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Popping the Question: A Survey of Literature’s Non-Traditional Marriage Proposals

By posted at 12:00 pm on October 2, 2013 3

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“Will you marry me?” Four simple words, but the question provides ample opportunity for playful novelists to wreak havoc on the marriage plot.

One such famously mischievous writer, J.M. Coetzee, does just that in his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus. After acclimating to Novilla, the hellishly placid utopia in which he has landed, Simón asks his friend and sometimes sexual companion, Elena, if, “hypothetically,” she would ever consider someone like him as a husband. Elena’s reply makes it clear that good citizens of Novilla are not prone to idle conjecture: “If that is your way of asking whether I would marry you, then the answer is yes, I would…When would you want to do it? Because the registry office is open only on weekdays. Can you get time off?”

In stripping the marriage proposal of any trace of romance, seduction, and emotion, The Childhood of Jesus spurred me to think about similarly uninspired literary declarations of love. These offers, always disappointing and often unacceptable, dispel the excitement implicit in the expression, “to pop the question,” which conveys how asking for someone’s hand in marriage is tied to a sense of surprise, and by extension, a narrative surrounding that surprise: an engagement story. If all proposers pale in comparison to Christopher Marlowe’s passionate shepherd, who tells his prospective bride quite the tale about the pleasures of Arcadian life, we nonetheless hope for something more memorable than Simón and Elena’s coolly rational courtship.

coverThen again, some proposals are perhaps better forgotten. The following unromantic, bizarre, poorly delivered or conceived proposals elicit reactions less like Molly Bloom’s orgasmically affirmative “yes I said yes I will Yes!” and more like this underwhelmed response to a lackluster offer in David Stacton’s A Fox Inside: “You might at least pretend…that I’m a person. After all, I move and talk like one the best way I can.”

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Uriah Heep, the scheming, writhing, oleaginous villain of David Copperfield, demonstrates why asking a potential bride’s father for permission is risky. Heep has already wriggled his way into Mr. Wickfield’s house and business, partly by encouraging the latter’s dipsomaniac tendencies, when he decides to go after Wickfield’s daughter: “I’ve an ambition to make your Agnes my Agnes.” The dissolute father doesn’t take the news particularly well: “He was mad for the moment; tearing out his hair, beating his head…not answering a word, not looking at or seeing any one; blindly striving for he knew not what, his face all staring and distorted — a frightful spectacle.” Heep’s ambitions — marital and professional — go unfulfilled, but not before Wickfield has voiced what many a prospective father-in-law might wish to: “But look at him!…Look at my torturer.”

coverWhile the variously insulting, ridiculous, and romantic marriage proposals directed towards Elizabeth Bennett are well known, Jane Austen’s Persuasion boasts of its own, subtler failed bid. Anne Elliot, despite the “early loss of bloom and spirits,” receives a sly proposal in the midst of a party from her cousin, the dashing but unscrupulous Mr. Elliot: “The name of Anne Elliot…has long had an interesting sound to me. Very long has it possessed a charm over my fancy; and if I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name might never change.” Pretty smooth as far as cousin-to-cousin proposals go, but to his misfortune Anne gets distracted by hearing someone utter the name of her true love, Wentworth, “which rendered every thing else trivial.” Unlike other characters in this novel of second chances, Mr. Elliot misses his only shot, and his ignored avowal raises an interesting philosophical question: if a proposal falls on deaf ears, is it still a proposal?

coverTom Sharpe’s The Great Pursuit treats us to a proposal scene considerably raunchier than a Regency tea party. A literary agent, Frensic, is hunting down the anonymous author of Pause O Men for the Virgin, an “odyssey of lust” that goes into “exquisitely nauseating detail” about the affair between a teenage boy and an octogenarian woman. Frensic eventually locates the manuscript’s typist, Cynthia, whom he must seduce in order to get vital information about her secret client. The problem is that Frensic isn’t in great shape: “Driven frantic by Cynthia’s omnivorous sexuality he had proposed to the woman. It had seemed in his whisky-sodden state the only defense against a fatal coronary and a means of getting her to tell him who had sent her Pause.” Frensic’s quick-thinking proposal proves yet again that the heart wants what the heart wants, which is first and foremost to avoid a myocardial infarction.

coverAlcohol can hurt or hinder a swain’s cause. Whisky spurs Frensic to action, but in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, overindulging in punch disables Becky Sharp’s suitor and gives rise to one baggy monster of a novel. Or as Thackeray puts it: “That bowl of rack punch was the cause of all this history.” Becky has devoted all of her considerable charms in her attempt to get Jos Sedley, the longwinded “ex-collector of Boggley Wollah” to propose. A Vauxhall party provides a propitious setting to settle the matter, until Jos singlehandedly gulps down an entire bowl of rack punch. The effects are initially stimulating to Jos’s connubial urge, as the “fat gourmand” drunkenly resolves to wake up the Archbishop of Canterbury the next morning and marry Becky, but as the world-wise Thackeray informs us: “Oh, ignorant young creatures! How little do you know the effect of rack punch! What is the rack in the punch, at night, to the rack in the head of a morning?” Mortified by his orgiastic outburst, Jos decamps and leaves Becky to make her way through Vanity Fair unescorted.

coverYet another English satirist, Evelyn Waugh, sets his black comedy, The Loved One, in Los Angeles, the “quiet limit of the world.” The slim novel presents a classic “Jamesian problem” of American innocence and European experience. In Waugh’s hands, however, there are distinctly un-Jamesian touches: an open-casket funeral of a parrot, a crapulous advice columnist named Guru Brahmin, and an acrid perfume, Jungle Venom, extracted “from the depths of the fever-ridden swamp.” Denis Barlow, a cash-strapped British poet, learns that his memorably named paramour, Aimée Thanatogenos, receives a promotion to become the new female embalmer at Whispering Glades, a funeral parlor featuring mausoleums that are replicas of European edifices. To a European man with no American prejudices about living off his wife, Aimee’s promotion means one thing: “Fifty [dollars a week] is pretty good. We could get married on that.” When Aimee rightly asks why she should marry him, he responds with English aplomb: “Why, my dear girl, it’s only money that has been holding me back. Now you can keep me, there’s nothing to stop us.” Not exactly “Come live with me and be my love,” but amidst the ersatz structures at the “mecca of replicates” that is Whispering Glades, honesty counts for something.

How best to goad one’s partner into proposing is an open debate, but as far as blunt ultimatums go, it’s hard to beat Emma Bovary’s from “The Kugelmass Episode.” In Woody Allen’s classic New Yorker story, a magical box can transfer characters in and out of fictional worlds. Just throw an old paperback in and a reader is free to disport with a character of his or her choice. Kugelmass, an unhappily married humanities professor on the lookout for a discreet affair, shrewdly chooses a pre-Rodolphe Emma Bovary to seduce. He eventually brings her back with him to New York and installs her in the Plaza, but when transporter breaks, Emma voices her expectations with Flaubertian precision: “Get me back into the novel or marry me…”

coverFor those seeking to exploit the romantic potential of rodents, Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm is an invaluable guide. In this classic comic novel about yokel relatives, Flora Poste travels from London to stay with the Starkadder clan, among them Urk, a “little, red, hard-bitten man with foxy ears” who once pushed his cousin down a well, and Elfine, a “shy dryad” with a love of poetry and a hatred of houses. Flora grooms Elfine to catch the eye of the local squire, which infuriates Urk, who has long ago, and indelibly, marked her as his: “I put a cross in water-vole’s blood on her feedin’-bottle when she was an hour old, to mark her for mine, and held her up so’s she might see it and know she was mine.” Given this gruesome engagement, it is safe to say that the matriarch Ada Doom saw something nasty in the nursery as well as in the woodshed.

We move from water-voles to “The Monkey,” Isak Dinesen’s story about the aversion of humans and animals to literal and figurative cages (matrimony included). To say that Dinesen’s gothic tale is a marriage plot orchestrated by a demonic chimp only captures some of its lurid weirdness. Briefly, an urbane prioress plots to marry her homosexual nephew to a local nobleman’s daughter, Athena, “a strong young woman of eighteen, six feet high and broad in proportion, with a pair of shoulders which could lift and carry a sack of wheat.” After Athena rejects the proposal, the Prioress hatches a brutal plan to compromise the young lady and force her into submission, which proves to be beyond her nephew’s sexual and combative powers (and costs him his two front teeth). Nonetheless, the Prioress eventually compels Athena to accept, but with one minor qualification: “I promise you I shall marry him. But, Madame my Aunt, when we are married, and whenever I can do so, I shall kill him. I came near to killing him last night, and he can tell you that.” One can only hope that Athena is allowed to write her own vows.

To conclude, a non-traditional proposal for a marriage of minds, or rather, of follies. In the first cliché in a book that feeds on them, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet experience “love at first sight.” Meeting on a park bench, the two copy clerks cement their friendship over lengthy intellectual and political discussions, visits to Paris’s museums, and by sneaking into an Arabic class at the College de France, where the bemused professor notices “two strangers struggling to take notes.” After coming into some money, Bouvard unexpectedly proposes, or rather asserts, a new plan for the pair: “‘We are going to retire to the country!’ And this statement, which included his friend in his good fortune, struck Pécuchet as beautiful in its simplicity. For the union of these two men was deep and absolute.” Deep and absolute it better be, given the setbacks, frustrations, explosions, disasters, and disloyal servants that will strain that union as the two men pursue their unending studies and experiments.

For anyone mulling over whether to ask the big question via Jumbatron announcement, by conscripting a flash mob, or by reenacting my own clumsy efforts (turtle, horticultural maze), consider the proposal aesthetic espoused by Flaubert: It should be beautiful in its simplicity.

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3 Responses to “Popping the Question: A Survey of Literature’s Non-Traditional Marriage Proposals”

  1. Brendan
    at 9:21 pm on October 2, 2013

    This is a fun listicle, but you might want to cross-check your your quotation of the last seven words of Ulysses with the last seven words in the actual book.

  2. C. Max Magee
    at 9:25 am on October 3, 2013

    Thanks Brendan – we’ve fixed.

  3. Christine Fox
    at 4:33 pm on October 4, 2013

    I really enjoyed this commentary. I love watching all proposal’s, even the really awkward ones. What I found to be so interesting about your topic, is that in many books the romance is really taken out of the actual proposals. So often people, men, are expected to go overboard for the romance. The bigger the better, yet as stated by Flaubert, “It should be beautiful in its simplicity.” I completely agree with this. Over done is often over thought and then instead of being intimate it becomes indifferent.

    Thanks for researching and sharing!

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