The abundance of problematic proposals in nineteenth-century British fiction suggests a breakdown in the already inequitable gendered social ritual of proposing and accepting marriage. Coercive proposals, in particular, disrupt the element of a woman's free choice that Victorians assumed to be critical to successfully performing this ritual. Using speech act theory as its analytical framework, this article examines how Charles Dickens, in Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, presents two case studies of marriage proposals that are not merely coercive but are explicitly threatening. The threats that Bradley Headstone and John Jasper embed in their proposals can be read as invalidating the performative promises of the proposals themselves, as the act of promising suggests an effort to fulfill the wishes of the promisee, while the act of threatening suggests an effort to violate those wishes deliberately. This is more than a semantic distinction: because marriage proposals were and are such a significant part of Victorian life and the Victorian novel, their proper performance is a requirement of stability in the social order and the literary form. When the ritual of the proposal breaks down into threats, so too does the obligation of its recipient to respond according to conventional scripts, and the words and actions of Lizzie Hexam and Rosa Bud suggest that Dickens saw in such proposals opportunities for the expansion of women's agency at the extreme margins of the marriage plot.

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