Set This House on Fire

by William Styron

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Critical Evaluation

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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 the Mason-Dixon line, specifically the northern side of that line, the Yankee side. His northern wealth, his northern upbringing, and his abrupt transplantation to Virginia via his father’s carpetbaggerlike assumption of ownership of a Virginia plantation all connote Mason as a symbol of northern American commercial and industrial power, wealth, and corruption. In contrast, Cass Kinsolving is the “Dixon” part of the Mason-Dixon division. The name Kinsolving symbolizes the solving of problems created by his kinfolks, his southern ancestors. Born in North Carolina and most comfortable in Charleston, a center of Old South culture, Cass represents the South’s strengths and weaknesses. He is heavily burdened by guilt over his treatment of African Americans, but he is violently opposed to the cultural superficiality, materialism, and sexual callousness of Mason. Like many southerners, Cass idolizes women, and his spiritual agonizing and artistic uncertainty are representative of southern intellectual and cultural nihilism as a result of the Civil War (symbolized by World War II in the novel). Thus, when Cass becomes Mason’s “trained seal,” he is doing penance for his symbolic enslavement of African Americans, and in helping Francesca’s peasant father and killing Mason he is exacting revenge for the Civil War and northern material and sexual excesses. Thus, Cass regains his self-respect by his retribution against the North’s oppression of the South as represented, in his mind, by Mason. He can then return to Charleston emotionally cleansed and able to productively paint and to continue his criticism of northern America via cartoons in The New York Times.

The novel’s techniques often reflect the influence of other authors, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Faulkner. Cass’s constant psychological self-examination is clearly reminiscent of Robin Molineux in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (1832), for example, and the frequent use of flashbacks similarly echoes Hawthorne’s obsessive self-examination techniques. Also, Styron repeatedly presents Cass’s reveries in a state midway between sleeping and waking, in which he may be dreaming or daydreaming, with his repressed feelings of...

(This entire section contains 786 words.)

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guilt exhibiting themselves in grotesquely altered forms. Styron presents Cass (and implicitly the South) as haunted by its treatment of African Americans. Peter’s father touches on this while looking out at the ocean off Virginia’s shore. That’s where they came in, in the year 1619. Right out there. It was one of the saddest days in the history of man, I mean blackor white. We’re still paying for that day, and we’ll be paying for it from right here on out. And there’ll be blood shed, and tears.

Although skillfully disguised, symbolized, and put at a distance in Sambuco, the problem of America is the focal point of Styron’s Set This House on Fire. Analogous to Hawthorne’s dramatization of the effects of the excesses of American Puritanism, Styron dramatizes the continuing implications of America’s racial history, acted out in profound psychological and physical microcosm in the conflict between Mason and Cass. Set This House on Fire is a profoundly Southern novel.