Set This House on Fire is William Styron’s second novel, published nine years after Lie Down in Darkness (1951), the latter generating for Styron his reputation in the 1950’s as America’s most promising young novelist. Perhaps partly because of that reputation, Set This House on Fire represents Styron’s desire to create an ambitious novel—lengthy, complex, graphically emotional, and often profound. However, since Styron’s second novel is deceptively different from his first—in length, in location, and in extent of psychological portraiture—many critics found it disappointing, labeling it melodramatic, pretentious, vague, and unconvincing. These criticisms are undeserved, reflecting a failure to comprehend Styron’s essential thematic concern and his fundamental technique.
Thematically, Set This House on Fire is completely a southern novel, but it is often unappreciated as such, given its symbolist (even allegorical) technique. This technique accounts for the Italian setting, Sambuco being a place of antiquity where characters are not constrained from confronting their primeval emotional and philosophical longings. Sambuco represents uncluttered human reality, unlike the modernized and urbanized hometown that Peter Leverett can no longer truly recognize or understand. In Sambuco, though, Peter can realize his true relationship to Mason Flagg (mutual dislike), and Cass Kinsolving can confront his guilt-ridden past and overcome it by purgative actions (serving as Mason’s “slave” entertainer; helping the peasant father of Francesca, whom he associates with African Americans he abused in previous years; and murdering Mason).
The killing of Mason has been particularly misunderstood: Many critics fail to go beyond the symbolism of Mason’s last name (Flagg, as in American flag, a symbol of America). Mason can also be understood in the context of...
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