9 Unfinished Novels by Great Writers

Gabe Habash -- September 13th, 2012

Here’s something interesting: basically every writer has an unfinished novel.

An incomplete list: Truman Capote, Jack London, Kafka, Stendhal, Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, Vladimir Nabokov, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Karl Marx.

And while all those authors have compelling reasons for why they never ended up publishing (most involved death), below we’ve picked 9 unfinished novels with especially great stories for why they never made it to print.


Bouvard and Pecuchet by Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert began work on Bouvard and Pecuchet in 1863 and spent an obsessive amount of time on the book until his death in 1880–taking a break only to write Three Tales in 1875-76. He was so obsessed that he claimed to have read over 1,500 books in preparation for writing it and expected it to be his masterpiece. The book, finally published in 1881, follows two friends who move from work as clerks to a pursuit of knowledge in the countryside, and find failure in their repeated intellectual endeavors. Flaubert’s manuscript ends toward the story’s conclusion, after Bouvard and Pecuchet have met the majority of their disappointments. According to his notes, the likely ending would’ve consisted of the villagers forcing them out and the two protagonists returning to their jobs.

Reception: Ezra Pound compared the book’s virtuosic scope to Ulysses (“it can be regarded as the inauguration of a new form which has no precedents”). In 2006, Julian Barnes said:

“…requires a stubborn reader, one willing to suspend normal expectations and able to confront both repetitious effects and a vomitorium of pre-digested book learning.”


The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade

Composed over 37 days while Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, The 120 Days of Sodom was written in tiny script on a scroll 12 meters long. When the Bastille was stormed in 1789, Sade (who was transferred to an insane asylum) feared that it was lost forever, but it was found hidden and still intact, and was published in 1904. Of the book’s four parts, only the first is written in detail, with the three following parts written in note form.

Reception: The book has been called vile pornography and misogynistic, as well as being read as a satirical response to Rousseau (and religion, politics, and more) and has endured a history of bans until it became more widely available in the latter half of the 20th century.


Stephen Hero by James Joyce

Stephen Hero is the blueprint for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that Joyce tried to burn during an argument with his wife Nora, but which was saved by his sister. And though the manuscript was abandoned by Joyce (and not published until three years after his death), it has been called more personal and autobiographical than Portrait, laying a better claim to that novel’s title. Joyce worked on Stephen Hero between 1901 and 1906, his last years at University College in Dublin.

Reception: An introduction to the text by Theodore Spencer states:

But this fragment of Stephen Hero does not have to be considered in relation to Joyce’s later writing to be thought worth preserving. It can stand on its own merits as a remarkable piece of work. Though it is not as carefully planned and concentrated as the Portrait, it has a freshness and directness, an accuracy of observation and an economy and sharpness of style that make it, in spite of its occasional immaturities, something to be enjoyed and admired for its own sake. It is one of the best descriptions of a growing mind that has ever been written.


The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck

Published in 1976, eight years after his death, Steinbeck’s retelling of Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, one of the first books he read as a child. The book, which uses Malory’s text as a jumping off point and then diverges into a psychological focus, was unfinished at the time of Steinbeck’s death and ends with the death of chivalry in Lancelot of the Lake. And though he never finished it, toward the end of his life Steinbeck thought it could eventually become his crowning achievement, stating in a 1959 interview that he had “learned to write and [would] not write anything more—just a history of King Arthur.”

Reception: “[Steinbeck] embellishes Malory’s spare legend with a richness of detail that transforms the visions, making it no one but Steinbeck’s.”— John Gardner, The New York Times Book Review


The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton

Wharton’s unfinished manuscript was published one year after her death in 1938, but over 50 years later, in 1993, it was completed by Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring, who used Wharton’s notes to finish the story. That same year, the BBC, independently from Mainwaring’s edition, adapted their own completed version. The story follows the marriages of five American girls to English men.

Reception: The Independent had this to say about Mainwaring’s completed edition:

Mainwaring piles on the props and the plot, but she gets the tone wrong. Concealed motives are made explicit…events are thunderingly underlined…and steamy down-market cliches take over from Wharton’s dryer phrasings…I wish this interesting, patchy novel had been reissued well-introduced and unfinished, so that we could have been left guessing, with Wharton’s voice undiluted in our ears.


The Temple at Thatch by Evelyn Waugh

The only novel on this list to never be published, The Temple at Thatch was Waugh’s first attempt at a novel, and its failure temporarily derailed him. Waugh began writing the book in 1924 during his final year as an undergraduate. The plot, according to diary entries, is largely autobiographical and based on the writer’s experiences at Oxford, with themes of madness and black magic. So what went wrong?

In 1925 he gave the manuscript to his friend Harold Action, who criticized the book (Action later said: “It was an airy Firbankian trifle, totally unworthy of Evelyn, and I brutally told him so. It was a misfired jeu d’esprit.”). Waugh was so distraught that he burned the manuscript and went to the beach and started swimming out. In his biography, Waugh said: “Did I really intend to drown myself? That was certainly in my mind.” But a short way out, he was attacked by a jellyfish and swam back. For a while afterward, he stayed away from fiction writing, but soon returned, likely incorporating many of Thatch‘s elements into his 1925 story “The Balance.”

Reception: Simon Whitechapel said, “Whether or not it matched the quality of his second novel, Decline and Fall, if it were still extant it could not fail to be of interest to both scholars and general readers.”


Billy Budd by Herman Melville

Discovered among Melville’s papers in 1919 by the writer’s first biographer, Raymond Weaver, Billy Budd was first published in 1924, 33 years after Melville died. The manuscript, which was described as “chaotic” when it was found, was published with numerous mistakes based on misinterpretations of Melville’s notes.

Reception: Billy Budd‘s spotty publication history has at least partially contributed to its reevaluation among critics. Weaver first described it as “not distinguished,” but changed his mind after critics like D.H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry called it a masterpiece. More recently, Melville biographer Hershel Parker said in 1990 that:

Examining the history and reputation of Billy Budd has left me more convinced than before that it deserves high stature (although not precisely the high stature it holds, whatever that stature is) and more convinced that it is a wonderfully teachable story—as long as it is not taught as a finished, complete, coherent, and totally interpretable work of art.


The Watsons by Jane Austen

Along with Sanditon (another Austen novel that later authors love to try to complete), The Watsons has at least eight different “completed” editions. Austen only wrote five chapters in the book, totaling less than 18,000 words. It’s speculated that she abandoned the novel after her father’s death in 1805 (Mr. Watson, the book’s elderly father figure, is seriously ill in the opening chapters). In 2011, the only remaining privately owned fragment of the book sold at auction for nearly £1m, three times its estimate.

Reception: Margaret Drabble called the work “a tantalising, delightful and highly accomplished fragment, which must surely have proved the equal of her other six novels had she finished it.”


The Journal of Julius Rodman by Edgar Allan Poe

Six installments of Poe’s serial novel were published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1840, until Poe was fired from the job by William Burton and refused to continue the story, bringing it to an abrupt end. The story is a fictionalized account of the first expedition across the Rocky Mountains, led by Julius Rodman.

Reception: The book was so realistic that in 1840, members of the Senate called attention to it, believing it was an authentic journal preserving  an important moment in U.S. history.

8 thoughts on “9 Unfinished Novels by Great Writers

  1. Hershel Parker

    A few examples of the topic in U.S. newspapers in HM’s last years:
    As trans-Atlantic and then trans-continental communication speeded up in the last third of the nineteenth-century, newspapers and magazines spread stories of works left uncompleted faster than had ever been done. For years after Dickens’s death in 1870 his unfinished Edwin Drood was in the news: Wilkie Collins was or was not going to finish it; the piratical Walter Stephens impudently had staged a version in London (1871); the British-born New York journalist Frank Leslie had copyrighted a completed version (1871); a young businessman in Brattleboro was said to have completed the book under “‘spiritual’ dictation” from Dickens (1873). Newspapers recorded that in 1872 the New York statesman William H. Seward left unfinished his history of his life and times; Felix Mendelssohn’s unfinished oratorio Christus, was performed in Boston in 1874); in 1876 John Forster died with only one volume of his projected life of Swift in print.

  2. Club Stephen King

    Stephen King do not only have 1 unfinished novel… but MANY.

    Rocky Wood, researcher & expert es Stephen King created a book “Stephen King : uncollected, unpublished” about this.
    Moreover, Stephen King often restart working on old projects. ie : Under the Dome & many others…

  3. Hershel Parker

    Thank you for acknowledging the category of The Incomplete. No incompletion’s heaven ordained, Melville said, but he was stirred, maybe even “haunted” (certainly remembering over decades) by Wordsworth’s lines in “Malham Cove” about the sadness of things incomplete and purposes betrayed. I recently noticed that a blogger friend of mine had referred to me as thinking BILLY BUDD was incoherent. No, I explained, I would apply the test of coherence only to a completed work, not to one left incomplete and going off in two quite different directions. It’s incomplete, as you agree, so formal New Critical coherence is not to be looked for. That out of the way, the manuscript that came close to being a finished work gives us much to think about and to talk about in class. Thank you again for calling attention to this topic. It was, by the way, a persistent topic in U. S. newspapers in the last half of the nineteenth-century, when Melville was working on CLAREL and BILLY BUDD.

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