Interview: Dr. Michael Chwe

Emma Woodhouse reflects upon notions of truth and strategy, stating, “Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.” Famous for being the only one of Jane Austen’s heroines who “no one but [herself] will much like,” Emma reveals a dangerous fact that we all know instinctively: the complete truth rarely exists without some sort of agenda.

But, sometimes, an interpretation of Austen’s agenda is inspired by complete coincidence. Dr. Michael Chwe explains that finding the children’s book Flossie and the Fox at a garage sale was the beginning of his project, titled Jane Austen, Game Theorist.  Much has been said about our Austen in the past several years—we’ve asked questions about her sexuality, questions regarding her censored letters, and questions about her publication history, but we’ve never considered her a game theorist until now.

Chwe’s book Jane Austen, Game Theorist supports Emma’s assertion, and argues that “Jane Austen systematically explored the core ideas of game theory in her six novels, roughly two hundred years ago” (1). Chwe looks at how Austen’s characters negotiate the main principles of game theory: choice (a character does something because they want to do that action), strategic thinking (a character does something based upon how they think others will perceive and respond to it), and preferences (a character does something because they prefer it over another option). The result is an interesting, interdisciplinary analysis of Jane Austen and her work.

INTERVIEWER

You mention in the preface of your book that this project started when you found Flossie and the Fox at a garage sale for your children. You used this experience and paired it with all the years you spent teaching and reading folktales and Austen to create Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Can you tell us more about how you came up with your idea and how it changed over time?

CHWE

The original title of the book was called Folk Game Theory, which revolved around the idea of people who use game theory who are not traditional game theorists. The examples were folk tales, and I actually had a whole chapter on Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, the musical. But, most of it was Austen.  Seventy, eighty percent was Austen. So, one of the [manuscript] reviewers said, “You should just say that this is about Austen.” It was a good choice. The original idea was to say that this book is many instances of people who are developing game theory, not necessarily in a theoretical way, but through narratives […] In my teaching, I use examples from movies and other things to show students, so I’m always on the lookout for more examples […] I got interested in Austen after I saw the movie Clueless. Then, I started watching Austen movies. And then, I started reading her books. That’s how the whole Austen thing came about.

INTERVIEWER

That’s incredible. So, Clueless was your gateway into Austen.

CHWE

It was indeed. Yeah, I never read Austen in college or in high school […] In college, I never took a literature class, so I didn’t read Austen until I was like forty. I’m glad because if I had read Austen in my twenties, I wouldn’t have understood a lot of it, to be honest.

 INTERVIEWER

Was Emma the first of Austen’s novels that you read?

 CHWE

I originally thought the book [Jane Austen, Game Theorist] would talk about Emma as just one case because it is so clear that Emma is about manipulation and meddling […] I thought I’d focus this book on Emma, but then I wanted to read the other books and see what I could say about them […] I think that if Austen had written twenty or thirty books, I wouldn’t have been able to read all of her books, but because she only had six, I thought I’d just go ahead and do it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a favorite Austen novel?

CHWE

No, I really like them all.  Pride and Prejudice is a little shallow to me in the sense that most of her characters are fully formed at the start. To me, Mansfield Park is better because it’s about the development of a human being. People change more. Persuasion, I also like a lot. So, those are my favorites, but, of course, I like them all.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of your book, what was the publication process like?

CHWE

I was lucky in that I had already published a book with Princeton […] back in 2001.  So when the time came around to think about writing a book again, I sent it to Princeton. I also sent it to Oxford University Press. Neither place had problems with the idea being a little bit non-standard, but it was hard to find reviewers on the literature side […] Everyone talks about how important it is to do interdisciplinary work, but it is harder in a sense because people have a harder time judging it.

 INTERVIEWER

What do you make of EverJane, the online role-playing game based upon Jane Austen novels? Have you played it? What might it say in terms of your argument?

CHWE

I haven’t played it, but I think that it’s a great idea and that it has potential. I saw the Kickstarter page. I think, potentially, it is a great way for people to get into Austen and I think Austen’s world view is very much about the decisions you make to get ahead and how important a single decision can be. I think that Austen’s literary worlds are worlds where […] you think about yourself in terms of decisions. Other people’s worlds might think in terms of visuals or characters or history, but when you think about Austen’s worlds, it’s about […] what would you do? What would you think about? What connections would you make?

INTERVIEWER

What I’m wondering right now is do you see EverJane as a physical representation of your argument? Or, I guess, a virtual representation?

CHWE

I haven’t worked with the game, but maybe. I’m not sure how they structured the game […] I think because Austen emphasizes decision making so much, maybe her novels are most suited for this kind of thing…For example, if I made a game out of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, I’m not sure what that game would look like.  So, some novels don’t necessarily lend themselves, but I think Austen’s do.

INTERVIEWER

I understand your argument as an interpretation of Austen, herself, as a game theorist, as well as the notion that she portrays her female characters as game theorists—that is, Austen extends her own strategic thinking to her characters, which is demonstrated through their culminated marriages. How might readers navigate your argument if we don’t view Austen’s novels as strictly heteronormative? How might Austen’s game theory change?

CHWE

I don’t see Austen’s novels as all that heteronormative. There’s a whole thing with Henry Tilney […] [and] gender roles. There’s the discussion with Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney, where he says that women have so much talent that they don’t need to use more than half…I think its representative of the questions: Are women better at strategic thinking than men? What are the social determinants of that?

When Henry Tilney buys the muslin for his sister, that’s like him being in drag or being gay or bisexual…But back to marriage—I’d say that you can think of [game theory] more in terms of social advancement. I think that Austen is trying to be general and is saying: this is how you can understand human behavior […] Marriage is just one of those possible objectives, so [game theory] doesn’t hinge on the idea that marriage is the final goal. For example, in Northanger Abbey, if you think of Henry Tilney as not as stereotypically masculine as other characters, maybe he could have been in touch with his feminine side. He’s one of the better strategic actors in the novels. He doesn’t make huge mistakes like Mr. Darcy does. I think Henry Tilney, more than any other male character, explicitly says things about strategic thinking. He talks to Catherine Morland and says,  “When you think about other people’s motivations, you think about them in terms of what you yourself would do, as opposed to what a person of their age or their status would do.” That’s a very clear explication of the problem of strategic thinking. We always tend to think of people in terms of ourselves. We’re not necessarily good at putting ourselves in the mindset of others. Henry Tilney says that. He has a definite feminine side. He’s not as stereotypically masculine as some of the other male heroes […] I don’t think [Austen] takes heterosexuality as necessarily as a given.

INTERVIEWER

So, the game theory wouldn’t necessarily change at all, even if marriage wasn’t the end goal.

CHWE

No, not at all.   Austen thinks getting married is important to their world, but she doesn’t necessarily see [marriage] as a sacred life goal. Her interest is more about the process. She’s not interested in what happens to people once they’re married […] She’s interested in how people get to that goal.

INTERVIEWER

You argue that Austen, herself, was a game theorist. How might considering Austen’s own strategic thinking complicate traditional ways of viewing her work as domestic narratives?

CHWE

I’ve never myself been concerned with the critique that just because she talks about five or six people […] that somehow her work is not significant. All game theorists and a lot of social scientists realize that you can explore interactions amongst a handful of people. Those can have applications to a very large group of events. When I teach game theory, the most interesting parables are those between two people and then you generalize them. A parable or story about people deciding whether to cooperate or fight each other over painting a fence […] can be a parable for international relations or war. The very fact that Austen doesn’t talk about historical things or a huge world event has nothing to do with whether her ideas are applicable or generalizable. Any social scientist would say that.  There’s no reason to think that just because it’s a domestic narrative that the insights there may not apply to lots of other things. I think that we shouldn’t think necessarily of a narrative or novel in terms of its subject matter but in terms of its vision for how people interact with each other. Those insights can apply to many different cases.

It’s like slave folktales. Slave folk tales are tales about animals, but they’re not about animal behavior. They’re used to talk about uprisings or strategic techniques that slaves can use against their masters […] They tell narratives about rabbits and foxes—it’s obvious that these slave folk tales are about, in terms of their subject matter, animals. But what’s relevant about these specific strategies is that they express techniques that these animals use against each other.

INTERVIEWER

Interesting! How does game theory apply to scholars in Romanticism? How might game theory be used to enhance literary criticism, appreciation, or cultural study?

CHWE

I think that the obvious thing is to use game theory to illustrate aspects of novels. Game theory might come from a situation like a prisoner’s dilemma—these are situations where people can gain if they all cooperate, but no individual person wants to cooperate–so [scholars in romanticism] might say, “In this novel, I’ve found an example of a prisoner’s dilemma and this is how they solved it.” You could do that. With Austen, I did something a little bit different, which is to say that we’re not using game theory to understand her work, but rather, we’re trying to understand her as a game theorist herself. This won’t be the case for every single author. Some authors may be more interested in emotions or social context or irrationality or self-perception or delusion […] If you’re aware of how people in the social sciences try to make explanations for things, you can maybe use them to understand how certain authors seem to be expressing theories of human behavior. It might be another way of analyzing their work.

For example, since I was working with game theory, I was really monomaniacally thinking in terms of choices and in terms of purposeful action […] so I was really sensitive to those issues. […] People who are interested in psychology or how we constitute the self can also take that to literature. Some people have taken that to Austen.

It can’t hurt to be aware of certain [social science] ideas and where they come from […] If you’re sensitive to these things, then you might find another avenue for reading other people’s work and understanding their objectives […] In Austen’s time, there wasn’t anything called social science or a systematic discipline for understanding human behavior. If you were interested in human behavior and wanted to analyze it, probably, you ended up going to the novel. That’s what you did back then. If we think of understanding human behavior, we shouldn’t think of this as a specialized thing—it’s something that we all do. It’s not surprising that if you’re a novelist or a writer and thus you have to think about human behavior, part of you develops some sort of theory about it.

One thought on “Interview: Dr. Michael Chwe”

Comments are closed.