Parodic elements, women and power in "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"

Term Paper, 2013

16 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Defining Parody
2.1 Post-modern Theory of Parody.
2.2 The Paradox of Parody
2.3 Encoding and Decoding.

3. Parodic Elements in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
3.1 Formal and Stylistic Aspects
3.2 The Female Biography
3.3 The Construction of Power
3.4 The “Unmentionables” as a Metaphor.

4. Conclusion.

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Pride and Prejudice certainly is one of the best-known and most criticised works by Jane Austen. Its ironic opening lines “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen 3) already hint at some of the novel’s topics, such as the omnipresence of marriage in female biographies and the constructions of power through wealth. But what happens if a 21st century writer combines the original plot of Pride and Prejudice with popular aspects of the Eastern culture? The novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, written by Seth Grahame-Smith and published in 2009, does so by partly adopting the original text and by inserting (often violent) parts of modern popular culture. The half-conserving, half-comic transformation of the well-known opening lines into “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains” (Grahame-Smith 7) is only one of the numerous means of parody the narrative makes use of, playing on the contrast between its original as an appreciated classic and the frivolous tone of its parody. This paper will show that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a parody. It will identify and discuss the elements and strategies that are typical of parodies. What gets parodied and how? What effect does this create? These are the central questions this paper seeks to answer. First of all, the approaches of several post- modern theorists such as Linda Hutcheon and Simon Dentith will serve as basic definitions in order to explain the theoretical aspects and properties of parodies. Important characteristics such as the paradox nature of parodies and the theory of encoding and decoding will be taken into account. The second part will consist of a close analysis of parodic strategies in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, focusing not only on the formal characteristics of this parody, but also on some features of both 18th century society and the style of the narrative found in Pride and Prejudice that are most prominently parodied.

2. Defining Parody

2.1 Post-modern Theory of Parody

The exact meaning of the term parody and its varying definitions are still subject to discussion. Linda Hutcheon even argues that “there is no transhistorical definition of the term 'parody'” (Hutcheon 10). The Oxford Dictionary for Advanced Learners, for instance, defines parody as “a piece of writing, music, acting etc. that deliberately copies the style of sb/sth in order to be amusing”, but at the same time as “something that is such a bad or unfair example of sth that it seems ridiculous” (1105). This definition already indicates the paradox nature of parodies, which can be intended to create comic effects, but also be used to degrade the original piece of art.1

Similarly, Linda Hutcheon's post-modern theory of parody is based on the technique of “repetition with difference” (32). She stresses that irony serves as a means to create a “critical distance” between the backgrounded, i.e. the parodied text, and the new, “incorporating” work (32). In her view, it is crucial that a parody does not always serve to destroy the parodied text, but can as well be intended to “mock, to belittle or to express constructive criticism” (32). In other words, it would be quite wrong to assume that a parody must have such a destructive nature when dealing with it. Indeed, a parody is a very own piece of art that, often enough, seeks to preserve or approve of the original work.2

Moreover, Hutcheon repeatedly stresses the importance of irony which is “the major means of accentuating, even establishing, parodic contrast” (34). By stating the opposite of what is really meant, this technique causes surprise and confronts the reader of a parody with the opposite of what was expected. Irony does not only have to be dealt with in a purely semantic way, but also in terms of pragmatics. The real importance and the effects of irony can thus not be recognized only by analysing only the text in itself, but by investigating the context in which it appears. Additionally, as Hutcheon puts it, “irony judges” (53), which means that “irony […] implies an attitude of the encoding agent towards the text itself, an attitude which, in turn, allows and demands the decoder’s interpretation and evaluation” (53). This makes clear that a parody relies to a great extent on the reader’s ability to recognize irony and draw conclusions about what this is supposed to signalise.

Simon Dentith yet adds the linguistic dimension to Hutcheon's theory of parody. Based on his theory, parody “involves the imitation and transformation of another’s words” (3), something which quite often occurs in daily life when repeating what others said - no matter with what intention. Parodying then is, according to him, something that permanently happens in the daily usage of language, as it “permits a remarkable array of attitudes to become apparent in our speech” (3). Thus, every one parodies someone or something in everyday life, because the words of others are not simply repeated, but certain means such as intonation are used to convey a different meaning and a new judgement.

In contrast to Hutcheon, Dentith argues that just like spoken utterances in daily life, literature (or “all written utterances”) “situate themselves in relation to texts that precede them, and are in turn alluded to […] by texts that follow” (5). Thus, to him, parody is mainly one form of intertextual allusion, because parody always requires reference to and imitation of another work. Similar to Hutcheon, Dentith refuses to offer a final definition of the term parody but sets up a preliminary one: “Parody includes any cultural practice which provides a relatively polemical allusive imitation of another cultural production or practice” (9). In its broad sense, this definition is suitable and will be used for this paper's purpose because it takes into account the variety of different ways of parodying another’s work, no matter in what form or time, and because it contains both the terms “imitation” (which is one of the most important techniques in parody) and “allusion” which are central to the term. The expression “relatively polemical” points once again to the variety of different (sometimes even contrasting) tones and intentions of a parody, which will be discussed in the next chapter.

2.2 The Paradox of Parody

In the first place, the nature of parodies is a paradox one because a parody usually alters the original text, for example (but not only) in order to ridicule and to create contrasts, but is at the same time reliant on the conventions set up by the parodied text. Otherwise, the reader would not be able to recognize the connection between the two texts and to draw appropriate conclusions about what gets parodied. As Hutcheon puts it more precisely, “the parodic text is granted a special licence to transgress the limits of convention, but […] it can do so only temporarily and only within the controlled confines authorized by the text parodied - that is, quite simply, within the confines dictated by ‘recognisability’” (75). In transgressing literary norms, and even in mocking or degrading other works, parodies guarantee the continued existence of the original because they rely upon its features in order to be recognizable as a parody. In this way, a parody always contributes to the longevity of the original because it repeats and thus conserves its properties.

While Hutcheon stresses that parodies do not necessarily have a polemic function, but can also be seen as a deliberate way of conserving past literary techniques and works, Dentith declares that the polemic he mentions in his definition of the term can work several ways. It can either serve to criticise the parodied text itself or “the world”, i.e. things, situations or events mentioned or described in the parodied text (15). This again raises the question about the intents of a parody. Both Dentith and Hutcheon use various literary examples to point out that parody does not necessarily refer to a single work, but to the literary traditions, norms and cultural assumptions of entire decades. The target of a parody does not even have to be a specific work (e.g. a novel) itself but can instead refer to certain conditions depicted in it, such as social circumstances or historical events or persons (Hutcheon 77 - 79, Dentith 18). Many theorists have taken to the etymology of the word in order to explain the paradox nature of parodies. The word “parody” can, on the one hand, be traced back to the Greek term parodia, which means “counter-song” (Hutcheon 32). This translation represents the contrastive aspects a parody usually has, in creating (e.g. stylistic) difference or even radically opposing the parodied text. On the other hand, it makes sense to analyse the meaning of the Greek prefix “para” separately from the word as a whole, which does not only mean “counter” or “against”, but can also mean “beside” (Hutcheon 32). The latter indicates a certain degree of accord or even proximity between the parody and the parodied text. These two different approaches of explaining the etymology of the term “parody” already point to its ambivalent nature. In other words, the aim of a parody is not necessarily to devalue the parodied “original”, but that it can as well serve to create a bond between the two texts that, as mentioned above, conserves and values the parodied text and is thus rather a kind of coexistence.

2.3 Encoding and Decoding

Calling something a parody includes the assumption that there is a kind of encoder expressing a critical attitude towards the past, while the reader has to infer this attitude from the text (Hutcheon 84). Thus, parodies involve a process of encoding that is not included in today’s reader- or text-centered approaches. Margaret Rose uses the same terminology when she describes the process of parodying a text and conveying a message to the reader: “[…] the work to be parodied is ‘decoded’ by the parodist and offered again (or ‘encoded’) in a ‘distorted’ or changed form to another decoder, the reader of the parody, whose expectations for the original of the parodied work may also be played upon and evoked and then transformed by the parodist as a part of the parody work” (Rose 39). Apparently, the process of parodying and thus the role of the parodist consist of two important steps. First, the parodist has to ‘decode’ the work that is to be parodied, and second, modify it in such a way that certain effects such as parodic contrast are created - but he has to do so within the boundaries of recognisability. If the encoder does not respect these boundaries, there is the risk of the decoder (the reader) not understanding what the encoder seeks to parody, or worse, the reader might not even notice that the text is meant to be a parody at all. As Rose puts it: “The reception of the parody by its external reader will depend upon the latter’s reading of the ‘signals’ given in the parody text” (41). According to her, there are various kinds of signals that can be used for parodic intent, from simple changes in the choice of words to complex syntactic variation and changes to the subject-matter, the persons or the setting of the original (Rose 37). These signals and their effect will be discussed more closely in the next chapters as they appear in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

3. Parodic Elements in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

3.1 Formal and Stylistic Aspects

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a novel that credits Jane Austen as a co-author next to Seth Grahame-Smith. This is justified because the original text of Pride and Prejudice accounts for the better part of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In addition, the chapters of both works are identical in both number and order. In fact, Grahame-Smith adopts large passages of Pride and Prejudice and partly inserts own passages, which vary in length. His variations range from the substitution of single words over the modification of entire sentences to the insertion of completely new, independent passages. Sometimes, there are only slight changes to the original text, but with great effects. A good example is a passage from chapter one, in which Mr. Bennet is characterised: “Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character” (Austen 4). In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it says: “Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and self-discipline, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character” (Grahame-Smith 8). Although these sentences only differ in one word, the latter results in a very different, even contrasting characterisation of Mr. Bennet.

In many cases, Grahame-Smith copies Austen's style in writing, but modifies her very own sentences by inserting unexpected and unfitting elements. When Elizabeth asks Mr. Bingley whether he had seen her sister Jane lately, he answers: “We have not met since the 26th of November, when we were all dancing together at Netherfield” (Austen 170). Grahame- Smith chooses the same way of starting this sentence, but modifies it: “We have not met since the 26th of November, when my staff at Netherfield was so unhappily feasted upon” (Grahame-Smith 210).3 This “repetition with difference”, as Hutcheon already described it,


1 This paradox will be more closely analysed in chapter 2.2.

2 According to Hutcheon, the idea of instruction through imitation dates back to the Renaissance (37).

3 Both Austen and Grahame-Smith refer to the ball Mr. Bingley gave at Netherfield. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the ball is interrupted by an attack of unmentionables, who managed to get into the kitchen and kill the servants.

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Parodic elements, women and power in "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"
University of Kassel  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Proseminar "Jane Austen"
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ISBN (Book)
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parodic, pride, prejudice, zombies
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Denise Breidenbach (Author), 2013, Parodic elements, women and power in "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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