We live in the age of YouTube-geared proposals. The face of romance today is a Jumbotron “Will You Marry Me?” or a Disney flash mob starring your Prince Charming down on one knee. Every young lady who shows up at the office on Monday flashing an engagement ring knows she’ll have to pony up details about her fiance’s elaborate proposal. It’s an engagement arms race out there.
Literature, the home of so many iconic love stories, has often been blamed for fostering unrealistic romantic expectations. What is the average boyfriend today compared to Mr. Darcy or Romeo? In the case of proposals, however, literature might actually be doing a service for the marriage-minded by lowering expectations. Awkward, rude, and even frightening proposals abound in fiction. While there are some truly lovely moments, the cringe-inducing proposals seem far more common, or at least more memorable.
The proliferation of bad proposals in an art form so packed with inspiring love stories may seem surprising, but there’s a certain logic to it. Many successful love stories end before the proposal, leave the proposal out of the book in favor of focusing on more meaningful moments in the relationship, or gloss over the actual request for the lady’s hand so vaguely that it’s hard to feel deeply touched by it. A couple deeply in love might be portrayed as understanding each other so thoroughly that an official popping of the question almost seems beside the point. On the other hand, failed proposals (or proposals leading to failed marriages) offer a wealth of comic material. There’s little funnier than a moment we expect to be heartfelt being mangled thoroughly by an indelicate suitor. If the proposal is more tragic than funny -- well, we know what poor things to expect of the couple’s married life!
Here are 12 absolutely excruciating proposals from books:
Mr. Collins and Elizabeth Bennet
from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Before her heart-thumpingly romantic happy ending, poor Elizabeth has to sit through a grueling proposal from the smarmy, absurd Mr. Collins. It’s hard to say what the worst part of this proposal is -- the feeble attempts he makes at flowery declarations of passion, the calm outlining of the practical reasons behind his decision to marry, or his insistence at continuing to believe she wants to marry him despite her repeated firm rejections. The only thing more uncomfortable than having to reject a proposal once is having to reject the same proposal seven or eight times before the guy notices you really, really don't want to marry him!
“Almost as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as the companion of my future life. But before I am run away with by my feelings on this subject, perhaps it will be advisable for me to state my reasons for marrying -- and moreover for coming into Hertfordshire with the design of selecting a wife, as I certainly did."
The idea of Mr. Collins, with all his solemn composure, being run away with by his feelings, made Elizabeth so near laughing that she could not use the short pause he allowed in any attempt to stop him further, and he continued.
Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet
from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Oh, we forgot -- before her suffering ends, Elizabeth has to endure ANOTHER dreadful proposal, this time from the handsome, distinguished, but still far too snooty Mr. Darcy. Though we all swoon over the romance between this spirited couple, let’s not forget his ugly first proposal, in which he insults her family and her station, telling her that he is only asking to marry her because he can’t help himself. What girl doesn’t want to hear that marrying her would be a huge mistake?
The avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority--of its being a degradation--of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.
Gwendolen Harleth and Grandcourt
from Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
By the time the wealthy Grandcourt proposes to the vain, selfish Gwendolen, we’ve already learned a dark secret that should have precluded a marriage between them. But Gwendolen’s desperation and fear of poverty drives her to consider his advances, and a highly transactional, depressing proposal ensues:
“You will tell me now, I hope, that Mrs. Davilow's loss of fortune will not trouble you further. You will trust me to prevent it from weighing upon her. You will give me the claim to provide against that."
The little pauses and refined drawlings with which this speech was uttered, gave time for Gwendolen to go through the dream of a life. [...] Repugnance, dread, scruples—these were dim as remembered pains, while she was already tasting relief under the immediate pain of hopelessness. She imagined herself already springing to her mother, and being playful again. Yet when Grandcourt had ceased to speak, there was an instant in which she was conscious of being at the turning of the ways.
"You are very generous," she said, not moving her eyes, and speaking with a gentle intonation.
"You accept what will make such things a matter of course?" said Grandcourt, without any new eagerness. "You consent to become my wife?"
Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre
from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Another classic heroine, another spate of bad proposals. Jane first receives a shock when Mr. Rochester, the object of her hopeless crush, begins to tell her that he’s betrothed to another, more beautiful and moneyed, woman. Her heart is broken at the prospect of his marriage. Then, with Jane in anguish, he manipulates her into admitting she's crazy about him. Only then does he concede that he’s not engaged to another lady and that, oh, actually he wants to marry Jane. Come on, man, why put her through all that? (Oh, also, he doesn’t reveal to Jane that he’s already married and that he is thus unable to legally marry her -- he is actually proposing that she become his unwitting mistress. Minor oversight!)
“I grieve to leave Thornfield: I love Thornfield:—I love it, because I have lived in it a full and delightful life,—momentarily at least. I have not been trampled on. I have not been petrified. I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communion with what is bright and energetic and high. I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, with what I delight in,—with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have known you, Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you for ever. I see the necessity of departure; and it is like looking on the necessity of death.”
“Where do you see the necessity?” he asked suddenly.
“Where? You, sir, have placed it before me.”
“In what shape?”
“In the shape of Miss Ingram; a noble and beautiful woman,—your bride.”
“My bride! What bride? I have no bride!”
St. John Rivers and Jane Eyre
from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane has yet another dreadful, if more honest, proposal to endure. When two women and their brother, the Rivers, take her in at her lowest point, she befriends the siblings and later learns that they are her cousins. One of them, St. John Rivers, takes an interest in Jane’s education, teaching her languages such as Hindustani. However, he is fervently religious, and reveals to Jane that he wants her to accompany him to India on a missionary trip -- as his wife. Not one to dissemble, St. John doesn’t pretend to any romantic love for her, but tells her that she has to marry him because he needs her as a companion on the mission he believes is God’s purpose for their lives. “God says you have to marry me” -- not a line we’d recommend using on your future spouse.
“Jane, come with me to India: come as my helpmeet and fellow-laborer.”
The glen and sky spun round: the hills heaved! It was as if I had heard a summons from Heaven--as if a visionary messenger, like him of Macedonia, had enounced, “Come over and help us!” But I was no apostle,--I could not behold the herald,--I could not receive his call.
“Oh, St. John!” I cried, “have some mercy!”
I appealed to one who, in the discharge of what he believed his duty, knew neither mercy nor remorse. He continued--
“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must--shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you--not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.””
Gwendolen Fairfax and Jack Worthing
from The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Though this betrothal would be rather uncomfortable to experience, at least it’s pleasant for the audience. Oscar Wilde’s thigh-slapping comedy of manners turns a decorous proposal into an absurd event, as Jack Worthing stumbles through asking for the hand of the very exacting Gwendolen Fairfax:
Gwendolen: I adore you. But you haven’t proposed to me yet. Nothing has been said at all about marriage. The subject has not even been touched on.
Jack: Well ... may I propose to you now?
Gwendolen: I think it would be an admirable opportunity. And to spare you any possible disappointment, Mr. Worthing, I think it only fair to tell you quite frankly before-hand that I am fully determined to accept you.
Gwendolen: Yes, Mr. Worthing, what have you got to say to me?
Jack: You know what I have got to say to you.
Gwendolen: Yes, but you don’t say it.
Jack: Gwendolen, will you marry me? [Goes on his knees.]
Gwendolen: Of course I will, darling. How long you have been about it! I am afraid you have had very little experience in how to propose.
Iris Chase and Richard Griffen
from The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Eighteen-year-old Iris Chase doesn’t have much time to consider Richard Griffen’s proposal; she’s so young and naive that she didn’t even realize the older man was courting her until her father revealed, moments before the proposal, that marrying him is the only way Iris can ensure financial stability for the family. Signing your life away for a few shekels is a dreadful decision for any 18-year-old to make, even with plenty of time to think it over!
"I think he may want you to marry him," he said.
We were in the lobby by then. I sat down. "Oh," I said. I could suddenly see what should have been obvious for some time. I wanted to laugh, as if at a trick. Also I felt as if my stomach had vanished. Yet my voice remained calm. "What should I do?"
“I’ve already given my consent," said Father. "So it’s up to you." Then he added: "A certain amount depends on it."
“A certain amount?"
“I have to consider your futures. In case anything should happen to me, that is. Laura’s future, in particular." What he was saying was that unless I married Richard, we wouldn’t have any money [...] I was cornered. It wasn’t as if I had any alternatives to propose.
Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler
from Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
When these two scamps finally get together, it’s quite a depressing scene. Rhett chooses to call on Scarlett on the very day of her husband Frank’s funeral, and Scarlett has been drinking heavily to cope with Frank’s death, for which she blames herself. Could things get any more romantic? Hard to imagine!
"My news is this," he answered, grinning down at her. "I still want you more than any woman I've ever seen and now that Frank's gone, I thought you'd be interested to know it."
Scarlett jerked her hands away from his grasp and sprang to her feet.
"I--you are the most ill-bred man in the world, coming here at this time of all times with your filthy--I should have known you'd never change. And Frank hardly cold! If you had any decency-- Will you leave this--"
"Do be quiet or you'll have Miss Pittypat down here in a minute," he said, not rising but reaching up and taking both her fists. "I'm afraid you miss my point."
"Miss your point? I don't miss anything." She pulled against his grip. "Turn me loose and get out of here. I never heard of such bad taste. I--"
"Hush," he said. "I am asking you to marry me. Would you be convinced if I knelt down?"
Becky Sharp and Sir Pitt Crawley
from Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Pretty, quick-witted, and manipulative Becky wants nothing more than financial security and social status. Her one-time employer, Sir Pitt Crawley, is crude, slovenly and elderly, but he could offer her both. As soon as his wife dies, Sir Pitt wastes no time in suggesting marriage to Becky -- in order to secure her services as a governess and companion once again -- but unfortunately Becky has already gambled on another potentially advantageous marriage. Between Sir Pitt’s well-meaning boorishness and Becky’s sadness at not being able to accept such a financially useful offer, there’s not much to like about this proposal from one unlikable character to another.
"Come as Lady Crawley, if you like," the Baronet said, grasping his crape hat. "There! will that zatusfy you? Come back and be my wife. Your vit vor't. Birth be hanged. You're as good a lady as ever I see. You've got more brains in your little vinger than any baronet's wife in the county. Will you come? Yes or no?"
"Oh, Sir Pitt!" Rebecca said, very much moved.
"Say yes, Becky," Sir Pitt continued. "I'm an old man, but a good'n. I'm good for twenty years. I'll make you happy, zee if I don't. You shall do what you like; spend what you like; and 'ave it all your own way. I'll make you a zettlement. I'll do everything reglar. Look year!" and the old man fell down on his knees and leered at her like a satyr.
Rebecca started back a picture of consternation. In the course of this history we have never seen her lose her presence of mind; but she did now, and wept some of the most genuine tears that ever fell from her eyes.
"Oh, Sir Pitt!" she said. "Oh, sir—I—I'm married ALREADY."
Uriah Heep and Agnes Wickfield
from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The saintly Agnes Wickfield and the weaselly Uriah Heep are the angel and the villain, respectively, of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel. Heep works as a clerk for Agnes's father, Mr. Wickfield, who has employed him since his youth. Though he unctuously insists on his own gratitude and humility, all the while he’s scheming to blackmail Mr. Wickfield and steal his business. Having gained the upper hand, Heep also attempts to secure another prize from Mr. Wickfield: Agnes’s hand in marriage. Though he’s given up much to appease Heep, Wickfield can’t bear to think of his beloved daughter being sacrificed as well, and he doesn't react well to his former clerk's slimy advances.
“Agnes," said Uriah, either not regarding him, or not knowing what the nature of his action was, "Agnes Wickfield is, I am safe to say, the divinest of her sex. May I speak out, among friends? To be her father is a proud distinction, but to be her usband—"
Spare me from ever again hearing such a cry, as that with which her father rose up from the table! "What's the matter?" said Uriah, turning of a deadly colour. "You are not gone mad, after all, Mr. Wickfield, I hope? If I say I've an ambition to make your Agnes my Agnes, I have as good a right to it as another man. I have a better right to it than any other man!"
I had my arms round Mr. Wickfield, imploring him by everything that I could think of, oftenest of all by his love for Agnes, to calm himself a little. He was mad for the moment; tearing out his hair, beating his head, trying to force me from him, and to force himself from me, not answering a word, not looking at or seeing anyone; blindly striving for he knew not what, his face all staring and distorted—a frightful spectacle.
Mr. Elton and Emma Woodhouse
from Emma by Jane Austen
Many dreadful literary proposals are unexpected, but few are quite as shocking to the recipient as Mr. Elton’s proposal to Emma, the titular heroine of the classic Austen novel. Emma has been diligently trying to make the new vicar, Mr. Elton, and her young, lower-class friend Harriet fall in love -- in fact, her matchmaking has been so diligent that she’s failed to notice that Mr. Elton’s attentions are really directed at Emma herself. Emma is also insulted that a mere vicar would presume to "make love" to a lady of her high station, adding even more sting to her sudden realization that her matchmaking has been an abject failure.
To restrain him as much as might be, by her own manners, she was immediately preparing to speak with exquisite calmness and gravity of the weather and the night; but scarcely had she begun, scarcely had they passed the sweep-gate and joined the other carriage, than she found her subject cut up—her hand seized—her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him; but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some effect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted as soon as possible. It really was so. Without scruple—without apology—without much apparent diffidence, Mr. Elton, the lover of Harriet, was professing himself her lover. She tried to stop him; but vainly; he would go on, and say it all.
Leonard Bankhead and Madeleine Hanna
from The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
The moment of Leonard’s proposal to his college sweetheart, Madeleine, seems sweet. But there’s a lot more at play than the simple “Marry me.” For example, Leonard has been secretly tapering the medications that keep his manic-depressive episodes at bay, and right before this proposal he creepily flirted with -- and kissed --an unwilling teenage cashier at a candy store. He arrived home still turned on by this bit of sexual harassment, and immediately has sex with Madeleine before proposing to her. YIKES. If Madeleine knew what was going on beneath the surface, she’d run away screaming.
Afterward, they lay curled up, catching their breath.
Madeleine said slyly, happily, “I guess you are better.”
At which Leonard sat up. His head wasn’t crowded with thoughts. There was only one. Rolling off the bed onto his knees, Leonard took Madeleine’s hands in his much bigger hands. He’d just figured out the solution to all his problems, romantic, financial, and strategic. One brilliant move deserved another.
“Marry me,” he said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly spelled the last name of Emma Woodhouse as Wodehouse.
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