Lit’s 10 Most Painful Marriage Proposals

Mr. Collins (Bamber) proposes to Elizabeth Bennet (Ehle)

Mr. Collins (Bamber) proposes to Elizabeth Bennet (Ehle)

As I was teaching Jane Eyre yesterday, my class got into a discussion about whether St. John’s marriage proposal is worse that Darcy’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice. That got us thinking about other awful proposals in literature and I promised to come up with a “ten worst” list. It took some thinking but here are the results, beginning with the most painful (and funniest):

1. Mr. Collins to Elizabeth Bennett

It’s harder to imagine a more tone-deaf character in all of literature than Collins. His spectacularly insensitive proposal contains this gem after Elizabeth turns him down:

You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these: It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.

2. St. John Rivers to Jane Eyre

It’s not usually the case that the guy threatens hell fire and damnation if the girl turns him down but St. John Rivers comes close. First, his proposal is less invitation and more imperious command. “Come with me to India: come as my helpmeet and fellow-laborer,” he says, and then follows it up with this endearing enticement:

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 labor, 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.

After Jane resists, St. John delivers a sermon that concludes as follows:

“He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But,” was slowly, distinctly read, “the fearful, the unbelieving, &c., shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

As Jane observes, “Henceforward, I knew what fate St. John feared for me.”

3. Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet

We all know this one well, where Darcy undermines his initial proposal by noting how humiliating it is for him to be making it. As Elizabeth wryly observes in her understated way, his reservations are “very unlikely to recommend his suit”:

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement; and 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 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.

4. Rochester to Jane Eyre

This one is a bit more romantic but it does contain the following backhanded compliment, which is not unlike Darcy’s:

You—you strange, you almost unearthly thing!—I love as my own flesh.  You—poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are—I entreat to accept me as a husband.

Of course, the other problem with Rochester’s proposal is that he’s already married.

5. Mac the Knife to Polly Peachum in Beggar’s Opera

We don’t actually see Macheath’s proposal to Polly but can be pretty sure it is as gallant as could be wished for. As her parents note, however, his proposal has the same drawbacks as Rochester’s:

Mrs. Peachum: If she had only an Intrigue with the Fellow, why the very best Families have excus’d and huddled up a Frailty of that sort. ‘Tis Marriage, Husband, that makes it a Blemish.
Mr. Peachum: But Money, Wife, is the true Fuller’s Earth for Reputations, there is not a Spot or a Stain but what it can take out. A rich Rogue now-a-days is fit Company for any Gentleman; and the World, my Dear, hath not such a Contempt for Roguery as you imagine. I tell you, Wife, I can make this Match turn to our Advantage.
Mrs. Peachum: I am very sensible, Husband, that Captain Macheath is worth Money, but I am in doubt whether he hath not two or three Wives already, and then if he should die in a Session or two, Polly’s Dower would come into Dispute.

6. The Wife of Bath to young Jenkin (husband #5)

This is a conditional proposal given that the Wife of Bath makes it when she is already married (to husband #4). The proposal is directed to their apprentice, with whom she is enjoying a “dalliance”:

I spoke to him and told him how that he,
Were I a widow, might well marry me.

Later on, when husband #4 dies (some scholars speculate that it is with her help), she is checking out Jenkin’s fine calves as he carries the bier into the church:

To church my man was borne upon the morrow
By neighbors, who for him made signs of sorrow;
And Jenkin, our good clerk, was one of them.
So help me God, when rang the requiem
After the bier, I thought he had a pair
Of legs and feet so clean-cut and so fair
That all my heart I gave to him to hold.

Soon after they are married. And then, for some reason, he becomes worried that she is messing around with other men.

7. The “Lancashire husband” to Moll Flanders

Moll manages to weasel marriage proposals out of a number of men and, unlike the Wife of Bath, she doesn’t even wait for her current husband(s) to die. Her most memorable marriage, and the one that she comes back to in the end, involves a double scam, where both parties are trying to con the other. Moll handles the man masterfully but in turn is outfoxed by his phony proposal:

He never so much as asked me about my fortune or estate, but assured me that when we came to Dublin he would jointure me in 600 pounds a year good land; and that we could enter into a deed of settlement or contract here for the performance of it.

8. Gabriel Oak to Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd

Then there’s Gabriel’s very pragmatic proposal in Hardy’s novel. Bathsheba might have been swayed by something more romantic, as she is later by the dashing Sergeant Troy’s proposal. It takes her many years to appreciate Gabriel’s worth:

 “I have a nice snug little farm.” said Gabriel, with half a degree less assurance than when he had seized her hand… “A man has advanced me money to begin with, but still, it will soon be paid off and though I am only an every-day sort of man, I have got on a little since I was a boy.” Gabriel uttered “a little” in a tone to show her that it was the complacent form of “a great deal.” He continued: “When we be married, I am quite sure I can work twice as hard as I do now.” He went forward and stretched out his arm again. Bathsheba had overtaken him at a point beside which stood a low stunted holly bush, now laden with red berries. Seeing his advance take the form of an attitude threatening a possible enclosure, if not compression, of her person, she edged off round the bush. no harm.

The proposal gets better as Gabriel continues, ending with a wonderful vision of marriage intimacy:

“Come.” said Gabriel, freshening again; “think a minute or two. I’ll wait a while, Miss Everdene. Will you marry me? Do, Bathsheba. I love you far more than common!” “I’ll try to think.” she observed, rather more timorously; “if I can think out of doors; my mind spreads away so.” “But you can give a guess.” “Then give me time.” Bathsheba looked thoughtfully into the distance, away from the direction in which Gabriel stood. “I can make you happy,” said he to the back of her head, across the bush. “You shall have a piano in a year or two — farmers’ wives are getting to have pianos now — and I’ll practice up the flute right well to play with you in the evenings.” “Yes; I should like that.” “And have one of those little ten-pound” gigs for market — and nice flowers, and birds — cocks and hens I mean, because they be useful.” continued Gabriel, feeling balanced between poetry and practicality. “I should like it very much.” “And a frame for cucumbers — like a gentleman and lady.” Yes.” “And when the wedding was over, we’d have it put in the newspaper list of marriages.” “Dearly I should like that!” “And the babies in the births — every man jack of ’em! And at home by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be — and whenever I look up there will be you.” 

9. Levin to Kitty in Anna Karenina

Levin’s first proposal, while awkward, is not altogether bad. It just proves to be unsuccessful as Kitty is in love with Vronsky. The rejection, however, means that his second proposal later in the book, which she accepts, is all the more wonderful:

He glanced at her; she blushed, and ceased speaking.

“I told you I did not know whether I should be here long … that it depended on you…”

She dropped her head lower and lower, not knowing herself what answer she should make to what was coming.

“That it depended on you,” he repeated. “I meant to say … I meant to say … I came for this … to be my wife!” he brought out, not knowing what he was saying; but feeling that the most terrible thing was said, he stopped short and looked at her…

10. Laurie to Jo in Little Women

This one is actually fairly sweet, even though unsuccessful:

Laurie was a young lover, but he was in earnest, and meant to ‘have it out’, if he died in the attempt, so he plunged into the subject with characteristic impetuousity, saying in a voice that would get choky now and then, in spite of manful efforts to keep it steady…

“I’ve loved you ever since I’ve known you, Jo, couldn’t help it, you’ve been so good to me. I’ve tried to show it, but you wouldn’t let me. Now I’m going to make you hear, and give me an answer, for I can’t go on so any longer.”

“I wanted to save you this. I thought you’d understand…” began Jo, finding it a great deal harder than she expected.

“I know you did, but the girls are so queer you never know what they mean. They say no when they mean yes, and drive a man out of his wits just for the fun of it,” returned Laurie, entrenching himself behind an undeniable fact.

“I don’t. I never wanted to make you care for me so, and I went away to keep you from it if I could.”

“I thought so. It was like you, but it was no use. I only loved you all the more, and I worked hard to please you, and I gave up billiards and everything you didn’t like, and waited and never complained, for I hoped you’d love me, though I’m not half good enough…” Here there was a choke that couldn’t be controlled, so he decapitated buttercups while he cleared his ‘confounded throat’.

11. Jack/Earnest to Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde’s send-up of marriage proposals is the perfect way to round out this list:

Jack.  Gwendolen, I must get christened at once—I mean we must get married at once.  There is no time to be lost.
Gwendolen.  Married, Mr. Worthing?
Jack.  [Astounded.]  Well . . . surely.  You know that I love you, and you led me to believe, Miss Fairfax, that you were not absolutely indifferent to me.
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.
Jack.  Gwendolen!
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.
Jack.  My own one, I have never loved any one in the world but you.
Gwendolen.  Yes, but men often propose for practice.  I know my brother Gerald does.  All my girlfriends tell me so.

Send in your own favorites.

This entry was posted in Alcott (Louisa May), Austen (Jane), Bronte (Charlotte), Chaucer (Geoffrey), Defoe (Daniel), Gay (John), Hardy (Thomas), Tolstoy (Leo), Wilde (Oscar) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Toby

    The Bradley Headstone proposal from Chapter 32 of Our Mutual Friend needs to make the list. Here’s just one small tid-bit:

    ‘Mr Headstone, I thank you sincerely, I thank you gratefully, and
    hope you may find a worthy wife before long and be very happy.
    But it is no.’

    ‘Is no short time necessary for reflection; no weeks or days?’ he
    asked, in the same half-suffocated way.

    ‘None whatever.’

    ‘Are you quite decided, and is there no chance of any change in
    my favour?’

    ‘I am quite decided, Mr Headstone, and I am bound to answer I
    am certain there is none.’

    ‘Then,’ said he, suddenly changing his tone and turning to her, and
    bringing his clenched hand down upon the stone with a force that
    laid the knuckles raw and bleeding; ‘then I hope that I may never
    kill him!’

    The dark look of hatred and revenge with which the words broke
    from his livid lips, and with which he stood holding out his
    smeared hand as if it held some weapon and had just struck a
    mortal blow, made her so afraid of him that she turned to run
    away. But he caught her by the arm.

  • Robin Bates

    I love it, Toby. One of the very best–or should I say awfullest.

  • Agatha Christie wrote about getting a proposal in a train car. It was a British-style car where you got into the compartment from the track and then had to remain in it. She turned the young man down and the rest of the ride was extremely awkward.


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