Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Peter Leverett, the first-person narrator of Set This House on Fire, is a lawyer in New York plagued by disturbing memories of and questions about events in Sambuco, Italy, several years earlier, which he partially observed and which culminated in the rape and murder of a young, beautiful Italian, Francesca Ricci, and in the death of Mason Flagg. Mason, a millionaire American temporarily in Sambuco, is found at the base of a cliff a few hours after the brutal attack on Francesca, and the Italian police decided an enraged, lustful Mason attacked Francesca and then killed himself in remorse. Having known Mason since their high school days some ten years earlier and believing him to be sexually obsessed but not a murderer, Peter has difficulty accepting the official explanation. After seeing a New York Times political cartoon drawn by Cass Kinsolving, another American who was in Sambuco when Mason and Francesca died, Peter decides to contact Cass and get his version of what happened, particularly since Cass seems somehow to be involved.
Peter leaves New York for Virginia, where he grew up and where his parents still live, on his way to visit Cass in Charleston, South Carolina. In Virginia, Peter finds his hometown drastically changed and virtually unrecognizable, modernized and urbanized, and street names changed, such as “Bankhead Magruder Avenue” becoming “Buena Vista Terrace,” prompting Peter’s father to comment that “it’s...
(The entire section is 896 words.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
Peter Leverett is a young attorney from Virginia who has returned to America after living in Italy. His job at a second-rate firm does not make him forget his experiences in Sambuco, Italy, where he and two friends, Cass Kinsolving and Mason Flagg, were involved in a tragedy. Mason was accused of raping a woman and is now dead. Peter sees a cartoon by Cass in the paper and writes to him. Cass replies after an extended time and vaguely invites him to visit. Peter decides to take him up on the invitation when he takes a vacation in September. The first week, Peter goes to the mountains with his fiancée but they break up while they are there. Peter’s next plan is to see his parents at his childhood home in Port Warwick, Virginia.
Peter finds that his hometown has become heavily developed during his absence. His father, however, remains the same. Alfred Leverett considers himself a pariah in Port Warwick because of his liberal views, which are contrary to those in this Southern community. He feels that the best thing that could happen to America is something tragic that would knock the Americans off their feet and force them to stand up and be strong rather than the weaklings into which they have developed because of television and the self-centeredness of the average citizen. When Peter and his father stop for some car repairs, Peter notices that the mechanic shop is built on a reclaimed section of the old salt marshes where he had once almost drowned. To him, this is symbolic of the change that has come to the average person. He wires Cass to tell him he will be coming to see him the next day.
The novel flashes back to when Peter was living in Rome. He receives an invitation from Mason Flagg to come to Sambuco. On the way there, he runs into a man on a motor scooter. The man, Luciano di Lieto, has a reputation for dishonesty and thievery. As the policeman asks Peter questions, Peter repeatedly asks when the ambulance will be coming because Luciano is clearly dying. A truck pulls up bearing Luciano’s family. His grandmother berates Peter, the policeman, and the entire crowd. Eventually they leave and Luciano is carried away.
As Peter continues his drive to Sambuco, he sees a woman and her children by the side of the road. He stops and learns that her name is Poppy Kinsolving. She comments on the state of his car, and Peter tells her about his accident. She immediately blames Peter and feels sympathy for...
(The entire section is 497 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Peter had planned to spend only a weekend with Cass but ends up staying for two weeks and tells his office he has suddenly taken ill. He and Cass discuss their time in Italy and the events leading up to the rape by Mason.
Again in flashback, Peter arrives in Sambuco, distraught over the accident. He accidentally walks onto a set where a movie is being shot. After being berated by the director, Peter runs into Mason Flagg, who takes him back to his hotel and introduces Peter to his girlfriend, Rosemarie LaFlamboise. Rosemarie is from the North Shore, a cultured section of Long Island, New York. Mason rattles on about his disdain for Italians and celebrities while Peter tries to explain to Rosemarie about his harrowing experiences. Mason is exhausted and wants to go to bed. Mason breaks the news that he has given Peter’s room to one of the movie people but secured a spot at a nearby hotel for Peter. On his way to the hotel, Peter spots a man sitting in his car. The man explains that he was keeping his car safe for him. Peter has the man carry his luggage to the hotel. He encounters Rosemarie and Mason arguing about Mason’s infidelity. Peter sees Mason hit Rosemarie and quietly backs away. He goes to his room, escorted by the concierge, and lies down to rest.
Peter recalls his childhood friendship with Mason. They had met in prep school after Mason was expelled from other schools. Mason was at first popular, but soon the crowd grew tired of his exaggerations. Peter went with Mason to his home when Mason was once again expelled. Mason’s father was distant and his mother was emotional and alcoholic. She became even more emotional when she learned that Mason was kicked out of school because he was discovered having sex with a local thirteen-year-old girl. The girl’s father arrived at the Flagg home and demanded to see Mason. Mr. Flagg sent the man off and then told his wife, who did not know he was home, that he did not have to tell her where he was. He stated that he has a lush of a wife and a swine of a son. Peter was aghast at how the family behaved.
Peter awakens and visits with Rosemarie, who assures Peter that the man he hit will eventually recover, though he is still in a coma. They talk of Cass, whom Rosemarie says is a terrible drunk. She alludes to some episode Cass and Mason had with an Italian girl. Rosemarie points out celebrities and tells their stories. Peter tries to fit in with the actors but...
(The entire section is 535 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Cass and Peter reminisce about the day Peter arrived in Sambuco. Cass feels embarrassed by his drunken behavior that night. They say the party was the last time they saw Mason alive. Peter tells Cass that, after the weekend at Mason’s home where he revealed that he had been kicked out of school once again, Mason was sent off to a strict military school. Afterward, Mason went on to Princeton—accepted mostly because of the large donation his father gave for the college library. Peter and Mason kept in touch by letters over the ensuing years but did not meet again until after college, when both were living in Greenwich Village in New York. A neighbor of Peter’s, named Garfinkel, told Peter how impressed he was with Mason’s talent as a playwright. Mason’s self-destructive behavior threatened to ruin that, but Garfinkel had great hopes for him. Peter heard that Mason was married to a woman named Carole, but she was not really his wife. He then learned that Mason’s wife was Celia, and he was introduced to her. She was quite different from Carole, according to Peter.
Another flashback reveals more of Peter’s relationship with Mason. Mason tells Peter that art is dying and is sure to be dead by the end of the century. The only true freedom is found in sex. He invites Peter to a party, which he learns is really an excuse for an orgy. He meets a girl named Lila who is repelled by the actions of the others. She and Peter watch them and decide to dance. Soon, however, they leave; Peter explains to Mason that Lila is not feeling well. Lila does not understand why Mason resorts to such orgies when his wife is so nice.
Peter spends time with Mason and Celia, thinking how much Mason’s wife treats him in the same way his mother did. One night Celia shows up at Peter’s door, bleeding from having been hit by Mason on the back of the head. She assures Peter that Mason does not hit her often, but she became frightened and thought only of escaping. Peter’s home was the closest place she could think of. Peter eventually takes her to the hospital, where they treat her wound and promise to fix her up before letting her go home.
The next day, Peter boards the ship bound for Europe. His cabin is filled with gifts from Mason as well as two unappealing cabin mates. Mason arrives with Carole, and Peter berates him for his behavior toward the women in his life. When Peter arrives in Paris, he receives a letter from Mason...
(The entire section is 454 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
When Mason returns from chasing the girl he wanted to kill, Peter is irate. He says Mason invited him down to Sambuco, but he will not stay around for the things he has seen on his first day. Mason explains that the girl, Francesca, has been robbing him for a long time. Mason goes to dress and returns. He explains to Peter that he has been able to visit the local PX (Marine Corps Exchange) because he was a former pilot, though in fact he was a draft dodger, as Peter knows. They hear Cass below—he is even more drunk than he was previously. Cass joins them and soon puts on a “show” for the film group. Cripps, one of the people working on the film, is disgusted with Cass and joins Peter in taking him away.
Poppy is upset that Cass is once again drunk and making a spectacle of himself. Luigi, a local police officer, begs him to stop getting drunk. Poppy tells him he is a bad example to their children. Cass shows Peter a bottle of pills he stole; they are intended to cure consumption. Cass and Peter take them to a man named Michele who is ill and needs the medicine. Michele rants and raves against God, that He should put men on earth to suffer so. Cass leaves, no longer drunk but raving himself against politics.
Peter decides he has had enough of Mason Flagg and moves out of the hotel room Mason reserved for him. He accepts Cass’s invitation to stay with him. He sleeps all day but awakens to go outside. A woman comes screaming down the street. Peter goes up to his former hotel, where the concierge tells him a peasant girl has been raped and mutilated and is currently at the point of death. The crime was committed by Mason Flagg, who is also dead; he threw himself over the cliff. Peter runs to the spot to find Luigi, Cass’s friend. Peter is questioned by the police as to Mason’s nature. Peter says he was not a psychopath, though he feels that he is lying. The police do not believe him and will not let him look at Mason’s body.
Peter returns to Sambuco to find that the movie crew has left. He finds Poppy, who is overcome by what has happened. He learns that the girl, Francesca, the peasant Mason raped and mutilated, is almost dead. Cass returns, but he is drunk. He seems to be connected with Mason’s crime but is incoherent. Poppy comforts him, and Peter notices that Cass seems to have aged a dozen years.
(The entire section is 445 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
During his stay with Cass in South Carolina, Peter talks with Cass about Mason’s death. Cass asks Peter if he knew that it was he, not Mason, who killed Francesca. Peter replies that he suspected it, and Cass confirms it.
Cass tells Peter about his life preceding the time in Sambuco. He had lived with Poppy and their children in Paris, where he was pursuing a career as an artist without success. He was overcome by depression and drove his wife and children from the apartment. He looked out on the street scene in Paris and thought back to his childhood.
Cass’s father had been an Episcopalian minister. He and Cass’s mother were killed when Cass was ten, so Cass was raised in the strict Methodist home of his uncle and aunt, who wanted him to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the ministry. Cass, however, only wanted to become an artist. He tells Peter that, at seventeen, he knew he would soon be drafted into the army but did not want to go overseas a virgin. He spent an entire day looking for a girl who would sleep with him, without results. That evening, he spotted a girl selling Jehovah’s Witness magazines. Cass began to seduce her by telling her he had always been interested in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The girl, named Vernelle Satterfield, eventually took him back to her aunt’s house, where she was staying. They discussed religion but Vernelle put on a record and asked Cass to dance. She was sexually experienced and drew Cass into the bedroom. They began to make love but Cass quickly had a premature ejaculation. Vernelle laughed at him, saying the “divine spirit” just flowed out of him.
In Paris, Cass fell asleep and dreamed that his uncle was taking him to the state prison. He heard the other prisoners calling out for him to be gassed. He awakened and decided to go for a walk. Cass had visited prostitutes before, especially when he and Poppy had an argument. As he wandered the streets, he saw a prostitute he had visited before. He did not sleep with her this time, however; he felt a sudden urge to be home. He rushed back to the apartment and awakened Poppy. He gained a new love for his family, which had previously felt like a dead weight.
(The entire section is 400 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Poppy sends Cass to a doctor, who tells him that, apart from his ulcer, his health is fine but he must stop drinking. He gives him some medication, which Cass does not take. He spends more time enjoying his children. His wife, to him, has become a precious creature. He feels greatly ashamed of the pain he has caused her. He decides to leave Paris and take the family to Italy. Poppy has grown used to Paris, however, and does not want to leave. She asks instead that they go back to America. Cass refuses, stating that everyone in the United States is after money. Poppy points out that he had recently said the same about the French. Regardless, Cass cashes some traveler’s checks and plans to move the family south.
As the family travels on the train to Italy, their pet parakeet dies, causing tears of grief from the children and even Poppy. At a stop, Cass carries the dead bird out to a field to bury it, complete with funeral mass. Back on the train, Cass is struck with the fact of his children’s own mortality. This causes him to reflect on Poppy’s Catholicism, which he has rejected. However, he feels a notion of spirituality when it comes to those he loves. He keeps a journal of his reflections on his new outlook since his visit to the doctor. He has become much more of a family man since turning away from alcohol.
Cass and his family live in Rome for a while. They meet an American couple, the McCabes, who have come on a type of Catholic pilgrimage to Rome. They are surprised to find that Cass is not Catholic. He becomes verbally contemptuous of Catholicism and begins to tell anti-Catholic jokes. One evening they begin to play cards. Mr. McCabe brings out his private label whiskey. Although Cass has been very self-disciplined since his doctor’s visit, he weakens and begins to drink considerably. He becomes belligerent and eventually flies over the table and hits Mr. McCabe. Poppy and the children scream, and Cass takes off.
Cass wakes up in a strange bed, evidently having had sex with someone who took all his clothes and his money. She also left him a very bad case of crabs. Cass calls Poppy, who brings him a box of clothes. On the way back to the hotel, Cass lays his head in Poppy’s lap, feeling very regretful.
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Recovering from his wounds from his fight with Mr. McCabe, Cass decides it is time to head even further south. Cass rides on a scooter, drunk most of the way. He faces many irritations but tries to raise his spirits by singing hymns. He arrives in Sambuco and finds his way to the Bella Vista hotel. Though it is somewhat run down, the hotel is host to several guests, including an old British couple. The proprietor, Windgasser, is dubious as to Cass’s nature. Cass sits before the fire, oblivious to those around him, unable or unwilling to refrain from passing gas loudly. He leans against the fireplace mantel and knocks over a large vase, which almost strikes the British couple. Chaos ensues, accusations are made, and Cass is thrown out. He slips and falls on the wet marble steps, striking his head and passing out.
Cass awakens in the police station, where the sergeant begins to berate him for being an American; he wishes the fascists were still in control to take care of people like Cass. A corporal named Luigi enters and takes over, explaining that the sergeant has a habit of giving speeches until the suspect offers to give him money. Cass is indignant that he should be expected to bribe the sergeant, but Corporal Luigi is a much more reasonable person. As they speak, a commotion breaks out in the other room. A young peasant girl is accused of theft, which she denies. Cass finds her breathtakingly beautiful but Luigi dismisses her as a mere peasant. He tells Cass that he will dismiss the charges against him, but he must pay for the vase. Cass is grateful and returns to the Bella Vista, where he apologizes to Windgasser, saying that he is diabetic and subject to attacks. Windgasser is sympathetic and gives him a nice room. Cass decides to book the room for two months and then returns to Rome to bring his family down to Sambuco.
Cass returns to Rome to find that Poppy no longer receives money from two businesses her family owns because she did not give permission for her attorneys to sell them before a highway was built some distance from them. They travel to Sambuco, but Cass becomes overwhelmed by Poppy’s inability to organize the home. Luigi suggests a local peasant girl who will work for food. On the street, Cass comes across a crowd surrounding a dog that has been run over. A doctor tries to put it out of its misery but ineffectually beats its head without killing it. This haunts Cass for some time.
(The entire section is 437 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
A young, American painter named Waldo Kasz worked near Sambuco. He had a reputation of being a mean-spirited recluse. The similarity of his name to Cass Kinsolving’s lead to Cass’s introduction to Mason Flagg.
Cass tells Peter of a dream he had in which he was in an airplane, and in the airplane was a concrete shower. Cass saw himself turn on the taps only to have gas come out rather than water. Cass saw himself dying and was unable to help himself. Some Negroes came in, asking each other how they could let it happen. This dream reminds Cass of an incident from his childhood. When he was fifteen, his uncle sent him to Virginia to work with a great uncle. Cass worked in an auto supply shop, where he met a man named Lonnie. Lonnie claimed to have a special understanding of the local Negroes; he did not think of them as equals. Cass went with Lonnie out to the home of a Black man named Crawfoot to repossess a radio. Crawfoot was not home, so Lonnie searched for the radio and finally found it hidden beneath the floorboard. It was cracked, which set Lonnie off. He began to tear up the place, wrecking everything in it. Cass felt sick at the act but soon joined in anyway. Cass reflects on the depths of evil in his fifteen-year-old self—something he had not thought about for a long time.
Cass returns to his story. When Mason arrives in Sambuco, Windgasser tells him an artist named Cass is living below him, and Mason thinks he means Waldo Kasz. Mason is impressed and visits Cass, asking to see some of his work. Cass feels confused but brings up some of his old paintings and sketches. Mason, along with Rosemarie, enthuses over the work, discussing its presentation of space and so on. The conversation continues, and Mason offers Cass a drink. While Rosemarie goes off with Poppy and the children, Cass quickly becomes drunk. Mason continues to discuss art, which begins to irritate Cass, who thinks of Mason as a dilettante who really knows little about art because he is obviously impressed with Cass’s feeble attempts. Francesca arrives, explaining that she has come to be a servant to the family. Cass feels even more desirous of her but explains that he cannot afford a servant. Francesca begs him to let her work, and Cass eventually agrees. Mason makes rude comments about Francesca. Finally, Cass interrupts Mason and tells him to stop calling him Waldo. Mason finally understands that he is not talking to Waldo Kasz, but the two...
(The entire section is 486 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Mason asserts that art will be dead by the year 2000. He and Cass are driving toward Salerno as Mason expounds on his theory of the future of art. He then proceeds to discuss Francesca’s thievery. (Francesca did not work for the Kinsolvings for very long.) Mason digresses from the future of art to the Italians as a nation of thieves; Cass tries to get him to slow down on the sharp curves. Mason is increasingly erratic, according to Cass, even suggesting that he and Rosemarie join Cass and Poppy in an orgy, which Cass cannot imagine his wife doing. Cass tries to borrow money from Mason so he and Poppy can move back to Paris. He promises Mason he will pay him back once he finds a source of income in Paris.
Cass thinks of Francesca and her ill father, Michele. He had visited Michele in his hut and saw the deplorable state of it. It reminded him of Crawfoot’s shack, which he had helped Lonnie destroy. Michele is increasingly incapacitated by consumption. He asks Michele’s wife, Ghita, why Michele is not in a hospital. Ghita explains that the doctor said it would not do any good; besides, there is no money. Cass decides he must help this man. He convinces Francesca to steal food from Mason and give it to her father. Cass goes with Mason almost daily to the PX to buy supplies to replace what is missing. An American couple from Nebraska stays for a while at the hotel. The husband is a doctor, and this inspires Cass to take over Michele’s treatment because no real doctor is available to him. He reads medical books and learns what treatment is necessary. He tries to convince Mason to get him the medication he needs form the PX, but Mason holds out on him.
Cass fantasizes about having sex with Francesca. His drinking increases and he worries that his stomach will not last much longer from the effects of the alcohol. On a trip to the PX, Cass remains outside while Mason goes in. Cass tries to get past the guard without any identification but is unsuccessful until Mason comes out and explains that Cass is his “man” and tells Cass to come help him carry things. Cass feels that this is significant; he already feels that he has sold himself to Mason. He continues to drink, and he stays drunk most of the time. It is at this point that he meets Peter on the road to Sambuco.
(The entire section is 424 words.)
Chapter 10 and Epilogue Summary
After meeting Peter on the road, Cass returns home and sleeps for most of the day. He awakens only because he knows he needs to get the medicine from Mason and take it to Michele. As he goes up to Mason’s room, Francesca comes running out. Cass knows Mason has raped her. Francesca rushes to Cass, telling him that Mason caught her taking food. He took her up to his room and raped her. Later, he tried to again, but she kneed him in the groin. He beat her and she left, which is when Cass saw her.
Cass feels nothing but hate for Mason. He must go up and get the pills for Michele because he fears that any interruption of the medication would cause a setback. He sends Francesca away. He assures Peter that he never made love to Francesca, though both wanted to do so. The closest he came was to sketch her in the nude. When Cass goes to Mason for the pills, Mason refuses. This heartlessness, along with the rape, caused Cass to decide to kill Mason.
Cass woke up from a drunken stupor, knowing he had to get himself together to kill Mason. He goes downstairs and Windgasser tells him of Francesca’s rape and mutilation. Cass goes up to Mason’s room but does not find him. After searching, he finds Mason under his bed. He tries to drag him out, but Mason escapes. Cass chases him out to the seaside. Mason has a club, and Cass picks up a large stone. Mason beats Cass with the club but Cass knocks Mason down and beats his head with the rock. He takes Cass’s body and throws it over the side of the cliff.
Luigi questions Francesca, who is still barely alive. At first she accuses Cass, but then she changes her story and names Mason. Before she dies, Luigi is able to learn the truth. After Mason raped her, Francesca ran out to the outskirts of Sambuco, where she ran into a local youth named Saverio. She reacted when Saverio reached out to her, and Saverio responded, eventually beating her with a rock. Luigi knows that Cass most likely killed Mason; he had loved Francesca and was upset by Mason’s assault of her.
Cass spends most of his time drunk. He wanders around Sambuco, overhearing Americans at a nearby villa discussing the tragedy. He runs into a priest, from whom he learns that Michele has died. He rants against the injustice of God. Luigi quietly arrests Cass and takes him back to the police station. He tells Cass that he lied for him and that the case was declared to be a murder-suicide. Luigi releases...
(The entire section is 529 words.)