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.


7 thoughts on “Jane Austen, Game Theorist

  1. Your last comment on a “society in which women must strategically climb over one another, indeed even beating other women down, in order to get ahead” really struck me as an apt description not only of Austen’s time, but of ours as well. As a personal experience, I can recall countless incidents of female friends remarking on the favorable gender ratio of various social events. Whenever I pressed them to explain what they meant and why it was favorable, they always replied that the number of females in the room was either equal to or lower than the number of males. It was implied not only that this put them in a position of power over the males at the event, but that the addition of another female would inherently take away from this power. Also, maybe this only occurred at my own high school, but there was always a tense atmosphere when a car of girls being driven home by an attractive upperclassman guy from some event had to decide who would get dropped off last and would get alone time with him. (All of this maneuvering had to occur without him noticing, of course.) There was, again, the unspoken knowledge that if you had to be dropped off first, you “lost” in some inarticulate way. But what did you lose? And at what game? This zero-sum way of looking at social and romantic interactions has always been personally frustrating to me, and it seems as if it has historical precedent.

  2. Hi Sarah, you’ve brought up a lot of interesting questions! One being that Pride and Prejudice is steeped in strategic decision making; two, that being successful at marriage game theory might make you distasteful if you’re a woman, etc, etc. I’m particularly interested in what you’ve said about women being the main aggressive participants in marriage game theory, “she depicts a society in which women must strategically climb over one another…in order to get ahead.” Get ahead seems to be framed in terms of marriage. What about Charlotte and Elizabeth’s friendship? As well as Jane and Elizabeth’s friendship? If there is this ‘anti-lesbian’ continuum, where does female-female relationships lie in Austen’s world? And how about in the second half of the novel – where does Mr. Wickham lie in this marriage game theory system?

    Also, is Mrs. Bennet similar to Meng Mu or Ruiniang? All these mothers are game theorists, but only Mrs. Bennet appears to be unsympathetic.


    • Hey Alice! You bring up a great point about “getting ahead” in Pride and Prejudice. I definitely framed my commentary in terms of getting ahead in society, e.g., climbing the social ladder, accumulating wealth, etc. Thinking about female-female relationships and the lesbian continuum, though, brings up a whole other set of interesting questions and ways to look at the novel.

      Most notable, of course, is Charlotte and Elizabeth’s friendship and how that fares after Wickham’s proposals to both of them. Charlotte is portrayed very sympathetically, though she breaches a fair amount of social graces in accepting Wickham’s hand in marriage so quickly after Elizabeth has just rejected his. What makes Charlotte and Elizabeth’s friendship a truly flourishing example of a relationship on the lesbian continuum is that despite this fairly uncomfortable situation that’s passed between them, they haven’t let a man get in the way of their affection for each other. It’s definitely interesting dwelling on the female dynamics that are played out in Pride and Prejudice, and how certain relationships are purposefully juxtaposed with another to point out notable qualities of the other (e.g., Mrs Bennet/Jane or Mrs Bennet/Elizabeth vs. Jane/Elizabeth, Charlotte/Elizabeth vs. Elizabeth/Caroline Darcy, Caroline Darcy/Mrs Darcy vs. Jane/Elizabeth).

      Re: Mrs Bennet and Meng Mu/Ruiniang, I think this ties in, too, with our discussion last class as to whether Meng Mu and Ruiniang might have raised their children differently had they been daughters. Meng Mu and Ruiniang didn’t necessarily have to be social climbers in order for their sons to “get ahead” since their sons could very well advance on their own through education and civil service. Mrs Bennet, on the other hand, sees that there’s not as much her daughters can do to marry well except nurture their social graces and wait for an eligible bachelor to propose. Whether it’s “fair” how these mothers’ are un/sympathetically portrayed is definitely due for deeper discussion (though I guess in matters of game theory/economics, fairness is never much of an issue).

  3. This reply isn’t so much about mothers as rational actors or not (which I find a fascinating thread of comments), but rather just an observation about another place where rational action is juxtaposed with something else. Elizabeth implores Mr. Collins to believe she is refusing him (multiple times), concluding with, “Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.” (83) What do you think is going on in this (fairly loaded) comment? Does it relate to Elizabeth’s conversation with Mrs. Gardiner regarding prudent v. mercenary behavior? And does it relate to the “rational” behavior of Mrs. Bennet?

  4. Something that I found really interesting was your point about whether Mr. Bennet would be portrayed as unsympathetic if he were to push his daughters to get married, and I think he would. In films and novels in which the father wants nothing more than to wed his daughters to receive financial or social stimulation, he is always portrayed as a cruel character, treating his daughters like objects of trade, rather than real people. I do find it interesting that in this story it is the mother who is trying to get her daughters wed, while the father is more laid back about the marriage process. As I said, in most films and novels, it is the father who, as the head of the family and controller of the finances, would want his daughters married so that he could receive in return some sort of financial support, through livestock, or land, or money, while the mother is more sympathetic to her daughter’s condition for she had to go through the same thing when she was wed.

    • What I meant more specifically is whether the story might be different/mean something different if Mr Bennet were given the same qualities Mrs Bennet has (e.g. foolish, lacking social graces), rather than becoming a different “parent trope.” Mostly I was wondering if instead Mrs Bennet were an aloof, occasionally witty, occasionally socially inept mother, how differently would the daughters have been brought up? And would Mr Bennet be unsympathetic in quite the same way if he inhabited Mrs Bennet’s qualities?

      Looking at Lydia, Mrs Bennet certainly gives her free will, implicitly allowing Lydia to flirt with the officers by Mrs Bennet herself talking of her past flirtations. I’m sure “Pride and Prejudice” would be a completely different book were Mr Bennet to act the same way, but I think there’s more to look at with regard to how and why exactly it would.

  5. Hey Sarah, I think you made a lot of great points in your article. I think you’re totally right about the fact that throughout the book some women attempt to put others down in an attempt to make themselves look better. In my mind Caroline Bingley is perhaps the biggest culprit of this. She asks Lizzie to walk with her about the room, so Darcy can compare them and hopefully find her more appealing. Ironically, Caroline suggests that Lizzie is a woman who attempts to put down other women to make herself look better, although this is exactly what Caroline is hoping to achieve with her own comment.

    I also never really thought about the fact the Mrs. Bennet is also definitely a culprit of this, as well. Although, she is significantly less cunning than Caroline, and I’m not sure she’s conscious of it herself. I think Mrs. Bennet just says what everybody is thinking (and is therefore very rude amongst polite society) whereas Caroline creates false flaws in others.

    But I do think you’re a little off base as to why Mrs. Bennet is such an unsympathetic character. I don’t think it’s because she’s a woman attempting to manipulate the system. I think we don’t like Mrs. Bennet for a variety of reasons. For example, we’re constantly aware of the embarrassment she’s causing her daughters and the spectacle she makes of herself. I think this is off-putting because it shows a lack of regard for her children and it’s all for naught because she makes the family look bad in the process. Additionally, it seems to us that she cares very little about what her daughters want. (She wants Lizzie to marry Collins, etc.) Finally, we see everything through Lizzie’s eyes and Lizzie seems to think her mother is ridiculous and she’s quite fond of her father.

    I wonder what you think about Lizzie as a game theorist? I think Lizzie is quite cunning, and quite successful at manipulating the system–not in attaining a marriage but when interacting with Catherine De Bourgh, and Caroline and thwarting their attempts to insult her.

    Sorry this is so long!

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