Deborah Yaffe

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Jane Austen -- not a game theorist

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 29 2013 01:00PM

Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s Jane Austen, Game Theorist has made quite a splash since its publication last week: a story on the front page of the New York Times arts section was picked up as far afield as England and Australia and by yesterday, the book had an Amazon sales ranking of 1,727, far higher than your average university-press offering.


Along the way, Chwe has run into some unfair criticism from people who apparently haven’t read his book. He’s been lumped with those who think Austen needs social-science validation, as if only math – you know, boy stuff – could make those girly stories worth reading. And he’s been mocked for allegedly basing a whole book on a statement of the obvious: that strategic thinking plays a role in the interpersonal exchanges in Austen’s stories.

Well, I’ve read the book, and he’s not guilty of these offenses against good sense. Rather than trying to validate Austen by linking her to game theory, he is, if anything, doing the reverse: trying to counter critics who describe game theory as a soulless product of the Cold War, by arguing that the field has humanistic roots.


And his claims about Austen’s use of strategic thinking – defined, more or less, as choosing how to act based on suppositions about how others will choose to act in response – go beyond the no-duh observation that her characters plan, scheme and manipulate. “Illustrating strategic thinking is one thing; making it a central theoretical concern is altogether more ambitious,” he points out. And it’s this second, more ambitious agenda that he attributes to Austen, arguing that she “consciously intended to theorize strategic thinking in her novels. . . . Austen’s novels are game theory textbooks.”


On its face, this is a bold and counter-intuitive claim. Comic novels of romance and social criticism -- game-theory textbooks? Can Chwe sustain this argument? Unfortunately, the answer is no: while he asserts his claim, he doesn’t make much effort to argue for it in the pages of Jane Austen, Game Theorist.


Yes, he piles up examples of Austen characters’ strategic thinking, analyzes the factors that influence their choices, and draws conclusions about why certain of Austen’s people are strategically inept, a condition that, in homage to Amy Heckerling’s filmed Emma update, he calls “cluelessness.”


Sometimes all this is interesting, as when he discusses how Austen’s romantic couples work together to manage other characters. Elsewhere, however, the pressure to identify examples of strategic thinking leads Chwe to embrace questionable interpretations, such as the suggestion that Persuasion’s Captain Harville deliberately engages Anne Elliot in a discussion of women’s constancy in order to promote her romance with Captain Wentworth.

Ultimately, however, the accumulation of examples does little to bolster Chwe’s central claim about Austen’s game-theoretical intent. No matter how many times Austen shows strategic thinking at work in her stories, none of those episodes – and not even the frequency of their occurrence – makes her a game theorist. Thinking about a type of human behavior, showing examples of that behavior in action, weaving that behavior into a narrative – by itself, all this doesn’t amount to theorizing. Theorizing means abstracting general principles from specific situations, and Chwe never shows, or even tries to show, that Austen does that.


Of course, we might do this on her behalf – a veritable cottage industry is devoted to producing self-help books and articles of the “What Jane Austen Teaches Us About How to Catch a Man While Retaining Our Self-Respect” variety – but our eagerness to theorize using Jane Austen’s raw materials doesn’t transform Jane Austen herself into a theorist of dating, strategizing or anything else. And at times, despite his big claims, Chwe almost seems to admit as much: “Regardless of whether Austen intends to impart game theory in her novels, it is up to the reader to receive it,” he writes at one point.


Fundamentally, Chwe seems to misconstrue the difference between a novelist and a social scientist. “Austen argues” this or that, he writes at several points; elsewhere, he opines, “Like any social theorist, Austen seeks conceptual clarity.” But Austen doesn’t “argue” for abstract propositions and “clarify” concepts; like most good novelists, she creates compelling characters, places them in situations that demand action, and shows us the results. Her medium is the concrete, not the abstract. Austen did indeed have extraordinary insight into the way that strategic thinking shapes social interactions, but she’s telling stories; it’s we who are the game theorists.


If Chwe fails to persuade us that Austen was a game theorist, does he nevertheless manage to show that Austen is, as he claims, “centrally concerned with strategic thinking”? Not necessarily, for too often he makes strategic thinking central only by misinterpreting key passages, wrenching them out of historical and cultural context.


The most revealing example of this misinterpretation comes when Chwe turns to Darcy’s analysis, in Pride and Prejudice, of the failure of his insulting first proposal of marriage. After describing how his parents condoned his selfish and overbearing behavior, Darcy tells Elizabeth, “You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first but most advantageous. By you was I properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”


Chwe quotes the first, third and fourth sentences of this declaration and concludes, “Mr. Darcy’s lesson is that a proposal is a strategic situation and a man cannot take a woman’s answer for granted.” But as the sentence that Chwe omits makes clear, that’s not the lesson Jane Austen has in mind. Her lesson is not strategic but moral, perhaps even religious – it’s a lesson about the sin of pride and the importance of humility, about the danger in believing oneself to be better than others and the imperative to remember one’s own imperfections. It’s not an MBA-ready lesson on how to get to yes.


Still, for the Janeite interested in the phenomenon of Austen-obsession, Chwe’s book is worth reading: while it may be unsatisfactory as literary criticism, it’s another fascinating example of the irresistible pull that Austen’s deceptively simple stories exert on the imaginations of all kinds of readers. Like many of the people I interviewed while researching Among the Janeites – the crossword-puzzle enthusiast who thinks the novels are written in a kind of code, the speech therapist who believes Austen’s characters lie on the autistic spectrum -- Chwe finds in Austen a reflection of his own preoccupations. It’s not just that, as a game theorist, he interprets her stories using an explanatory model he knows well. No, he’s a game theorist, so she must be one, too.


Of course, Jane Austen’s irresistible fascination has a self-perpetuating quality – as a marketing tool, if nothing else. As Chwe himself admits, the human concern with strategic thinking predates Austen by centuries; he cites examples stretching back to the ancient Greeks and the Babylonian Talmud. Even if Chwe had wanted to confine himself to English literature, he could have analyzed Richardson’s Pamela, whose protagonist plays, and wins, a high-stakes sexual chess match against her wealthy employer. Talk about a game-theory textbook! But Samuel Richardson, Game Theorist? Somehow, I don’t see that title getting big play in the New York Times.


2 comments
Mar 25 2014 01:28PM by KDC

Helpful review; even the TOC suggested to me the book was more about strategy in some sense, so this is quite useful. Along these lines, though (especially in your last paragraph), you may be interested in a book by a distinguished game theorist taking the opposite tack - trying to elucidate unusual strategic behavior in the humanities (including novels and plays) by using actual game theory. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/game-theory-and-humanities

(Full disclosure: I hated Pamela, but maybe now I need to reread it.)

Mar 25 2014 01:48PM by dyaffe

Thanks for your comment, and for your further reading suggestion. And just between us, I'm not much of a Pamela fan myself, though my English-professor friend tells me it's a great book. But its plot certainly involves a lot of strategic game-playing. . .

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