Great unrequited and unconsummated love affairs in literature act so powerfully on readers that we think we can change the story’s ending. Some of us will devour a book over and over again, knowing that two characters with great romantic chemistry won’t — and maybe shouldn’t — end up together but wishing against all reason that they will. Each time, we hope that the page might turn, and this time instead of a missed moment or a gaze or a goodbye, we will happen upon a kiss, or a reconciliation.
Even if there’s a sensible marriage or two with less combustive energy at these books’ conclusions, we tend to forget those pedestrian matches while the unrealized love lives on in our minds. These are the stories that we remember not because they ended with the altar or a fat smiling baby, but because they ended with a feeling of burning loss and enduring passion.
For your Valentine’s Day pleasure, here’s a selection of literature’s most painfully unrequited, star-crossed and thwarted romances. Read them and try not to weep. (My own heart broke a few times while composing this list.)
Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden, The House of Mirth
These two stars of the New York social scene are attracted to each other, they care for each other, maybe even deeply, but their own egos and snobbish hang-ups prevent them from committing and connecting in the one way that could save them both. “Well — you did love me for a moment; and it helped me. It has always helped me,” Lily says to Lawrence, before the downward spiral that sunders them forever. I have never read the last page of this book, which finds Selden running to Lily’s apartment a few hours too late, without hoping it would turn out another way this time.