Theory of Mind and Mind Eating

The Popular Appeal of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


Kathryn Duncan


Jane Austen’s novels are a favorite among those applying evolutionary psychology to literature as Austen constructs characters who allow readers to exercise their evolutionary adaptation of Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind means reading of minds, not in a psychic fashion, but rather figuring out people’s thoughts, feelings, and desires by reading their body language, appearance, etc. Building upon the work of Lisa Zunshine and others, Michael Austin in Useful Fictions explains the important role of narrative in mitigating another psychological adaptation: anxiety. Brought together, Zunshine’s and Austin’s ideas help to explain Austen’s popularity as her books create a space to exercise Theory of Mind in a carefully constructed world where anxiety never becomes unbearable. However, what happens when we add zombies to the mix as Seth Grahame-Smith does in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a mashup of Austen and monster story? The book’s publisher initially identified its audience to be those interested in horror fiction, but it turns out that most fans – and the book has sold over one million copies – are Janeites. The mashup presents an interesting opportunity to explore how Theory of Mind and anxiety operate when mashed up as well. Zombies, the monster du jour, are generally read as expressions of anxiety over class, consumerism, and terrorism. This paper argues that today’s zombies are also a response to dementia with popular discourse about dementia sharing much in common with literary descriptions of zombies and the threat they represent.