Set This House on Fire

by William Styron

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Chapter 5 Summary

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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.

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Chapter 6 Summary