Jane Austen, 'Game Theorist?' Try 'Subversive Sitcom Scribe'

The world of Jane Austen is growing steadily larger. While the focus of her fiction is notoriously narrow, geographically speaking, the world of her readers, viewers, and fans continues to expand with every new book, movie, TV series, and sequel based on the original. What most of these new productions have in common, besides their stated love for all things Jane -- and, I suspect, the recognition that putting "Austen" in your title is a good way to boost sales -- is a fascination with the highly codified manners and clearly defined social norms of her era: the early nineteenth century.

Consider two recent Austen spin-offs. The first is a charming, well-produced amateur YouTube video, "Jane Austen's Fight Club." The title (which alludes to yet another Austen-based text, The Jane Austen Book Club, subsequently a movie) makes clear that it's a mash-up of Austen's world -- "an endless surrender to propriety," the voice-over begins -- and Chuck Palahniuk's cult novel Fight Club (1996). Watching these prim young ladies shed their reserve and begin happily to punch and kick each other is both amusing and surprising -- but only if one begins from the premise that Austen's novels unselfconsciously promote and support the social codes and constructs they represent. (The video also seems to ignore the fact that Palahniuk's novel is itself a satire of contemporary masculinity.)

This assumption -- that Austen is as invested in the manners and conventions of her time period as we like to imagine -- also forms the basis of a recent scholarly study that has garnered popular attention: Jane Austen: Game Theorist, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe. Chwe, a political scientist at UCLA, uses his professional knowledge to show how Austen's novels anticipate contemporary theories of social interaction and decision-making. This study, and others like it (for example, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by the now-disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer) have certainly been criticized for their anachronisms, which may or may not be a valid point depending on the nuance with which the materials are brought together. My point here, however, is that Chwe's analysis -- like the mash-up of "Jane Austen's Fight Club" -- seems to take for granted that Austen's novels take their own descriptions of social networks and accepted manners at face value.

In fact, I don't think this is the case at all. Austen is a famously close observer of her society, especially the modes of acceptable correspondence and occasional mixing between the varieties of proto-bourgeoisie, landed gentry, and lower nobility with which she was familiar. But far from uncritically accepting the codes and roles most of her characters use and inhabit, Austen routinely shows both their limitations and the ways they can be used to advantage without being fully internalized. When the struggling Dashwood women of Sense and Sensibility (1811) first meet the couple who has rented Barton cottage to them on very generous terms, for example, they are initially disappointed by Lady Middleton's ordinariness: "her visit was long enough to detract something from their first admiration, by shewing that though perfectly well-bred, she was reserved, cold, and had nothing to say for herself beyond the most common-place inquiry or remark." This is not complimentary, to be sure -- but it turns out to be much less harmful than the emotional volatility and social heedlessness that draw Marianne to the charming but dangerously irresponsible Willoughby. Even Lady Middleton is "in" on the game of social manners, as Austen suggests:

Conversation however was not wanted, for Sir John was very chatty, and Lady Middleton had taken the wise precaution of bringing with her their eldest child, a fine little boy about six years old, by which means there was subject always to be recurred to by the ladies . . . On ever formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse.

Anyone who has ever made small talk with strangers or relatives by talking about their kids will readily admit the truth of Austen's observation here. Lady Middleton, whether she realizes it or not, knows what she is doing.

The continuity of certain social niceties is clearly one of the ways we continue to recognize ourselves in Austen's novels. Certain other arrangements are still in effect, too: When I recently re-taught Persuasion (1818), Austen's last complete novel, it struck me that the set-up -- a level-headed protagonist is surrounded by a cast of family members who are almost all narcissistic sociopaths -resembles precisely that of the groundbreaking sitcom Arrested Development, with Anne Elliot in the role of Michael Bluth. (I'm told that the much-delayed new season of the show alters this formula somewhat, but I haven't seen it yet, so no spoilers please!)

But the differences between Austen's cultural moment and our own are equally striking, of course. And here, it is we -- contemporary readers and audiences -- who are truly invested in the idea that Austen's era (approx. 1810-1820) was a time where everyone knew their places in society, and where social interactions were highly regularized to the point of predictability. Such regularity seems comforting, I think, especially in an age when the instant communication and publicity made possible by social media (see: Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, etc.) are matched only by the relative lack of clear-cut rules and norms for social interactions, especially of the romantic variety. We do not live in an "anything-goes" era, to be sure, but judging by the conservative stances of some social commentators, today's dearth of obvious expectations or socially enforced rules when it comes to romantic relationships seems dizzying at best, frightening at worst. (See, for example, Ross Douthat's recent New York Times op-ed in which he calls for more restrictions on divorce in America.)

Ironically, the closest thing we may have to an Austen today is not the near-endless parade of explicit sequels and spin-offs to her novels, but the sharp-witted social commentary provided by cutting-edge sitcoms like Louie. Featuring the travails of a single, divorced dad in New York who bears more than a passing resemblance to the actor who plays him (the stand-up comic Louis C.K.), Louie takes an unflinching, often uncomfortable look at both the pleasures and dangers that accompany the lack of traditional rules and norms in today's middle-class society. Austen would never have written anything as foul-mouthed or explicit as the recent, provocative end-of-the-first-date scene between Louie and Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo in her pickup truck (here; definitely NSFW!) -- but I think she would have appreciated the honesty and lack of sentimentality with which it depicts both the possibilities and the puzzles of today's relationships. Between Austen's own novels and smart sitcoms like Arrested Development and Louie, do we really need another Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continued?