3 Unfinished Classic Novels to Inspire You

Some stories never end.

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There cannot be anything more frustrating for a book fanatic than an unfinished novel. The author has died, and their book isn’t finished. Their fans are in crisis. Now they will never see the coveted finished product, never experience closure for their beloved characters. In some lucky cases, the author has left behind sufficient notes and an outline so that a trusted relative or friend who knows their style well enough can pick up from where they left off. In the worst-case scenarios, the author took the book’s ending with them to the grave, and it will never be completed. Not unless another writer is confident and determined enough to finish it themselves.

History has proven on a frequent basis that there will always be champions wielding pens instead of swords who will step forward for such challenges. People don’t give up on their stories and will devote their lives to them to the point of obsession. The greatest fascination, for some, with unfinished novels is perhaps not the missing ending but the possible explanations for why the novels were left unfinished in the first place. In past epochs, when most writers were starving and living in derelict conditions, chronic illness could whisk them away before they could complete their masterpieces. But writers could also abandon works willingly in their lifetimes, for reasons that if not outlined in a diary or journal, would forever remain a mystery for literary scholars to ponder over while they’re busy constructing their own endings at the same time. 

Here are three classic works of fiction whose ink on the manuscript pages dried up with the author’s life, with plot points unresolved, and characters still hanging from the cliff. They remain unfinished and have become playgrounds for aspiring writers who consider themselves worthy successors to the original authors. Whether or not they really are worthy successors is for the judge-and-jury readers to decide. 

the watsons, a classic unfinished novel by jane austen

The Watsons

By Jane Austen

A seventh fully completed Jane Austen novel would have made the Regency era’s star author’s millions of readers (and Hollywood) very happy, but alas, it was not to be. It has been speculated that Austen began this work in 1803, and that its content and tone reflect a particularly despondent time in her life. In 1803, Austen had been dragged away from her happy childhood home at the Steventon Rectory by her parents to Bath, a city she loathed for its crowdedness and shallow upper crust society (Austen considered herself a plain country girl all her life). Unmarried and without money or independence, she was cursed to do her family’s bidding, and endure their irritating attempts to force her to socialize and meet a respectable Bath gentleman when she would much rather have been writing. 

In the little spare time Austen could snatch to write, one of her attempted projects was The Watsons, a socio-economic commentary novel that drew on some intimate elements very close to home. The story Austen had in mind for this work was that of the family of a poor clergyman on the brink of death. He has two sons and four unmarried daughters, and the race is on to find the girls decent husbands before they all outgrow their eligibility and become “old maids.” With no money for attractive dowries, their prospects are bleak. 

When Jane Austen’s own father, also of the clergy, died in 1805, a deeply grieving Austen put the manuscript aside and never found a solution to the sisters’ marriage woes. The subject matter was far too uncomfortably similar to her own predicament. Austen’s niece Catherine Hubback, who took up writing to support her own family, completed a version of the novel in 1850 and renamed it The Younger Sister. A score of other continuations are scattered across the board, by both past and modern authors, but it can be safely said that no matter how skilled the attempt, there really is only one Jane Austen. 

the mystery of edwin drood, an unfinished classic novel

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

By Charles Dickens

The Victorian-era powerhouse author Charles Dickens made himself a comfortable living by serializing his books rather than publishing them in single volumes. It was a clever business practice at the time, as each installment made readers ever the hungrier for the next chapter. Sales soared, and Dickens had the privilege of casually writing his books in chunks, which surely allowed him a more relaxed writing schedule. However, this is an instance where history sincerely wishes he had written the whole manuscript at once, as The Mystery of Edwin Drood remains, nearly two centuries later, still a mystery. 

The novel surrounds a fierce rivalry by three men for the affections of the lovely Rosa Bud. Bud is respectfully engaged to Edwin Drood, but Drood’s uncle John Jasper and rival Neville Landless lust after her, and tensions boil in what is supposed to be the peaceful country town of Rochester. Drood eventually goes missing and, just under two hundred years later, has stayed missing. Dickens died in the same year the first parts of the book were published. Dickens left behind no outline and no notes. Nor are there any letters to friends or family alluding to the mystery that has driven centuries of fans half-mad: what happened to Edwin Drood? 

Both literature and crime enthusiasts have been relentlessly on it like sleuths. Authors who had completed continuations include nineteenth-century author Robert Henry Newell in 1870 (an opportunist, he wasted no time) and Leon Garfield in 1980. Fruttero & Lucentini were less interested in solving the mystery and more interested in making fun of Charles Dickens in their “critique” The D Case, published in 1989. Countless YouTubers, many of them true crime vloggers applying their knowledge to this fictional case, have opinions to offer as well. It’s anyone’s guess. 

the castle, an unfinished novel by franz kafka

The Castle

By Franz Kafka

Czech modernist author Franz Kafka is the source of a literary term known as “Kafkaesque,” which defines something—usually bureaucracy—that is needlessly, mind-numbingly slow and complicated, almost always at the expense of a book or a short story’s main characters. The Castle is not exempt. The plot, as Kafka intended in this rough draft, follows “K,” the everyman white-collar protagonist, who finds himself infuriatingly barred from the mountainous castle where the local government of his village holds court. Kafka, who spent the majority of his life trapped in grueling office jobs with ridiculous office politics, transfers his own sense of hopelessness to “K,” whose objective becomes evermore elusive as the authorities’ invisible and impossible rules increasingly close in on him. 

The castle and its powerful inhabitants presumably win this war, as Kafka never completed the novel. The book even bizarrely ends mid-sentence, though this is consistent with Kafka’s character; the author had a notorious habit of abandoning works, relationships, and career schemes before seeing them through, due to his crippling low self-esteem. Before dying young from tuberculosis, he instructed his closest friend Max Brod to destroy all his manuscripts. Brod, who recognized Kafka’s genius when Kafka refused to, defied him, and The Castle was published as an incomplete work in 1926, albeit with Brod’s heavy edits. 

Fans have been obsessed ever since, and the premise has been reworked and adapted as a film, radio play, graphic novel, and opera. Last year, in 2022, The Castle entered public domain, and one can justly expect that the next generation of ambitious creatives will rise up to try and infiltrate the castle on Kafka’s behalf. 

Featured image via Aaron Burden / Unsplash