10 Great Novels About Unrequited Love

I. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

“Love is like a tree: it grows by itself, roots itself deeply in our being and continues to flourish over a heart in ruin. The inexplicable fact is that the blinder it is, the more tenacious it is. It is never stronger than when it is completely unreasonable” [Hugo, Signet Classics, 1831/2001: 313].

Unrequited love seems to be the main theme of this novel by Victor Hugo since each character’s action in this story is driven by their love (or lust), and that includes beautiful gypsy Esmeralda’s blind love for Captain Phoebus, and, of course, bell-ringer Quasimodo’s selfless and hopeless love for Esmeralda. This atmospheric masterpiece set in medieval Paris dramatizes the conflict of secret fears and desires experienced by such characters as Esmeralda, Captain Phoebus and Quasimodo, but also strict disciplinarian Archdeacon Claude Frollo and poet Gringoire.

II. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

“...I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be” [Dickens, Penguin Classics, 1860/1996: 268].

Great Expectations is a fine novel about tragic consequences of misbelief and obsessive love, though one is probably right to remain sceptical about the ending. Pip is an orphaned boy who is chosen by a rich woman Miss Havisham to visit her mysterious house for certain tasks. There, he falls in love with proud and aloof girl Estella, and his once chance encounter with two convicted felons on the run comes to haunt him as the years roll by.

III. White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevsky

“…Or was he born so that he might dwell/If only for a fleeting moment/in the reflection of your love?” [I. Turgenev, The Flower, 1843, Preface to White Nights].

Love is such that it can turn a mere moment into infinity. In this story, one dreamy and melancholy young man wanders the streets of Saint Petersburg when he meets on his way a crying young woman whom he starts calling Nastenka. His growing love for this tender and once wronged young woman becomes painful when our narrator realises its impossibility: Nastenka awaits the imminent return of a man she loves.

IV. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

How her figure haunts me! Waking or dreaming, she fills my entire soul! Here, in my head, in my mind’s eye. I see her dark eyes the moment I close my own…The second I close my eyes I see hers before me, deep as an ocean, or an abyss, and they are within me, filling the senses of my mind” [Goethe, Modern Library, 1774/1989: 67].

In this great romantic novel, Werther details his love for Charlotte, a woman who is engaged to another man, his friend Albert. Werther’s mental and emotional pain is beautifully conveyed as he tears himself between unimaginable bliss of being currently near Charlotte and his horrific fate of living the rest of his life without his beloved. Goethe’s masterwork is a deeply-felt confession of a tormented heart.

V. Letter From an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

“You ought to know all about my life. It has always belonged to you and you knew nothing about it” [Ophuls & Wexman (script),1986].

These were the words penned by one unnamed woman to R., a successful novelist. R receives the letter, being completely bewildered by this unknown sender, and what he finds inside is the unthinkable: a declaration of a passionate, life-long love for him which he has never even suspected existed. Letter From an Unknown Woman is an unforgettable novella. Few writers can break their readers’ hearts faster or more irrevocably than Stefan Zweig could.

VI. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My hopes for a relationship with her were wholly unreal, whereas my ongoing misery, and frustration, were an all-too-horrible reality. Was groundless, hopeless, unrequited obsession any way to waste the rest of my life?” [Tartt, Tay Ltd., 2013: 509].

Donna Tartt’s bestseller is about a boy Theodore, whose mother tragically dies in a terrorist attack at the Met, New York. The boy becomes friends with antiquarian Hobie, who sets him on the right path, but Theo also falls in love with Hobie’s adopted daughter Pippa. Theodore’s grief for his mother, as well as his tormented and unrequited love for Pippa, eventually catapult him to a shady life of substance abuse.

VII. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity of the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability…it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again” [Fitzgerald, Scribner, 1925: 5].

This may not be a book that immediately springs to mind when one thinks about unrequited love, but Jay Gatsby’s love for elusive Daisy is essentially that. This classic is narrated by Nick Carraway, a cousin of Daisy, who becomes intrigued by his rich neighbour-next-door Gatsby. Nick slowly discovers that this man’s most eccentric actions have the simplest of explanations. The Great Gatsby is not only a touching story of obsessive love, but also a powerful statement on the “Fall of the American Dream”.

VIII. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

“…Another’s! Nay, to none on earth/Could I have given this heart of mine./By the decree of the Most High,/And by Heaven’s willing – I am thine” [Pushkin/Newmarch].

No such list is complete without the inclusion of this possibly greatest of all unrequited love stories. Pushkin details in this novel in verse the unreturned love of Tatyana Larina, a shy and quiet girl in one well-to-do family in the countryside, for Eugene Onegin, an aloof dandy of a sort. Tatyana’s heart-breaking love letter to this man is probably what unwittingly sets in motion a series of tragedies. It is hard to find a decent translation, and the original is, of course, pure gold.

IX. Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

“It is never until one realizes that one means something to others that one feels there is any point or purpose in one’s own existence” [Zweig, NYRB Classics, 1939/2006: 101].

In this story by the Austrian literary master, Anton Hofmiller, a young cavalry officer, gets himself entangled in one strange affair, or so he thinks, when he spots a daughter of his rich and influential host during one of the lavish dinners and decides to ask her for a dance to please the home-owner. However, Edith is disabled and, soon, one small kindness shown snowballs until Hofmiller’s bewilderment and panic, and then innate cowardice and lack of resolve, do not let themselves wait.

X. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani

I dreamt…of…watching her play tennis with Alberto. Even in the dream I never took my eyes off her for a second. I kept on telling myself how wonderful she was…with that frown of almost fierce concentration that divided her forehead…Yet then I felt oppressed by an uneasiness, an embittered feeling, an almost unbearable ache” [Bassani/Weaver, Everyman’s Library, 1962/2005: 171].

In this beautiful story, our narrator’s life becomes inter-linked with the aristocratic Jewish family Finzi-Contini, who invite the young man into their home, largely to play tennis. As the World War II nears, the narrator’s infatuation with beautiful girl Micòl of the Finzi-Contini moves from being bitter-sweet to being heart-breaking.

Disappointed Love [1821] by Francis Danby

17 thoughts on “10 Great Novels About Unrequited Love

  1. Interesting blog. Of those you listed I’ve only read Werther which was very good.
    Fascinating fact: I believe The Goldfinch is heavily inspired by Great Expectations.
    I think I need to read Stephan Zweig.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a soft spot for novels about unrequited love, so thanks for the recommendations. Gatsby is one of my favourite examples. I recently finished Great Expectations, which I really enjoyed as well., but I actually think, I might have preferred the original ending.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope the list will be useful. I have also recently finished Great Expectations! A re-read after so many years and the ending still threw me off a bit. Going over the list, I realise that some authors have this atmosphere of “unrequited romantic love” in their novels, rather than any specific plot. Here, Knut Hamsun comes to mind, and Jack London’s Martin Eden is certainly a worthy honourable mention.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a lovely post! I’ve read four of the novels you have listed. There’s something about the theme of unrequited love that tugs at you. I guess we’ve all experienced it in some form or the other at some stage in life and can relate to the intense emotions. I loved the ending of ‘White Nights’. It literally gave me goosebumps.

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  4. There are so many books on your list that I’ve been meaning to read for ages and never got around to – most embarrasingly, I have never read Werther, despite loving almost all of Goethe’s poetry and plays 🙈 – so thank you for the reminder that I need to get a move on!

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  5. Great list! Love is definitely something people will always have something to write about, and it can take so many different shapes! I really want to read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame but I can’t really bring my mind to it! I am also currently reading White Nights but I’m trying to read it in Russian so my progress is quite slow!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s impressive that you are trying to read it in Russian. The original is always the best, but I imagine it must still be hard reading it in Russian. I have to read it now extra slowly too and often many sentences many times over because I am no longer used to the Cyrillic in my books.

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