Jane Austen, Mistress of Manipulation


My student Jessica Chen has just alerted me to a new book—Jane Austen, Game Theorist–by a UCLA political scientist. An article in The New York Times discusses how Michael Chwe’s work looks at the intricate power plays that can occur between Austen characters. For instance, here he is applying game theory to the confrontation in the garden between Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine  in Pride and Prejudice:

Most game theory, [Chwe] noted, treats players as equally “rational” parties sitting across a chessboard. But many situations, Mr. Chwe points out, involve parties with unequal levels of strategic thinking. Sometimes a party may simply lack ability. But sometimes a powerful party faced with a weaker one may not realize it even needs to think strategically.

Take the scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Lady Catherine de Bourgh demands that Elizabeth Bennet promise not to marry Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth refuses to promise, and Lady Catherine repeats this to Mr. Darcy as an example of her insolence — not realizing that she is helping Elizabeth indirectly signal to Mr. Darcy that she is still interested.

It’s a classic case of cluelessness, which is distinct from garden-variety stupidity, Mr. Chwe argues. “Lady Catherine doesn’t even think that Elizabeth” — her social inferior — “could be manipulating her,” he said.

I like the general idea although in this case I don’t entirely agree. If Elizabeth is manipulating Lady Catherine here, she is doing so unconsciously. In fact, Austen goes out of her way to show that Elizabeth is never consciously manipulative and that all of the moves that forward her relationship with Darcy are done innocently. She innocently fascinates Darcy by being cool to him at the dance, she innocently shows Darcy her best self when she visits her sick sister, she innocently meets him at Pemberley (she thought he was elsewhere), and she innocently tells Lady Catherine just what Darcy needs to hear.

The reason that Austen insists on Elizabeth’s innocence is because she wants to contrast her with the conniving Caroline Bingley and the plotting Charlotte Lucas. In the classical courtship novel, including this one, convention dictates that the heroine cannot be a “scheming little seductress.”

I actually think that Elizabeth’s innocence, which is akin to her sister Jane’s, is somewhat unrealistic and therefore one of Austen’s few flaws. Women readers identifying with Elizabeth may feel it is unladylike to make a not-so-innocent move on a man, even though sometimes such moves are necessary to catch his attention.

Apparently Chwe finds fifty instances of manipulation in Austen, which I can well imagine. I hope one of his examples is Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, a superb plotter who always gets her way. In contrast to Lucie, Austen’s heroines, although they always get their man, never do so through conscious manipulation.

To bear this out, here’s a quick overview of the heroines in the other novels:

Northanger Abbey: “But Catherine did not know her own advantages – did not know that a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward.”

Sense and Sensibility: Marianne attracts Willoughby by innocently spraining her ankle and Brandon by innocently playing the piano. Elinor doesn’t attract Edward by setting her cap at him (to choose an expression that Marianne loathes) but simply by being Elinor;

Emma:  Emma tries to be a manipulator but is clueless about the two men that she attracts (Elton and Knightley);

Persuasion: Anna tries to avoid Wentworth but unconsciously captures his admiration by her expert handling of the crisis of Louisa’s fall.

If one really wants instances of master manipulators in novels of the time, I recommend Lovelace in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Valmont and Madame de Merteuil in Chloderlos de Laclos’s Liaisons Dangereuses. Still, I had fun applying Chwe’s game theory to Austen.

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