Pride and Prejudice and P-Zombies

by John Holbo on February 6, 2018

Yeah, the zombie version was good. But what if you wrote a version in which they are all zombies? I’m not sure if any actual edits to the original text would be required. Passages like the following are fine. They just need to be understood properly.

Elizabeth’s spirits soon rising to playfulness again, she wanted Mr. Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her. “How could you begin?” said she. “I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning; but what could set you off in the first place?”

“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”

“My beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners — my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?”

“For the liveliness of your mind, I did.”

“You may as well call it impertinence at once. It was very little less. The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them. Had you not been really amiable, you would have hated me for it; but in spite of the pains you took to disguise yourself, your feelings were always noble and just; and in your heart, you thoroughly despised the persons who so assiduously courted you. There — I have saved you the trouble of accounting for it; and really, all things considered, I begin to think it perfectly reasonable. To be sure, you knew no actual good of me — but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”

Quoted speech is all fine. They can say anything, zombies. ‘Spirits … rising to playfulness’ can be cashed out in terms of dispositions to behave.

If there are any direct references to qualia by the narrator, those would need to be deleted or plausibly edited so as to omit such reference. But Austen does not do a lot of that.

For example:

Miss Bingley’s congratulations to her brother, on his approaching marriage, were all that was affectionate and insincere. She wrote even to Jane on the occasion, to express her delight, and repeat all her former professions of regard. Jane was not deceived, but she was affected; and though feeling no reliance on her, could not help writing her a much kinder answer than she knew was deserved.

The joy which Miss Darcy expressed on receiving similar information, was as sincere as her brother’s in sending it. Four sides of paper were insufficient to contain all her delight, and all her earnest desire of being loved by her sister.

‘Feeling no reliance on her’. Is there something it is like to feel that? Or is it more a disposition to negative expectations about Miss Bingley’s future actions?

As to the second paragraph: four sides of paper were insufficient. But if still more sides might have been sufficient, then I think physicalism about this joy would be sustainable.



SusanC 02.06.18 at 8:07 am

This could possibly be comboned with a spoof on Julian Jaynes/Daniel Dennett, to the effect that consciousness has only appeared in humans recently, and Jane Austen didn’t have it. The Denettian twist is that we are mistaken when we think we have a self, and the ancient Greeks/Jane Austen were right.


John Holbo 02.06.18 at 9:35 am

The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Eligible Bachelor’s Mind


John Holbo 02.06.18 at 9:36 am

I’m already planning the sequel: Sense and Insensibility


davidly 02.06.18 at 11:57 am

Hehe. Glad I stayed for the comments. That, this, or everyone’s trippin’ balls all the time.


steven t johnson 02.06.18 at 1:37 pm

P-zombies? If I understand it correctly, philosophers are agreed that color-blind Mary, the world’s greatest scientist investigating color, cannot “know” what color is, because she can’t feel it. But P-zombies know what every feeling well enough to predict the proper actions motivated by those feelings, then enact them flawlessly? This doesn’t seem right.

If the real point of Mary’s unhappy existence is that knowledge as understanding and knowledge as experience are not the same thing, then perhaps the real point of p-zombies is that there is no doing without reasons, whether they are elemental, like hunger or highly conventional, like novel writing? Or perhaps not.

Instead of bodies without emotions, we can read Pride and Prejudice as Jane Austen’s mind, with no body. That would explain the mystery of feeling (or not) “reliance.” That is one of Jane Austen’s qualia, hence inaccessible to us. But this line of thought is quite alarming on reflection. If qualia are atoms of experience, my qualia on reading these lines somehow transmute from one reading to another. Terrifyingly, all my qualia seem to be equally mutable. And I can’t save myself by intellect. Qualia are metaphysical entities, and as such, come under Occam’s rule: Only those qualia essential to the phenomenon as meaningful as explanations of the phenomenon. Yet I cannot identify them.

I can only conclude I am a p-zombie.


Glen Tomkins 02.06.18 at 2:12 pm

Hadn’t given a thought to Bruno Snell or Milman Parry in decades, and suddenly there they are again. Thanks.


engels 02.06.18 at 2:37 pm

Pride and Prejudice and Zombie Economics

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune will invest it producing goods that meet consumers’ needs and creating jobs that lift people out of poverty…


engels 02.06.18 at 3:21 pm

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in a colour science laboratory containing only black, white and grey objects…


engels 02.06.18 at 3:23 pm

Northanger Trolley


John Holbo 02.06.18 at 3:37 pm

Engels is on a roll.


Z 02.06.18 at 3:52 pm

Pride and Prejudice and Zombie Economics

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune will invest it producing goods that meet consumers’ needs and creating jobs that lift people out of poverty…



otpup 02.06.18 at 4:42 pm

Omigod, Julian Jaynes references! I wonder if anyone has noticed similarities between relationships with p-zombies and those with borderline p.d. The recognition of either must produce a similar frisson.


Kiwanda 02.06.18 at 8:27 pm

I’m more interested in the philosophical issues of personal identity raised by modern medicine, such as what to make of head transplants. If only there was some gentile early nineteenth century English novel that could be given *that* treatment.


Steve 02.06.18 at 11:14 pm

There must be a mashup of Middlemarch and late-Davidson where Casaubon’s apparent insensitivity to Dorothea is due to his emerging fully-formed from the march… He can write the Key to all Mythologies but can he understand it?


Steve 02.06.18 at 11:17 pm

Actually, I take back that comment above… On reflection, that clearly is the plot of Middlemarch. The real question is why Davidson mashed it up with a John Byrne comic to make a philosophical point. Had he left it as Marchman everyone would be applauding his subtle literary insensitivity, as if he were the Martha Nussbaum of externalist semantics.


alfredlordbleep 02.06.18 at 11:19 pm

Family Values

-She: Hired help will be needed.
-(She)’: There is no substitute for family.
-She: Yes indeed. It is a universal truth that a career woman in possession
of a child is in need of a wife.


J-D 02.06.18 at 11:41 pm

‘If there are any direct references to qualia by the narrator, those would need to be deleted or plausibly edited so as to omit such reference. But Austen does not do a lot of that.’

She shows, she doesn’t tell (much).


engels 02.07.18 at 12:33 am



Layman 02.07.18 at 1:05 am

You peoples are killing me.


John Holbo 02.07.18 at 4:09 am

The nice thing about Austen is, of course, the free indirect discourse. Which is a weird thing. Is it even a conceivable point of view – that sort of semi-in/semi-out view? I think I’m going to write a Jack Kirby version of Jane Austen in which there is, within the narrative frame, a Watcher-like character – who watches, of course, but he also semi-steps into the minds of the characters. I think he should be called the Free Indirect Discoursair! He dresses like a pirate but he is sworn not to interfere!


John Holbo 02.07.18 at 4:11 am

This is a good thread.


Alan White 02.07.18 at 4:34 am

Where is the Shelley inversion? P-Zombie Mary Blankenstein creates a monster that, through electrical charges from lightning, is able to distinguish a transition from Kansas to Oz that no p-Zombie can! The horror!


Mark P. 02.07.18 at 6:29 am

Well, along these lines —


Kessel is a very good — and underrated — SF author and his next one is due to drop next next week. I prefer his more visionary stuff like his recent THE MOON AND THE OTHER about a feminist, matriarchal colony on the Moon in the 23rd century. Still, this new one is ‘Pride and Prejudice meets Frankenstein as Mary Bennet falls for the enigmatic Victor Frankenstein and befriends his monstrous Creature.’ Kessel is an English professor and I’m sure he has done right by both source texts ….

Here’s the blurb —

“Dark and gripping and tense and beautiful.” —Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club and Pulitzer Prize finalist for We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves

‘Threatened with destruction unless he fashions a wife for his Creature, Victor Frankenstein travels to England where he meets Mary and Kitty Bennet, the remaining unmarried sisters of the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice. As Mary and Victor become increasingly attracted to each other, the Creature looks on impatiently, waiting for his bride. But where will Victor find a female body from which to create the monster’s mate?

‘Meanwhile, the awkward Mary hopes that Victor will save her from approaching spinsterhood while wondering what dark secret he is keeping from her.

‘Pride and Prometheus fuses the gothic horror of Mary Shelley with the Regency romance of Jane Austen in an exciting novel that combines two age-old stories in a fresh and startling way.’


Mark P. 02.07.18 at 6:32 am

Full disclosure: I am not John Kessel and have never met him, nor even exchanged communications over the Internet. I just think that at his best he’s much better than nine-tenths of the SF writers who get more attention than he does.


steven t johnson 02.07.18 at 1:07 pm

Haven’t seen any books by Kessel on the racks or in the library…but I’ve seen this on line. It is well worth a read. Even if you haven’t read Ender’s Game, it is an excellent case study for all sorts of stories, print and film. I wouldn’t say the the critical method is a Key to All Mythologies, but it is wonderful and appalling how many locks it does fit (in my opinion.)

” Is it even a conceivable point of view – that sort of semi-in/semi-out view?” Also in my opinion, yes. It’s a story teller’s point of view. My reading of Fielding is years old but I seem to remember a great deal of free indirect discourse there too. I strongly suspect that it was Richardson without the epistolary framework. Fielding added a great deal of judicious (judicial?) comment as narrator. Austen was even freer with her judgments, but more indirect. I think much modern story telling is basically describing the movie in the writer’s head. Or, in the present tense writers, comic strip panels, where sometimes a panel is ostensibly a fraction of a second that yet permits minutes of dialogue, but other times the transition from one panel to another is instantaneous. And so.


John Holbo 02.07.18 at 1:41 pm

Just for the record, I don’t doubt the existence of free indirect discourse, merely its ultimate epistemological coherence. Kessel sounds interesting.


steven t johnson 02.07.18 at 3:04 pm

Re the epistemological coherence of free indirect discourse? I don’t doubt that metaphysically/ontologically free indirect discourse is indeed incoherent.

Epistemological coherence seems at first glance to imply that free indirect discourse as a mode of acquiring knowledge either be internally consistent, in some sense necessary, and possibly complete in a deductive sense—but I don’t see how that could be that if it’s metaphysically/ontologically incomplete.

Or, free indirect discourse as a mode of acquiring knowledge relies on foundational notions and procedures that have been agreed to be justified a posterior because they produce information about the way things are, as the collective experience of many in different times and places, especially those engaged in manipulating reality, shows that the knowledge (to be short) works.

Obviously at this point I’m hopelessly confused about the philosophical analysis, as I thought the point of Pride and Prejudice was not to discover the truth about Elizabeth and Darcy. But for the reader to feel like the characters were real people (which is the very opposite of the truth) and, if there was any thinking involved, to decide how they felt about their story. Whether any of this has anything to do with any given reader’s mundane world seems conjectural at best.

For me it’s Mary the color scientist all over again, how it feels isn’t knowledge. But then, maybe my thinking is hopelessly corrupted by foolishly old fashioned ideas about a correspondence notion of truth?


Kiwanda 02.07.18 at 3:23 pm

Mark P.: While visiting family in Genoa, Victor had made the acquaintance of the singular gentleman Jonathan Strange, during the latter’s continental sojurn, and thereby learned of the puissance and peril of English magic. It was in some desperation that he turned to Strange’s confrère Mr. Norrell for assistance….


Gabriel 02.08.18 at 6:10 am

John Kessel was my thesis advisor and is a good friend. Both his criticism and his fiction are very much worth reading; his takedown of Ender’s Game is pretty damning.


ray vinmad 02.08.18 at 7:14 am

Unrelated–but these passages made me realize how much humans had to pay attention to other humans and how they felt before we all had the internet.


alfredlordbleep 02.08.18 at 1:47 pm

The Master does his thing
(nominated for free indirect discourse—however, unzombified—top literary standard)

She was handsome, but the degree of it was not sustained by items and aids; a circumstance moreover playing its part at almost any time in the impression she produced. The impression was one that remained, but as regards the sources of it no sum in addition would have made up the total. She had stature without height, grace without motion, presence without mass. Slender and simple, frequently soundless, she was somehow always in the line of the eye—she counted singularly for its pleasure. More “dressed,” often, with fewer accessories, than other women, or less dressed, should occasion require, with more, she probably could not have given the key to these felicities. They were mysteries of which her friends were conscious—those friends whose general explanation was to say that she was clever, whether or no it were taken by the world as the cause or as the effect of her charm. If she saw more things than her fine face in the dull glass of her father’s lodgings, she might have seen that, after all, she was not herself a fact in the collapse. She didn’t judge herself cheap, she didn’t make for misery. Personally, at least, she was not chalk-marked for the auction. She hadn’t given up yet, and the broken sentence, if she was the last word, would end with a sort of meaning. There was a minute during which, though her eyes were fixed, she quite visibly lost herself in the thought of the way she might still pull things round had she only been a man.

1902 Wings of the Dove


John Holbo 02.08.18 at 2:26 pm

“before we all had the internet.”

Surely we have always had the internet. I can’t remember another time. I’m sure I’d remember.


Z 02.08.18 at 2:54 pm

Unrelated–but these passages made me realize how much humans had to pay attention to other humans and how they felt before we all had the internet.

Thankfully, now we have it and we can finally be all complete assholes!


clew 02.08.18 at 6:34 pm

Mary Bennet, bookish and spinsterly, pursuing color studies in the tradition of Emilie du Chatelet’s experimental work, meets a visiting scientist Mr. Frankenstein…


Kiwanda 02.08.18 at 11:35 pm

Kessel’s discussion of Card’s Ender’s Game mentioned above is actually a bit relevant to P-zombies, in a converse sort of way. Kessel points out that for Card, it’s all about the motivation: Ender kills again and again, but it’s OK, because it was vigorous self-defense (the killing part was not specifically intended), or thought to be a simulation. And anyway, Ender is a good person at heart. It’s not what you do that defines you, it’s what’s underneath. Not quite “regular thoughts, but acting like a zombie”, but toward that.


SusanC 02.08.18 at 11:43 pm

On the “epistemological coherence” of free indirect discourse: Elizabeth Bennet is a fictional character, and by virtue of this Jane Austen has access to her (fictional) mental states in a way that would not be possible for a real person. Free indirect discourse just makes it more apparent that the world of the fiction does not work like the real world; but more subtle versions of this problem are probably present without it.

It gives away that the narrator knows things they couldn’t know if the story had really happened.

(In some works of fiction, you can have a reveal where the narrator turns out to be the same person as the central character they’ve been talking about in the third person, which “explains” why they know so much about what the protagonist’s mental states were).


Alan White 02.09.18 at 3:28 am

Just have to say that “omniscient narrator” fiction is not my favorite, and I prefer first-person-flawed-grasp-warts-and-all story-telling. But even that can be corrupted, as reading one recent prize-winning novel proved, where the sophisticated interior reports of characters’ points of view did not match up with how they were presented in real life as undereducated underclass. People are often deeper than they appear–that was one legitimate point of the book–but the vocabularies of the inner and outer person ought to match in any case.


Fergus 02.10.18 at 11:18 am

On the free indirect discourse – I found myself reading the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book recently, and it has a very similar style. There are several stray observations – the one stuck in my head was about Dumbledore’s watch, I think – that couldn’t possibly be the thoughts of any of the characters on-scene, but also don’t really make sense as observations of a freestanding narrator. “A story teller’s point of view” is right – it really reads the way a parent might talk, inventing a story and feeling licensed to dip in and out of any particular perspective, to get the right reaction.

Great thread.

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