Emma Bovary longs for an event that will free her from the prison of her daily life. Her image of that event comes from the novels she reads. In the fiction she reads, unlike in the life she leads, something happens—and that something is transformative, shot full of meaning. Emma (unfortunately?) is trapped within a novel whose author takes a perverse pleasure in denying her the event she pines for. Even when things do happen to her, that author works hard to divest those events of meaning, to prevent them from transforming her in the ways she longs to be transformed.

Michael Sayeau's thought-provoking new book aspires to explain why Gustave Flaubert is so mean to his heroine. And, by extension, Sayeau will tell us why modernist novelists are both suspicious of the “event” and dismayed by the stultifying ubiquity of the...

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