There’s arguably no good – or indeed, particularly bad – time to propose to someone you love. Deciding to join your life with somebody else’s, to agree to be their person whatever happens, is an unwieldy and exciting and ultimately very fun thing to do. There’s a good chance it’s going to improve the day, the week, even the year in which it happens.
Nevertheless, certain times of year bring a certain kind of romance: a magic in the air, a lingering significance. A moment of quiet intimacy where you resolve to change your lives forever. No wonder people propose around Christmas – what could be a better gift? – or New Year’s Eve, when you can resolve to make the next year special before it even begins.
For those who have the feelings and determination but not the words, books can come in handy. After all, marriages – and the proposal of them – have shaped some of the oldest and greatest narratives of all time. Capturing the ineffable spirit of love? It takes a special author to do that well.
Here, then, are some of the best proposals in fiction – just in case you need a little inspiration.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
A book boasting not one but three proposals, two of which are to the same woman. First, let’s start with the simplest, and perhaps most surprising: that of Laurie and youngest March sister Amy. Their union may be controversial, but as evidenced by the words below, it works. Amy and Laurie are enjoying a romantic little boat trip when, thrown by the awkward silence, Amy says:
“"How well we pull together, don't we?" said Amy, who objected to silence just then.
"So well that I wish we might always pull in the same boat. Will you, Amy?" very tenderly.
"Yes, Laurie," very low.
By this time, Laurie had developed form when it came to engagements – but it wasn’t always the case. Over the course of the novel, our writer heroine Jo March rejects one proposal, and accepts another. The one you think might be the most romantic is probably not the one you anticipate, depending on how you see these things. But both offer up their own kind of allure.
"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": these are the words of Laurie, Jo’s childhood friend, after years of unrequited love. She returns them with a kind of feverish rationality: “I’m homely and awkward and odd and old, and you'd be ashamed of me, and we should quarrel – we can't help it even now, you see”. It’s painful, and sad, and a paean to the youthful affection for love in and of itself.
Pages – and years – later, Jo is proposed to by the serious and academic Friedrich, with whom she’s been writing. It lacks the giddy romance of Laurie’s declaration, but instead instills a sense of understanding of what a lifelong relationship might entail. The sweet spot lies somewhere between the two.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (2021)
Gabrielle Zevin’s heart-wrenching tenth novel had people crying on public transport. Love, loss and video games collide in this coming-of-age story, and there are several great love stories in the novel, it’s between two of the less prominent characters that a proposal arrives; after all, games creator Sadie Green doesn’t believe in marriage.
Instead, Zevin weaves in messages about tolerance and inclusivity through Mapleworld, the surprise hit immersive multi-game player that fosters social progression and ultimately spells tragedy for the novel’s central trio. When the mayor of San Francisco grants marriage licenses between same-sex couples, Sam, Sadie, and Marx’s colleagues, games producers Simon and Ant, discuss the new possibility open to them as a gay couple. The result is historic and everyday, all at once, reminding us that love should never be taken for granted:
“Do you think we should go, though? Simon asked. It was four in the morning, and Ant was driving them back to their apartment to shower, change clothes and perhaps even sleep for an hour to two.
“Go where?” Ant said, yawning.
“To San Francisco,” Simon said.
“For what purpose”
“To get hitched,” Simon said.
“I didn’t know you wanted to get married.”
“Well, it wasn’t an option before,” Simon said. “You can’t know you want something until it’s an option.”
And, at 3 a.m, Ant drove them home again.
“I think I want to go to San Francisco,” Simon admitted, sounding pissed off about the whole situation. “Will you come with me, Anthony Ruiz?”
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
There’s plenty problematic with the relationship between governess Jane Eyre and her mysterious employer Mr Rochester, not least a mentally unwell wife in the attic. However, there is something enduring about his proposal – and Jane’s acceptance of it. Mr Rochester may not have form when it comes to “in sickness and in health”, but the resolution at the end of Charlotte Brontë’s gothic novel suggests both parties will love one another unconditionally in marriage:
"Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear. Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still."
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985)
Love is patient. Especially in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s romantic masterpiece, in which businessman Florentino proposes to his secret childhood sweetheart Fermina in the manner that they have always used: through writing. Rather than the letters they’ve been sending since their youth, though, Florentino and Fermina use the written words instead of spoken ones – writing in front of one another with chalk.
Marquez’s masterstroke is letting us know Fermina’s three-letter answer – yes – without telling the reader the question. We’re not the only ones confused: a wait of four months elapses before the engagement is confirmed, due to one major stipulation:
“Fermina Daza, however, was so confused that she asked for some time to think it over. First she asked for a month, then two, then three, and when the fourth month had ended and she had still not replied, she received a white camellia again, not alone in the envelope as on other occasions but with the peremptory notification that this was the last one: it was now or never. Then that same afternoon it was Florentino Ariza who saw the face of death when he received an envelope containing a strip of paper, torn from the margin of a school notebook, on which a one-line answer was written in pencil: ‘Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.’"
Emma by Jane Austen (1815)
Possibly Jane Austen’s best-loved comedy, Emma’s matchmaking mishaps have continued to inspire adaptations centuries after the book’s publication: who doesn’t love a movie that ends in a wedding? Here, Austen’s innate understanding of the human condition and wry sense of humour shines through: Mr Knightley, the dark horse-love-interest-posing-as-friend, finally proposes to Emma after several hundred pages of will-they-won’t-they. When he does, he admits to struggling with romance, and ends up creating one of the most romantic speeches in literary history. Proof that stating it simply is the best strategy:
“I cannot make speeches, Emma,” he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing.—”If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am.—You hear nothing but truth from me.—I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.—Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them. The manner, perhaps, may have as little to recommend them. God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover.—But you understand me.—Yes, you see, you understand my feelings—and will return them if you can.”