Bryan Caplan  

Reflections on The Name of the Game

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Will Eisner might be the most influential graphic novelist of the 20th century.  Contrary to some, he didn't "invent the graphic novel," but his ouvre is awesome nonetheless.  Although I'm a big fan, I only recently discovered what might be his greatest work of all: The Name of the Game.  It's the story of three generations of an elite New York Jewish family, running roughly from 1890 to 1960.

At first glance, The Name of the Game is an expose of patriarchy.  Families pressure their daughters into "good marriages" to wealthy, successful men.  But the daughters end up miserable - or worse.  You could easily use Eisner's novel to refute my infamous claim that women during the Gilded Age were freer than they are today.

If you read the book carefully, though, you'll notice two key anomalies. 

First, families exert similar pressure on their sons to marry the "right kind" of women.  And most of the men end up unhappy with their marriages, too.  Some are bored; others endure constant emotional abuse.  If The Name of the Game is an indictment of anything, it's not patriarchy but parentarchy.

Second, characters in The Name of the Game occasionally stand up to familial and social pressure.  And what happens to them?  Little or nothing.  The character Eva, for instance, defies her mother's match-making, moves to New York, and becomes a model.  No one disowns or shuns her; in fact, she manages to worm her way into high society.  The Name of the Game isn't a story about men or women who never had a choice.  It's a story about men and women who bow to empty threats.

Of course, it's just a novel.  But Eisner lived through much of the era he's writing about, and his account rings true.  Parents love their kids; always have, always will.  Sometimes this leads parents to threaten to disown and disinherit children who won't do what they're told.  For the most part, though, parents are paper tigers.  They usually love their kids too much to actually follow through on such dire threats.  The lesson: What Eisner's "trapped" characters lack is neither freedom or opportunity, but the courage to say "no."


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Gian writes:

In many countries even today, parents kill their children who defy them in the matter of marriages.

Patriarchy means rule of fathers and not rule of men.

Shane writes:

Pointing out recently that medieval princes were married off against their will at young ages, as well as princesses, someone argued that the men were at least allowed to keep mistresses. So the young prince, married against his will to some foreign princess he didn't like, might be able to cheat cheerfully on her with mistresses. The princess, however, was expected to be faithful.

Actually I don't know if that is true or not, but if so, it might show that such a scenario would have hurt young women more than young men.

Tom West writes:

And to further Shane's point, even without mistresses, a young man (especially of means) would be expected to have a career as his primary focus in life.

For the woman, family and marriage would be expected to be their raison-d'etre.

I don't think the scales of unhappiness are anywhere near balanced.

And as for trapped characters, Bryan points out they leave all their current social (friends + family) connections behind. For many, *that* would be a fate worse than death. Where Bryan thinks 'courage', I think 'lucky enough to have a happiness utility function that allows for escape'.

If the only way Bryan could escape a very unpleasant situation was by never talking about economics and Libertarianism ever again, I doubt he would take it. And it wouldn't be cowardice.

For the ASD among us, it's useful to remind ourselves that for a lot of human beings, maintaining social connections is not optional to emotional survival.

ajb writes:

Typical elite bias. Novelists, poets, and cartoonists didn't celebrate or write about the people who followed the rules, conformed socially and ended up in happy marriages. They don't talk about all those who defied convention, married the wrong man, and did badly. Or who went to strike out on their own and failed and became miserable. Even when novels show characters who rebel and fail they don't treat it as symptomatic of foolish rebellion. Traditional societies have lots of stories (usually low rent soap operas or even earlier radio dramas) in which the "good" boy or "good" girl are led astray by libertines or destructive non conformists. But in the last two hundred years, it has become nearly impossible to have such stories as major sources of high brow art in the Western world.

I bet the percentage of people in the real world who are made happy by arranged marriages in (for example) the Indian community far exceeds the percentage of unhappy arranged weddings in fictional encounters.

Austen was among the last to write in such a clear eyed way, and even then she is celebrated by moderns for her "feminist" inclinations, and criticized for her failure to condemn the social norms of her day.

Tracy W writes:

Tom West - but families could force decisions about careers too. My grandfather's mother insisted on him leaving school at age 14 and working on the family farm, after his father died, wrecking his plans of becoming an engineer. My grandmother, during WWII, got a job as a newspaper reporter, and her father came back from training exercises in the army to haul her out of it, as it "wasn't appropriate for a woman".

And Bryan explicitly points out that the people who do leave, don't lose all their family and social connections. To quote the post you are responding to: "The character Eva, for instance, defies her mother's match-making ...No one disowns or shuns her". It may indeed be a miserable thing to lose your social connections, but that's irrelevant to the particular setting Bryan's talking about, as that didn't happen there.

Gian writes:

Tom West,
Do you assume that happiness is more reliably found in careers rather than in family and children?

Or do you assume that happiness as found in career is of higher quality than domestic happiness?

Or do you doubt that the domestic happiness is the major determinant of personal happiness rather than pursuit of a career outside unemployment?

Then why do you say that "scales of unhappiness are (not) anywhere near balanced." for young men and women.

Tom West writes:

Sorry, I guess I wasn't clear.

My comment was pursuant to:

If The Name of the Game is an indictment of anything, it's not patriarchy but parentarchy.

Specifically, in an unhappy marriage, Bryan seems to be implying men would have it just as bad, when I think men would have had more alternate outlets to find happiness. For women, their married life was likely a much bigger part of their over-all life, making an unhappy marriage much more of a significant factor in their over-all happiness.

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