Jane Austen, Game Theorist

In the Freakonomics podcast on Michael Chwe’s book, Jane Austen, Game TheoristChwe says:

So the very first manipulation is Mr. Bingley shows up with his sister and they rent out Netherfield which is this estate nearby. And so Mr. Bingley’s sister invites Jane to come for dinner. And the first manipulation is Mrs. Bennet says, “Well you’ve got to go on horseback.” … The daughters say, “Why horseback? Shouldn’t she take the carriage?” And Mrs. Bennet says, “Well, it’s going to rain and if she goes on horseback it is very likely that they will invite her to stay the night, and hence she’ll get to spend more time.” [I]t seems kind of silly but you have to play for keeps…If you know if somebody marriageable is nearby and you have a chance to spend 20 more minutes with that person, you’ve got to go for it…Mrs. Bennet is not a very sympathetic character, and she seems to be very foolish, but if you look at what she accomplishes, it is pretty good.

If Mrs Bennet, then, is such a great game theorist, or at least an extremely rational strategist, why is it that she’s such an unsympathetic character? If instead the roles were reversed and Mr Bennet were the one anxious to see his daughters married off, would he be presented as unsympathetically? Perhaps an argument could be made that Jane Austen, acting in true game theorist fashion, portrays Mr and Mrs Bennet as strategic foils of each other. Mrs Bennet, more “simple-minded,” speaks openly about her desire to marry her daughters off and the strategies she uses to see her goal through. Mr Bennet, despite his portrayal as not being too involved with his daughters’ affairs, is, too, anxious about his daughters’ future, but doesn’t make it evident: he visits Mr Bingley without his family knowing so that the women may visit him later on. However, an additional case might be made that Mr Bennet does not have to be too anxious about his daughters’ future, even that he might not know the depth of such anxiety.

Mr and Mrs Bennet’s opposing natures intimate that there may be some underlying truth guiding Mrs Bennet’s actions, that she may not necessarily be as simple-minded as she appears. An uncovering of the truth might be found in Charlotte, who says:

If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better shew more affection than she feels. (15)

This appears to be Caroline Bingley’s strategy toward wooing Darcy, which, however, is fairly ineffective in swaying his affection away from Elizabeth. In her interactions with Darcy, Caroline Bingley comes off as cloying and desperate—uncannily similar to Mrs Bennet. What can be said about Mrs Bennet, then, is that perhaps she takes on this role of “shewing more affection” for her daughters. Presenting herself, whether unintentionally or not, as cloying and desperate to climb the social ladder, Mrs Bennet allows Jane to retain her demure nature in the eyes of Mr Bingley, while still presenting him (albeit via Mrs Bennet) with an overabundance of affection, with the “encouragement to be really in love” needed to solidify their relationship.

Thus it seems that throughout the first half of Pride and Prejudice, women must constantly put some woman (or multiple women or themselves) down in order to raise another woman up. This is evident most in Mrs Bennet, who repeatedly compares her daughters’ looks to each other in order to make one stand out, and Caroline Bingley, who criticizes the Bennets in hopes that Darcy will grow to like Elizabeth less. Jane Austen’s great combination of game theorist and social commentator shines in such cases as she depicts a society in which women must strategically climb over one another, indeed even beating other women down, in order to get ahead, while men hover much more in the periphery with the security of inherited money, essentially guaranteeing them wives and stable lives without having to put in as much effort of their own.

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UChicago Clothesline Project

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