Saturday, July 13, 2013

Jane Austen: Author extraordinaire, Social satirist...and Game theorist?

A friend recently sent me a Freakonomics podcast simply because the name "Jane Austen" was in the title. Little did she know what a gift this was! And little did she know how much this would get me thinking about the genius of Jane Austen.

So what was this podcast all about? It interviewed researcher Michael Chwe, who proposes that Jane Austen "consciously intended to theorize strategic thinking in her novels." Think of Mrs. Bennett scheming to marry off her 5 daughters, or Emma contriving to arrange love matches among her acquaintances.

This study of strategic decision-making is otherwise known as "game theory." And Chwe wrote the book on Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Seriously, that is the name of his book: Jane Austen, Game Theorist.

Chwe explores how Jane Austen plots are pretty simplistic and basic (e.g., in Pride and Prejudice, get married), but what makes them so rich and complex are the manipulations (e.g., in Pride and Prejudice, mother Mrs. Bennett gets daughter Jane to know the new neighbor Bingley by going on horseback in the rain to visit). Introduce a basic plot line (the Bennetts have 5 daughters that need to be married off because they have no other choices) and then let the chess pieces fall into place and the strategizing begin: How will Bingley react? What will Bingley's sisters think? What can Mrs. Bennett do to further encourage things? What will Jane's sisters do? What other contenders may be in the running? Marvelous!

Game theory is specifically defined as "the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers", but all that detail is for a different type of blog. This blog focuses on Jane Austen. And my mind is racing thinking of the stripped-down plots of her novels and the fabulous manipulations and meddling that ensue in them all.

Ah, who knew? Jane Austen, the godmother of Game Theory.

(for more information, check out the podcast at

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