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Jane Austen Responds: Game Theory? Sir, You Flatter Me

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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(Credit: University of Texas, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dear Mr. Michael Chwe,

It is with a mix of delight, embarrassment and confusion that I have watched people analyze and adapt my novels all these years. Cassandra often hears of the latest developments before I do and takes great pleasure in bringing me tidbits of gossip. When she floats towards me with more enthusiasm than usual, I know she has information of a most scandalous nature to share: zombies, Jane, zombies! I have peered through the clouds at camera crews descending on the English countryside, the latest impersonation of my Lizzy in tow. I have eavesdropped on grad students presenting dissertations about the subtext of neocolonialism in my writing.  So far, I have been content to simply observe all this from my perch in the firmament—to rest my pen, if not my tongue. Now, however, immense gratitude and bliss compel me to write to you.

In naming me a game theorist, dear Sir, you bestow upon me more honor than I deserve. It is astonishing to me that, although I had no knowledge of game theory when I was writing my novels—and even though the field did not exist at the time—I “systematically explored the core ideas of game theory” in my work, as you confidently put it [PDF]. Some people may pounce upon such an assertion as anachronistic, but you convincingly argue that my novels are forerunners of a 20th-century academic discipline.

Only a man of your unparalleled perspicacity would realize that, “when you think about it, people have been thinking about strategic action for a long time,”—for far longer than game theory has officially existed. Indeed, if a strategy is a series of planned actions meant to achieve a specific goal, then my novels are full of strategy. Many of my characters scheme, manipulate and meddle. Of course, I would humbly point out that I was by no means the only or the first writer to notice that people strategize and manipulate one another to get what they want—and I certainly did not come up with the kind of mathematical models of decision-making central to game theory—but I think your notion of me as a game theorist remains impervious nonetheless.

When I invented the word ‘imaginist’ to describe some of my heroines, I hoped to convey their penchant for speculation and flights of fancy and their tendency to remake the world around them inside their minds—which often results in great disappointment. You clarify that what I really meant by ‘imaginist’ was “a theoretician of strategic thinking.” This is much more apt. And when I wrote of my characters’ penetrating minds and foresight—or lack thereof—I thought I was writing about the ability to look beyond one’s immediate circumstances. As you so graciously explain, however, “penetration” and “foresight” were actually my names for strategic thinking! That my novels catalogue “more than fifty strategic manipulations specifically called ‘schemes’” is not only a welcome surprise, but also further evidence of people’s inexhaustible talent for finding meaning in a writer’s sentences that she never intended herself.

“Austen starts with the basic concepts of choice (a person does what she does because she chooses to),” you write, “and preferences (a person chooses according to her preferences).” I feel as though you have reached into my brain and plucked out my thoughts. I firmly believe that every decision a person makes is based on his or her personal preferences. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot breaks her engagement to Frederick Wentworth because that was her preference, not that of her relatives. Likewise, in Pride and Prejudice Charlotte Lucas marries the unctuous Mr. Collins because she prefers him as a husband to anyone else in the world and not for any reasons related to her family or finances.

You are perhaps most discerning with regard to emotion and intimacy in my novels. “Austen’s heroines make good choices even when overpowered by emotion,” you write, concisely and accurately. This is exactly why Marianne Dashwood—all of 16 years and inundated with affection for John Willoughby—showers him with attention in public, sneaks off to his aunt’s house without a chaperone, and writes him a series of incredibly personal letters, even though they are not engaged and only recently acquainted. When Willoughby’s avarice and salacious past are revealed—when he abruptly severs all communication with Marianne and snubs her at a ball—she can be proud of her good choices and strategic thinking.

Finally, I am obliged to comment on what you deem “cluelessness, the conspicuous absence of strategic thinking” in my novels. The characters that you single out as clueless ostensibly “focus on numbers, visual detail, decontextualized literal meaning, and social status,” you write. “These traits are commonly shared by people on the autistic spectrum; thus Austen suggests an explanation for cluelessness based on individual personality traits. Another of Austen’s explanations for cluelessness is that not having to take another person’s perspective is a mark of social superiority over that person.”

Sir, I do not merit attribution for these ideas; they are entirely your own. I am not capable of such acute analysis. In my view, all my characters are necessarily concerned with social status as it influences everything they do. And, to me, reducing autism to a few habits or character traits and conflating autism with cluelessness seems insulting and ignorant. Some of my characters obsess over their clothes, physical appearance, money and social status not because they are incapable of strategic thinking, but because they are materialistic, selfish and narrow-minded people. In my books, people of all social ranks have difficulty adopting others’ perspectives. Lady Catherine de Bourgh may not deign to consider Elizabeth’s interests, but Lizzy fails to see Mr. Darcy’s point of view until she reads and rereads his letter and accepts that she had misjudged him. And some of my most intelligent and tactical characters (Emma comes to mind) make the worst blunders. But I have gone on too long about my own work and risk earning the label of narcissist in addition to game theorist.

So I thank you Sir and thank you again. I believe you have conceived a whole new way of looking at my writing, one that has yielded revelations never before articulated. I am exceedingly and selfishly glad that readers who can match your cleverness are rare in number, otherwise I fear people would spend more time reading books about my books than reading my novels themselves.

Most sincerely and affectionately,

Jane Austen

About the Author: Ferris Jabr is an associate editor focusing on neuroscience and psychology. Follow on Twitter @ferrisjabr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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