Set This House on Fire

by William Styron

Start Free Trial

Chapter 1 Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Chapter 2 Summary