At the heart of William Deresiewicz’s ill-advised, reactionary attack on Michael Chwe’s 2013 book Jane Austen Game Theorist is the assertion that Chwe’s game theory approach adds no value to our collective understanding of Jane Austen’s novels, which we didn’t already garner from “normal” literary criticism. I will in this post give significant additional evidence to rebut Deresiewicz’s assertion, and also to extend Michael’s theorizing into a new realm, simply by paying close attention to JA’s wordplay while keeping Chwe’s arguments in mind.
In one section of Chapter 6 of his book, Chwe discusses the theme of “choice” in JA’s six novels (treated as a whole). I will now give you quotes from those half dozen pages, stripped of examples, to give you a glimpse of his organized, insightful approach to this topic:
CHWE: “For Austen, choice is a central concern, even obsession. The single most important choice is a woman’s choice of whether and whom to marry, and Austen’s heroines adamantly defend this choice against any presumption otherwise.…Thoughtful men are aware that women can make choices…. Idiotic men are not aware…Being able to make a choice is almost always a good thing for Austen; it is “a great deal better to chuse than to be chosen” (E, p. 15).
There is power in being able to make a choice…. Even when it seems better to not have to make a choice, Austen shows that another choice can make things better still. Correspondingly, for Austen, people who cannot make choices deserve ridicule or worse. …For Austen, choices bind. You can’t have it both ways. Once you make a choice, you cannot pretend you did not make it. …Austen hates encumbered choices. …being empowered and unencumbered improves both choice and result. Austen explains that to make a choice thoughtfully, you must understand the counterfactual of what would have happened had you chosen otherwise (in economics, this is the concept of “opportunity cost”). …Understanding the proper counterfactual, imagining all aspects of what would have happened had you chosen differently, is not always easy.” END QUOTE FROM CHWE’S BOOK
Any group of knowledgeable Janeites who read that section of Chwe’s book, including the examples he provides, along with other examples which might occur to them, could spend intellectually fruitful hours discussing the novels through this lens of the theme of choice. Chwe is correct---choice IS an obsession of JA’s, and it is a wide portal leading directly into the core of JA’s complex moralism—the infinite variety of how people make difficult choices.
And so the example Chwe mentioned in his rebuttal to Deresiewicz (Mrs. Weston analyzing Jane Fairfax’s choices in game theory-like terms, which Emma had not considered) was perfectly chosen—it illustrates that an author who put such words in a character’s mouth must, of necessity, have first thought in those terms herself.
And it’s doesn’t require arcane scientific knowledge in order to think intelligently about the overarching theme of choice in JA’s novels. It’s just that, generally speaking, as Chwe also pointed out, it simply doesn’t occur to most readers to actually decide to take this approach and then follow through on it! As I’ve asserted countless times, so much of the most interesting stuff in JA’s fiction is accessible only after it first occurs to us to take a fresh perspective on texts we’ve read dozens of times before.
As I wrote in my last post about Michael’s book, JA is NOT the kind of heavy-handed writer who provides appendices, waving her hands frantically in order to get readers to engage with her deeper subtextual themes. Rather, JA provides countless light winks, hints and nods, small textual smiles which alert the sensitive reader to pay closer attention to a particular theme.
And I have found that one key aspect of the Jane Austen Code is the satirical nature of so much of her winking and hinting, and her pervasive use of wordplay in that process.
The perfect textual example of this is the one I brought forward yesterday, Mr. Bennet’s witty catechism of Lizzy’s UNHAPPY ALTERNATIVE in her choice as to whether to accept Mr. Collins’s proposal:
"Come here, child," cried her father as she appeared. "I have sent for you on an affair of importance. I understand that Mr. Collins has made you an offer of marriage. Is it true?" Elizabeth replied that it was. "Very well—and this offer of marriage you have REFUSED?"
"I have, sir."
"Very well. We now come to the point. Your mother insists upon your ACCEPTING it. Is it not so, Mrs. Bennet?"
"Yes, or I will never see her again."
"An UNHAPPY ALTERNATIVE is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."
Elizabeth could not but SMILE at such a conclusion of such a beginning, but Mrs. Bennet, who had persuaded herself that her husband regarded the affair as she wished, was excessively disappointed.
"What do you mean, Mr. Bennet, in talking this way? You promised me to insist upon her marrying him."
… Mr. Collins, meanwhile, was meditating in solitude on what had passed. He thought too well of himself to comprehend on what motives his cousin could REFUSE him…
Mr. Bennet parodically assumes the role of a pedantic schoolmaster teaching logic to a student, and brilliantly reduces Lizzy’s choice to its essential absurdity. And one of the Top Five comic moments in all of literature was thereby created.
But here’s my meta-point. It was only after I read Chwe’s rebuttal to Deresiewicz, in which Chwe included the example of Mrs. Weston alerting Emma to Jane Fairfax’s choices, that it occurred to me to see Mr. Bennet’s famous bon mot in the fresh light of a parody of logical choice-making, or what we today call game theory.
And, once the seed was planted to look at P&P from this fresh perspective, I soon noticed, also for the first time, that Mr. Bennet’s parody of a logical theorem was only the BEGINNING of JA’s further parodic treatment of this theme in P&P!
There are (at least) two more passages later in P&P which are part and parcel of this motif, textual interconnections which have been hiding in plain sight in this most popular and reread of novels for 2 centuries.
Mr. Bennet’s logical exercise occurs near the end of Chapter 20 of P&P. Now look at the interaction of Lizzy and Jane less than a chapter later, in Chapter 21:
"But, my dear sister, can I be happy, even supposing the best, in ACCEPTING a man whose sisters and friends are all wishing him to marry elsewhere?"
"You must DECIDE for yourself," said Elizabeth; "and if, upon MATURE DELIBERATION, you find that the misery of disobliging his two sisters is MORE THAN EQUIVALENT to the happiness of being his wife, I advise you by all means to REFUSE him."
"How can you talk so?" said Jane, FAINTLY SMILING. "You must know that though I should be exceedingly grieved at their disapprobation, I could not hesitate."
"I did not think you would; and that being the case, I cannot consider your situation with much compassion."
"But if he returns no more this winter, my CHOICE will never be required.
A thousand things may arise in six months!"
The idea of his returning no more Elizabeth treated with the utmost contempt.”
Isn’t it obvious that Lizzy so enjoyed her father’s witty parody of cost benefit analysis of the Collins proposal, that she translated it at her first opportunity to her sister’s hypothetical response to Bingley’s hypothetical proposal? Elizabeth “could not but smile” at her father’s joke at her mother’s expense, and Jane, in turn “faintly smil[es]” at Lizzy’s admirable emulation of Dear Old Dad. The rhetorical apple has indeed not fallen far from the paternal tree.
And there’s yet a further iteration of this motif, as JA milks the joke for all it’s worth, but, as always, with the lightest, most subtle touch, and the deepest concealed meaning—there’s an echo of the proposal refusal parody five chapters later, when Charlotte “proposes” to Elizabeth that Lizzy visit her in Kent:
"I am not likely to leave Kent for some time. Promise me, therefore, to come to Hunsford."
ELIZABETH COULD NOT REFUSE , though she foresaw little pleasure in the visit.
"My father and Maria are coming to me in March," added Charlotte, "and I hope you will consent to be of the party. Indeed, Eliza, you will be as welcome as either of them."
I put ”proposal” in quotes, because I have suggested many times that Charlotte is a closeted lesbian who has secretly and unrequitedly loved Elizabeth for years. Therefore her request that Lizzy promise to visit in March has the veiled connotation, from Charlotte’s point of view, of a romantic proposal—so how lovely that, unlike her negative responses to both Collins and (in the first go-round, at least) Darcy, “Elizabeth could NOT refuse” Charlotte’s proposal! It does suggest, with exquisite subtlety, that Elizabeth does, however unconsciously, reciprocate Charlotte’s secret love.
And, again, I saw all of this only because that one short section of Chwe’s book got me thinking about choice in JA’s novels. I believe this is a vindication of the right questions posed by Chwe in his book, which provoked me to find these answers.
Whereas, I’ve read entire books about Jane Austen by respected, conventional literary critics which did not in any way inspire me to see something new and interesting in JA’s writing.
So Chwe’s book is, again, a breath of very fresh air in the world of Austen scholarship, and I for one will continue to take deep breaths and dance up a rhetorical storm, despite Deresiewicz’s very Mr. Wooohouse-like abhorrence of literary critical dancing with open windows!
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