(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 California influence . . . it’s going to get us all in the end.”

In Charleston, Peter narrates, via personal flashback and quotation from Cass’s comments and notebook, their experiences and observations prior to and after their arrival in Sambuco which, in totality, reconstruct the earlier reality and generate the truth about Francesca’s rape and murder and Mason’s death. First, Peter relates his school-based knowledge of Mason, a Northerner transplanted to Virginia because his unaffectionate movie-mogul father bought a plantation there, a place of entertainment for his movie-star friends. Peter also explains Mason’s unusually close attachment to his alcoholic, virtually deserted mother and relates...

(The entire section is 896 words.)

Set This House on Fire Chapter Summaries

Set This House on Fire 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 Luciano. She begins to ramble on about some movie actors in the area. Her husband, Cass, arrives and sides with Peter concerning the accident. As they speak, a motor scooter flies by, causing the children to dive off the road. Although Peter thinks it is one of the local Italians, it turns out to be one of the actors.

Set This House on Fire 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...

(The entire section is 535 words.)

Set This House on Fire 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 stating that Carole left him.

Set This House on Fire 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...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Set This House on Fire 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...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

Set This House on Fire 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...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Set This House on Fire 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...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Set This House on Fire 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...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Set This House on Fire 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...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

Set This House on Fire 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...

(The entire section is 529 words.)