Ninjas – Invisible in More Ways than One: Orientalism in Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Academic Essay by Emma Coffin
Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies engages in both adaptation and cultural appropriation. His narrative introduces a zombie plague to the original text of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, combining his writing with hers. In Appropriation and Adaptation, Julie Saunders defines an adaptation as a work that “signals a relationship with an informing sourcetext or original [and] remains ostensibly” (Saunders 27) the same as the original. In adaptation, the difference is most often “alternative temporal and generic modes” (Saunders 27) which differ from the original renowned text.
Aside from the zombies, Grahame-Smith adds additional differing elements through the introduction of Chinese and Japanese martial arts. These are used by the British aristocracy as a method of self-defense against the zombies. While the zombie plague portions of the plot are well-integrated and amusingly satirical, Graham-Smith’s use of Chinese and Japanese cultures is problematic. All of the Asian male characters within the novel are ninjas or Shaolin monks, who exist only as servants or mentors for the white British characters. Asian female characters are reduced to silent background roles and serve as status symbols or objects of desire. None of the Asian characters speak freely; all are silent or have their voices mediated by a white character.
In the introduction to Everybody’s Jane, Juliette Wells quotes Troost and Greenfield as stating that Jane Austen adaptations “have more to tell us about our own moment in time than about Jane Austen’s writing” (14). Comparing Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies reveals the ways in which Orientalism in Western culture has evolved since the 19th Century. Rather than eliminating Orientalism in Austen’s works, Grahame-Smith instead builds upon it by using British imperialism as a pretext to introduce caricatures of Asian culture.
Austen’s work has been criticized for her dismissive approach to non-Western countries. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said critiques Jane Austen for treating Oriental countries “like servants in grand households and in novels, whose work is taken for granted but scarcely ever more than named, rarely studied. . . or given destiny” (63). In a number of her novels, including Mansfield Park, non-white colonies are utilized by Austen’s characters as a source of income but are not discussed beyond that. In Pride and Prejudice, luxury objects from Britain’s colonies, such as muslin or silk, are mentioned offhandedly but the countries of origin are not referenced directly. Instead, the names of Oriental countries and objects are merely used to confer status.
Said critiques Austen for subtly supporting imperialism and states that this overt form of Orientalism arises from “distinguishing ‘our’ home and order from ‘theirs’ [which] grew into a harsh political rule for accumulating more of ‘them’ to rule, study, and subordinate” (82). Said’s criticism can also be applied to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In Grahame-Smith’s novel, aristocrats are sent to Shaolin and Kyoto to learn the warrior ways of the monks and ninjas that are found in these cities. Aristocrats such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh train in Japan and import ninjas to serve as their personal guards, whereas middle-class families such as the Bennets must rely on fighting skills they learned from monks in China. The British characters are able to move freely between Britain and Asia, yet the Asian characters within the novel are not given the same level of agency. The Asian characters in Britain are all servants, and the only Asian character who is shown deference, the Bennets’ mentor Master Lui, “has never left the confines of the Shaolin temple in Henan Province” (Grahame-Smith 37). This shows that the British characters are able to study and subordinate Asian characters, while the Asian characters are restricted to specific spaces.
Said criticizes Regency-era texts for portraying trade between Britain and the colonies as being as unproblematic as trade between British towns. He ironically states that “the trade with the West Indies is hardly to be considered an external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country” (Said 92). Trade between China, Japan, and Britain is portrayed similarly within Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Asian objects, such as “Zatochi crane swords” (Grahame-Smith 65), are seamlessly integrated into the British upper-class because Grahame-Smith removes all of the objects cultural connotations. The monks of the Shaolin monastery would have been devoutly Buddhist, yet Buddha is rarely mentioned, aside from a couple of offhand references, such as Mr. Darcy‘s comment about pleasing “Buddha by communing with the earth” (Grahame-Smith 119). The pacifism that is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism is also absent from this novel, as Elizabeth goes against Buddhist values by frequently fantasizing about brutally murdering people who annoy her, including her sister and Mr. Darcy. Grahame-Smith’s appropriation of Shaolin monks is superficial; only the monks’ proficiency at martial arts is portrayed. Complicated issues regarding religion are ignored, particularly the clash between Christianity and Asian religions during the Regency era. In this way, Asian religious beliefs that are not relevant to the white characters’ plot lines are ignored.
The relationship that the Bennet sisters have with their Shaolin masters is complex, and may at first seem more equal than it truly is. The novel is interspersed with anecdotes regarding the punishments that were inflicted upon Elizabeth and her sisters by Master Liu, which implies that their master has some degree of power in their relationship. However, this is undermined by the Bennet sisters’ acquisition of total mastery over Asian martial arts. In order to further exemplify their mastery, Grahame-Smith creates objects imbued with Orientalist mysticism. Lizzie is described as a “beholder of the scrolls at Gan Xian Tan” (Grahame-Smith 107), a presumably rare feat. The reader is left to wonder why Shaolin monks would be willing to openly embrace training British Christians, despite being excluded from British society. Yet this question remains unanswered, largely because Asian male characters are not given the agency to tell their stories or describe their motives in their own words.
Rather than introduce historically or culturally accurate ninjas and fighting monks, Grahame-Smith capitalizes on popular Western conceptions of ninjas and kung fu fighters. In “Seeing Things: Race, Image and National Identity in Canadian and American Movies and Television”, Allan Smith highlights some problematic popular culture portrayals of Asian people. He argues that American popular culture has long been guilty of “dismissing the racially different as a threat (‘the yellow peril’), as willing and contented participants in their own subordination (Tonto) or, in Ralph Ellison’s haunting and memorable characterization as simply ‘invisible’” (368). ‘Yellow face’, or the practice of casting white actors in the role of an Asian character, has also been seen in a number of popular Hollywood films. One of the most famous examples of this is Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of the Japanese character Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an adaptation. Interestingly, the ‘original’ Mr. Yunioshi of Truman Capote’s novella is not mentioned in a derogative or racist way. Other than being referred to as “that Japanese chap” (Capote 11) his race is not discussed and he is not associated with any Orientalist stereotypes.
In contrast, Rooney portrays Mr. Yunioshi as being lecherous, crude, and “retrogressively stereotypical” (Smith 367) in an attempt at humour. By comparing Rooney’s racist depiction of Mr. Yunioshi to Capote’s non-stereotyped ‘original’ Mr. Yunioshi, one can see that passive Orientalism has been historically used to draw in a wider audience. While Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not nearly as openly hateful towards Asian people as Rooney’s crass portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, Grahame-Smith similarly appropriates aspects of Asian culture in order to introduce a comedic element to his novel.
Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is generally considered middlebrow and was crafted to appeal primarily to middleclass female readers. In “Pride and Promiscuity and Zombies, or: Miss Austen’s Mashed Up in the Affinity Spaces of Participatory Culture”, Eckhart Voigts-Virchow states that “cultural appropriations or assimilations of Austen pirate her works for profit” (35). Although referring to Grahame-Smith’s work as piracy is perhaps unnecessarily reductive, many of the alterations he made to Austen’s work were clearly meant to appeal to a broader, modern audience. The write-up on the back cover of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies states that Grahame-Smith “transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read”, thereby highlighting the author’s goal of creating a book that appeals to a wider audience by “overcoming gendered boundaries between ‘female’ romance and ‘male’ action and tapping into established fan communities” (Voigts-Virchow 44). Unlike the “tolerable’ and ‘agreeable’” (Voigts-Virchow 44) Pride and Prejudice which lacks “emotional intensity” (Voigts-Virchow 44), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is fast-paced and features gore, vomit, and blood. The additions of zombies and ninjas were mostly likely an attempt to appeal to male readers, horror fiction fans, and readers who are attracted to campy literature.
Grahame-Smith’s appropriation of Austen’s work can be viewed as positive because it encourages participatory culture. However, the cultural appropriation that Grahame-Smith engages in is much more problematic. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, discipline, strength and honour are associated with the training that the Bennet girls received from the Shaolin monks. While these attributes are generally considered positive, “‘good’ stereotypes can be as harmful as ‘bad’ ones” (118), as Jane Naomi Iawmura argues in Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture. This is because “good” stereotypes also contribute to prejudice and lead to expectations that may or may not be true, as well as misrepresentations of cultures.
Grahame-Smith’s supposedly positive portrayals of Asian characters reduce said characters to one-dimensional mentors of wealthy white British aristocrats. The named Asian characters, such as Master Liu, are not developed or autonomous characters and are only referenced in direct relation to their pupils. The martial arts instructors are also expected to take responsibility should their student fail. As Mr. Bennet states, Master Liu believed that “for every wet rod across the student’s back, the teacher deserves two” (Grahame-Smith 239). While this statement is not inherently wrong, it is troubling due to the racial inequality between the student and the teacher.
While adaptation can allow groups that are usually ‘othered’ to participate equally in the creation of art, this does not happen for Asian characters in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Saunders provides an overview of Homi Bhaba’s “account of hybridity [which] suggests how things and ideas are ‘repeated, relocated, and translated in the name of tradition” (1). She finds that Bhaba argues that “only hybridity that respects essential difference enables innovation, whereas the cultural synthesis or homogenization of multiculturalism proves stifling” (1). Grahame-Smith’s novel is interspersed with references to China and Japan, yet the essential cultural differences between these countries and Britain are not examined. Instead, aspects of Chinese and Japanese culture are mixed and absorbed into the British upper-class haphazardly and without explanation.
Chinese and Japanese culture are portrayed inaccurately and are combined interchangeably, without due attention to real cultural practices. Every upper-class family has a “dojo” (Grahame- Smith 284) which is “a room or hall where judo is practiced” (OED), even though none of the Asian fighters in the novel practice judo. Grahame-Smith also appropriates Asian names, such as “Pei Lei of Shaolin” (Grahame-Smith 27), and fabricates vaguely-Asian sounding words, such as “zarezushi” (Grahame-Smith 155) in order to make the text seem more exotic. These culturally inaccurate references are disrespectful of Asian culture, particularly when contrasted with historically correct references to British weaponry, such as “Brown Bess” (Grahame-Smith 45) guns and “French carbine riffles” (Grahame-Smith 20). While the zombie narrative is carefully interwoven with Austen’s text in order to emphasize existing themes, Grahame-Smith’s references to Asian culture seem heavy-handed and very out of place, due in large part to the aforementioned inaccuracies.
Said’s criticism of Austen – that she reduces Asian countries to “servants in grand households” (63) – is similarly applicable to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For example, the Shaolin monks’ practices are never mentioned, except as an example of the self-discipline the Bennet girls learned by spending “many a long day being trained to endure all manner of discomfort” (Grahame-Smith 37). The ninjas and Shaolin monks do not seem have histories or goals outside of those provided to them by their employers.
The silent ninjas, supposedly master fighters, serve a slapstick role within the novel. Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s group of highly-trained ninjas are easily defeated by Elizabeth repeatedly, with little more than a single blow while blindfolded. Lizzie consumes the “still-beating heart” (Grahame-Smith 95) of one of the ninjas and remarks “I have tasted many a heart, but I dare say, I find the Japanese ones a bit tender” (Grahame-Smith 95). Her usage of the word “tender” (Grahame-Smith 95) connotes weakness, thereby implying that the ninjas were weaker than the opponents she has previously bested. Even though the ninjas “hail from the finest dojos in Japan” (Grahame-Smith 97) they inexplicably cannot compete with white British warriors; this carries worrisome connotations of inherent racial inferiority. While some may argue the Grahame-Smith is trying to empower his female characters by framing them as unstoppable adversaries, he also dehumanizes the ninjas.
Although many ninjas are slain through the course of the novel, Grahame-Smith does not examine their deaths. Instead, they are quickly forgotten so that the narrator can focus on the conflict between the white characters. During the duel between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth, the ninjas intervene on Lady Catherine’s behalf when they perceive that she is losing. Their decision to defend Lady Catherine implies that their devotion to her is genuine. Upon entering the dojo to defend their mistress, they are “put at ease by their master, who had the duel well in hand” (Grahame-Smith 295). She requests that they “remain thus” (Grahame-Smith 295) and refrain from intervening – a command they obey. Yet Lizzie still murders the ninjas in mere seconds while Lady Catherine is distracted, further emphasizing the purported weakness of the ninjas. Lady Catherine’s response to the death of her ninjas is “a hearty laugh” (Grahame-Smith 297) that demonstrates how little she cares for the ninjas who died under her employment. Elizabeth’s decision to murder the ninjas and Lady Catherine’s reaction show that the ninjas are treated as disposable objects, rather than loyal servants.
One might argue that Grahame-Smith’s narrative pays little attention to the ninjas in order to mirror the lack of attention paid to servants in the original Pride and Prejudice. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, servants are rarely mentioned with the exception of the Darcys’ and the Bennets’ housekeepers. The housekeepers’ only role in the novel is to discuss their masters and mistresses, such as Mr. Darcy’s housekeeper who reveals that Mr. Darcy was “the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted boy in the world” (Austen 215). Servants and lower-class people are mostly absent from Pride and Prejudice and Austen’s work has frequently been criticized for its predominant focus on the upper-class and the corresponding “middle-brow themes” (Voigts-Virchow 45).
However, white working-class people are not ignored in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The impoverished McGregor family is described in detail and is known for “being among the most pleasant people in all of Hertfordshire” (Grahame-Smith 58). While the deaths of the ninjas are quickly glossed over, the death of Penny McGregor is revisited multiple times. Even though she is a member of the serving class, she is named, characterized and given a backstory, unlike the nameless ninjas. Her death is a deeply tragic event that holds thematic significance within the novel: Penny is killed by zombies while delivering candle oil that is “desperately needed” (Grahame-Smith 45) by the neighbouring families. Penny’s death demonstrates the increased danger that servants face during a crisis. Unlike the upper-class characters, they do not have the luxury of staying indoors to avoid the zombie plague.
The British appropriation of Asian martial arts is further valorized within Grahame-Smith’s novel because it allows the upper-class characters to defend themselves from the zombies. During the zombie attack at the first ball, the Bennet girls are able to use their training to form the “Pentagram of Death” (Grahame-Smith 14) and dispatch of a horde of “unmentionable” zombies (Graham-Smith 13). In contrast, when at Netherfield “a dozen servants, four maids, two cooks, and a dozen stewards” (Grahame-Smith 80) are easily killed by two attacking zombies, due to their lack of formal training. The deaths of the servants demonstrated the importance of being properly trained in fighting during a zombie apocalypse, as the need to defend one’s estate supersedes almost all other concerns.
In contrast, the ninjas are consistently background characters. Returning to the fight scene between Lizzie and Lady Catherine, the focus is entirely upon the two women, despite the involvement of the two ninjas. After the ninjas are slain, the narrator states that Lady Catherine perceives “nothing; nothing but an empty dojo, and a pair of broken lifeless ninjas” (Grahame-Smith 297). Lady Catherine’s perception of the dojo as “empty” (Grahame-Smith 297) and the callous description of the ninjas’ bodies shows that the Asian characters in the book are viewed as little more than objects for use.
The Chinese and Japanese female characters within the novel are particularly subservient within the novel and are blatantly objectified. No Asian women are given a speaking role within the novel. Instead, like the ninjas, many serve as symbols of status. The only Japanese woman in the novel is Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s “waiting-geisha” (Grahame-Smith 302) who is mentioned in passing as an indicator of status. Despite being “a respectable-looking English woman” (195) Darcy’s housekeeper is “dressed in a kimono” (195) and has “bound feet” (195), appropriating Chinese and Japanese cultural traditions in order to be fashionable.
One of the most problematic portrayals of Asian women within the novel is the description of the many “beautiful Oriental [women]” (Grahame-Smith 189) that Mr. Bennet “led to the bedchamber” (Grahame-Smith 189). These women remain nameless, characterized only by their race and physical attractiveness. Additionally, female chastity is shown to be highly valued and promiscuity is shamed throughout the novel, as evidenced by family’s reaction when Lydia elopes with Wickham. Mr. Bennet would presumably never engage in adultery with myriad women while in Britain or ruin the reputation of a British woman. Yet Asian women are portrayed as being easily sexually available to white men such as Mr. Bennet.
His decision to have sex with these women sharply contrasts his protection of his daughters’ chastity, which shows that the Asian women are not considered worthy of the respect that Mr. Bennet pays to British women. Instead, the Asian women are merely sexual objects, to be enjoyed by British men such as Mr. Bennet. When Lizzie expresses disapproval towards her father’s adultery, Master Liu explains this as “acquiescence to local customs” (Grahame 189), implying that female promiscuity is commonplace in Chinese culture. Master Liu then beats Lizzie for questioning her father. In this way, Mr. Bennet is absolved of any responsibility for his actions – instead, the supposedly promiscuous nature of Chinese culture and Chinese women are blamed.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies attempts to update the story of Pride and Prejudice in order to be more inclusive of groups that were disempowered during the Regency era. Grahame-Smith’s text draws attention to classism in Austen’s novel by describing the fate of lower-class people such as the McGregors and by portraying the death of Penny as a tragedy. Grahame-Smith also empowers female characters such as Elizabeth Bennet by portraying them as being the best warriors, even better fighters than many men.
However, Grahame-Smith amplifies the Orientalism of Pride and Prejudice through his selective and often derogative appropriation of Asian culture. He fails to problematize this; instead, he merely utilizes Orientalist mysticism, characters and images to increase his book’s mass appeal. Therefore, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies continues the long-standing tradition in Western popular culture of appropriating aspects of Eastern culture in order to add comedic value and hints of exoticism. As a result, the Asian characters in the novel are made invisible and largely fade into the background of the text so that the white British characters can remain the focal point of Grahame-Smith’s the novel.
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