It is a truth universally acknowledged that I am a huge Jane Austen fan. (See what I did there? Eh?) So when I saw the NYT was running an article featuring her name, I was instantly drawn in.
In my mind, there has never been a question that Jane Austen’s works continue to be relevant in modern times. I mean, simply looking at the re-adaptations of her novels to film is enough… Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park, not to mention modern adaptations like Bridget Jones, Clueless and Bride and Prejudice.
I’ve written papers on, argued over, watched movies about and enjoyed her works for many years, and have friends of all ages who have done the same. Her work resonates with many people on a personal level, but until today, I had never seen anyone other than Professors of British Literature find relevance to Austen in their work.
But Michael Chwe, a political scientist at UCLA, has found a new way to make Jane relevant. He claims that Jane Austen understood game theory before the field of political science was around. This is a claim I am happy to buy in to, given my love for both Ms. Austen and political science.
Austen’s characters were active participants in the makings of what we now call game theory: manipulation, strategic decision making, maximizing payoff and minimizing risk, etc. Now, I’ve always thought of Austen’s writing as clever, but this Dr. Chwe really got me thinking: we see all kinds of strategy in all of Jane’s characters. Think about Pride & Prejudice alone:
- Mr. Wickham is the ultimate strategist, and his manipulations of all the ladies (and gentlemen) of Meryton is a prime example of a character trying to “maximize payoff” (Flirtations, Engagements, and his eventual Marriage)
- Mr. Darcy and the Bingley sisters’ manipulation of Mr. Bingley
- Mrs. Bennet’s (and Lizzy’s) manipulation of Jane’s romance… i.e.: sending her on horseback or suggesting trips to London
- Everything Lady Catherine DeBourgh does. Ever.
- Charlotte’s marriage advice to Elizabeth and Jane (and her marriage to Mr. Collins)
These are just a few example of the the Game Theoretic qualities of Jane Austen’s work. I do, however, think it is a stretch to call Jane Austen the “Mother of Game Theory.” Really, any author whose work focuses on relationships and the human condition will exhibit shades of strategic thinking. Jane Austen just does it best.