The Most Memorable Marriage Proposals in Literature

marriageplotHappy Engagement Season!

What? You weren’t aware that engagements have their very own season? They sure do, according to the modern wedding industry. It’s the stretch between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. You know, sort of like hunting season: better pull the trigger before they get away! Given that we are now at the tail end of Engagement Season, please keep in mind that if you Google a phrase like How to plan a wedding with the clever eloquence of Anne Elliot and the financial inclinations of Silas Marner, pesky wedding-themed ads will stalk you through cyberspace in perpetuity.

Before you descend into the rabbit hole that is the World Wide Wed (see what I did there?) and its DIY up-cycled, rustic-chic, chevron-patterned paper straws shaped like vintage tandem bikes, might I suggest that you seek matrimonial inspiration not from a URL but from a good book? (No, Pinterest, I’m not suggesting crafting place-card holders from the spines of classic books. But darn it if those aren’t adorable.) Sure, a work of literature may not teach you 101 ways to use a Mason jar (here’s an idea—put some strawberry jam in it), but that’s just part of what makes it so appealing. The literary canon is rife with all manner of weddings for your perusal—magical and mundane, joyful and somber, ordinary and extraordinary.

And then there are the marriage proposals. Of course, some of them are not exactly nonpareils of passion or models to be replicated, but they can be educational and entertaining nonetheless. Here are but a few of literature’s awesome and not-so-awesome marriage proposals:

Rochester’s (first) proposal to Jane (Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte)
Rochester’s proposal to Jane is, well…deeply romantic? Deeply twisted? Both? After leading her to believe he is going to wed Blanche Ingram and that Jane will have to leave Thornfield to accept a position in Ireland, he pulls a “just kidding—I actually want to marry you!” I’m personally not a big fan of the fake-out proposal…but at least Rochester did not stage his own death before popping the question—which is the way at least one real man actually chose to propose. (I guess it’s true what they say. All the good ones are taken.)

And then there’s the little matter of Rochester forgetting the oh-by-the-way-I’m-already-married-to-a-crazy-woman-who-lives-in-my-attic part of the proposal. But, I mean, asking someone to share her life with you is nerve-wracking. Who can be expected to remember every little detail?

Leonard’s proposal to Madeline (The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides)
After a passionate tumble in the sheets followed by some cuddling, Leonard gets down on his knees, takes Madeline’s hands in his, and proposes with the beautifully simple, “Marry me.” Awwwww. Squeeee. Hooray. Etcetera…except that just prior to said-tumbling and cuddling and proposing, he got physically aroused by a teenaged girl in a candy shop, creeped on her, and kissed her. Oops.

Charles’ proposal to Emma (Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert)
Actually, that should say “Charles’ proposal to Emma’s father.” Or, to be more accurate, his non-proposal to her father. Charles stammers as he attempts to ask Monsieur Rouault for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The old man, anticipating what Charles is going to say, tells him that while he is sure “the little one” will be agreeable, he will still go ask her opinion on the matter (gee, what a guy). Monsieur Rouault is not surprised by Charles’ matrimonial overtures, as he previously “perceived that Charles’s cheeks grew red if near his daughter.” (Please note that red cheeks don’t always spell an impending proposal, as one can learn the hard way when awaiting a “will you marry me?” from someone with rosacea.)

Yes, the proposal was a little lackluster, but what does it matter? I’ll admit that I never actually finished Madame Bovary, but I’m sure it all turns out well and Emma and Charles live happily ever after, right?

Florentino’s proposal to Fermina (Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
This ranks as memorable not because of the content of the proposal—we are not actually told exactly what Florentino writes in the letter to Fermina asking her to marry him—but rather because of Fermina’s response to it. Months after receiving the correspondence, she finally writes back: “Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.” A proposal predicated upon such a condition may not scream romance, but I applaud her practicality. In fact, re-reading this chapter has made me regret not attaching my own marriage caveat, a la “I will marry you…if you promise not to make me eat anything I cook.”

Juliet’s proposal to Dawsey (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows)
I think it’s tremendous when a woman proposes to a man. My good friend proposed to her now-husband with a ring made out of bacon—an inspired move, even though she didn’t let the bacon cool long enough before slipping it on his finger. Now the only thing more everlasting than their love for one another is the scar tissue on his left hand.

While she doesn’t make use of a pork product, Juliet’s proposal to Dawsey in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is, nonetheless, quite lovely, too. “I want to ask you something …Would you marry me? I’m in love with you, so I thought I’d ask.” Dawsey is so overcome with joy that he manages to sprain his ankle trying to descend the ladder on which he is standing.

So what we’ve learned from these two anecdotes is that causing unintentional physical harm to your beloved in the course of proposing can be oh-so-romantic.

Gilbert’s (second) proposal to Anne (Anne of the Island, by Lucy Maud Montgomery)
I learned many lessons from the Anne of Green Gables series—namely that trying to dye your own hair is probably a bad idea, and that even if you reject a wonderful man’s first proposal of marriage, you will get a second chance when he proposes to you again (that’s the takeaway, right?). Gilbert’s second proposal is of the sort that stays with you through your adolescence and well into your adulthood: “I have a dream…I persist in dreaming it, although it has often seemed to me that it could never come true. I dream of a home with a hearth-fire in it, a cat and dog, the footsteps of friends—and you!”

Of course, there are so many other indelible literary proposals—Laurie’s to Jo in Little Women, Konstantin’s to Kitty in Anna Karenina, Mr. Darcy’s to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, Matthew’s to Mary in Downton Abbey (I know it’s not a novel, everybody just be cool. I’m still trying to cope with the way Season 3 ended.) So which did I miss?

What’s your favorite literary proposal? 

  • Heather Santiago

    Mr. Collins proposing to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. “My reasons for marrying are…”

    • Aimee

      Yes, that was wonderful. 🙂 One of my favorite moments in any book.

  • cjhall

    Oh, Gilbert Blythe. All of my boyfriends failed to measure up to you…

  • Jen Hull Becker

    Well, my favorite proposal wasn’t in a book, but in a book store. My husband proposed to me in the middle of Barnes and Noble. He couldn’t have made it any better.

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