brains and piety, the presence of the zombies points to significant fault-lines that threaten the privileged and complacent social world of Austen’s time. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies they remind readers and viewers of the unsolved problem of social inequality and the ways in which religion and literature can both support and disturb the status quo, including the apparent certainties of Jane Austen’s social and religious world.
1As a starting point, see the six volumes published by McFarland in its scholarly series Contributions to Zombie Studies.
2For a critique of Said in relation to Austen, see White.
3For Grahame-Smith, the zombie invasion is a plague. Hence the lyrics of a song played by Elizabeth: “Came the plague upon us swift and violent, / And so our dearest England we defend” (54).
4An obvious text is Matthew 27:52–53, where, immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus, the tombs open and the dead walk through Jerusalem. Raymond Brown has argued that the description of the bodies of “many holy men” who are raised and enter the Holy City draws on Old Testament apocalyptic imagery. The passage speaks of “eschatological phenomena associated with Jesus’ death,” communicating truths that “have not exhausted the wealth of the otherworldly” (1133, 1134). However, Brown also seeks to impose strict limits on any attempts at zombie-gesis, given his argument that the Gospels not only offer literary echoes back to the Old Testament but also, and essentially, point to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
5See, for example, the zombie attack during the Netherfield Ball. The reality of oppression is evident when some of the zombies are recognized as from a nearby orphanage, who as orphans surely deserve shelter. Further, in one vignette, Mrs. Bennet bites Lydia, who has placed her hand on her mother’s mouth to stop her sharing her views on the marriage prospects for Jane. In another, Darcy is willing to kill Bingley if he has been bitten by zombies.
6According to Walzer, “To be sure, there are men and women who move back and forth between Exodus and apocalypse, but the lines are generally clear. It is one thing to hope for milk and honey, . . . and it is quite something different to try . . . ‘to force the End,’ to bring mankind suddenly and violently into the messianic age” (121).