If you live life with rose-colored glasses, you probably tend to take the same view of love as some of these troubled characters – ignoring red flags and diving headfirst into a champagne-drunk pool of bad romance. If toxic relationship patterns and endless Tinder swiping have left you feeling gaslit and ghosted, rejoice! As these classic novels will show – you’re not missing anything by curling up alone with a good book.
Spoiler alert! By explaining how bad these love stories were, many times give away the unhappy endings – so you may want to skip this piece if you don’t want them ruined.
Romeo and Juliet (1597) by Shakespeare
Young Romeo sets his sights on 13-year-old Juliet after being turned down by her cousin, Rosaline (who said she’d rather die a virgin than ever sleep with him.) They secretly get married the next day after meeting each other. There is a lot of fighting because their families hate each other, and then lying leaves them both dead. Oh, and all of this happens in five days. So. Romantic.
The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) by Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Werther, a sensitive young artist, goes through the wringer of depression after falling in love with Charlotte, who is engaged to another man. Werther befriends them both so he can be a cumbersome third wheel. However, he grows ever more despondent after their marriage and eventually decides one of the three has to go – as in, die.
Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë
Catherine and Heathcliff love each other, but because of money, Catherine marries Edgar, her next-door neighbor. Heathcliff then goes off and gets rich and marries Edgar’s sister, Isabella, to make Catherine jealous. They all suffer at the hands of Heathcliff’s anger at being denied his soulmate, and eventually, all die.
Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë
Remember when Rochester proposes to Jane in the orchard even though his wife is locked up in a room back at the house? Luckily, the wife later sets Thornfield Hall on fire and dies so Jane and Rochester can live happily ever after.
Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary can be said to suffer “chronic affective dissatisfaction.” Unable to quell her passions, she takes lovers that she eventually tires of and spends money that she doesn’t have. When her debts come due, none of her suitors will help so she kills herself. Her husband then learns of her debts and affairs, and he dies too.
Great Expectations (1860) by Charles Dickens
In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham encourages Estelle to break Pip’s heart, but she ends up miserable once she does. Luckily, after more than a decade break, she relents and apologizes, allowing for their (probably) happy ending.
Anna Karenina (1877) by Leo Tolstoy
Anna leaves her son and husband to run off with a dashing Count. She is the quintessential narcissist, loving herself while hating herself simultaneously, which leads to her demise.
The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin
Edna, the main character of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening, is bored and unfulfilled in her married life. She tries independence and affairs but nothing helps and she finds herself still restricted and unhappy. The only true fulfillment she finds is drowning herself in the ocean.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy
As an innocent maiden, Tess is sexually assaulted by Alec, a young man who is supposed to be helping her. Eventually, she runs from her past and finds happiness in marriage to a farmer, Angel. This happiness only lasts a few days – her husband leaves when he finds out Tess wasn’t a virgin – even though he acknowledges that is pretty jerky. Later, she pretends to be married to Alec, the man who raped her. When her husband Angel returns to get her back, she kills Alec, and Angel and Tess get a few blissful days together before her execution.
Age of Innocence (1920) by Edith Wharton
Newland Archer, a young lawyer from an upper-class New York family, is happily engaged to May until her exciting and provocative cousin arrives. The Countess is fleeing her unhappy marriage, and Newland becomes obsessed, although dutifully bound to his obligation. He ultimately decides to stay with boring May.
The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Daisy Buchanan dumped Jay Gatsby when he was young and broke, but her feelings change once he makes millions and uses them to win her affection. The catch is that she’s married, although her husband’s disaffection and cheating make it easy for her to cheat. Daisy and Jay’s love affair ends with Daisy accidentally killing her husband’s lover Myrtle. Gatsby takes the fall for Daisy, which is romantic, in a bootlegging Long Island kind of way.
Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) by E.L. James
We all knew this one was going to be on the list. First, Christian gives Ana a first-edition copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles (see above.) Their entire relationship revolves around Christian using intimidation and lavish gifts to coerce Ana to do things she doesn’t want to do. There was a reported rise in emergency room visits by adults attempting to incorporate certain practices into their love lives after the publication of this book. That is one hell of a way to end a date.
Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn
Nick and Amy win everything in the toxic relationship category. Nick is a liar, a cheater, self-obsessed, and a terrible husband – but Amy takes the cake when she fakes her murder and frames him.
That’s it! A lucky thirteen list of classic stories of toxic love. So light some candles, pour some wine, and grab a book! Better them than you when it comes to bad romance.
Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.
I was expecting to see Of Human Bondage on your list. Not a happy read.