Set This House on Fire

by William Styron

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Places Discussed

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Sambuco. Fictional village on Italy’s west-central coast, not far from Salerno—a six-hour drive south from Rome and one hour from Naples. It sits atop imposing cliffs and looks downward into deep gorges, one of which Cass Kinsolving nearly falls into and another in which American millionaire Mason Flagg’s body is eventually found.

Built in the ninth century, Sambuco enjoyed its greatest prosperity in the thirteenth century. In World War II, it escaped destruction because of its physical isolation. However, beneath Sambuco’s facade of longevity and bucolic peacefulness lies a village being gradually demoralized by postwar poverty and despair. Mason Flagg’s arrival and subsequent “Americanization” of his Sambuco experience, despite his expatriate posings, set events in motion. Sambuco’s remoteness, its geographical aloofness toward the rest of Italy, and the village’s uninvolvement in the war’s violence and destruction all stand in ironic contrast to the violence that occurs in the novel.

*New York City

*New York City. Before the departure of the novel’s narrator, Peter Leverett, for Europe, he and Mason Flagg reconnect in a Greenwich Village bar. Mason introduces Peter to his version of New York City—a new and eye-opening world of sex, excess, self-indulgence, and alcohol. At first, Peter marvels at both Mason’s and the city’s fearsome duality: gentleman by day, nihilist by night. However, following ten days of debauchery and excess in New York City with Mason, Peter is relieved finally to leave behind the city’s depravity as he sets sail for Europe. To Peter, New York represents America and Mason represents New York, and he is ultimately horrified and mesmerized by them both.

Port Warwick

Port Warwick. Virginia city of Peter Leverett’s youth and, for a time, Mason Flagg’s. Mason and Peter both attend St. Andrew’s School in Port Warwick until Mason is expelled for allegedly raping a female classmate. While growing up at Merryoaks, a palatial colonial plantation manor, Mason is surrounded by the wealth, parties, celebrities, flash, and glamour that he later surrounds himself with in the Sambuco version of his home.

(Although “Port Warwick” was a fictional place when William Styron wrote this novel, it is now the name of an experimental village in Newport News, Virginia. In tribute to the novel, the community’s three-acre town square has been named Styron Square, and Styron himself was accorded the honor of naming most of Port Warwick’s streets and squares.)


*Europe and *North America. These two continents are treated metaphorically as two parts of the same place, divided by an ocean. From the beginning, a generalized parallelism exists between them despite their obvious differences. Additionally, Mason, who represents much that is objectionable about America, merely transports his own “America” to Italy. In Sambuco, the three expatriates’ purported disdain for America is contradicted by their apparent embrace of things American, such as Mason’s Cadillac, Hollywood houseguests, and flashy wealth, all of which are surprisingly evident in postwar France, Italy, and presumably other parts of Europe. At various points in the novel, Europe and America are both decried as artistically, morally, and spiritually “dead.”


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Fossum, Robert H. William Styron. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1968. Includes a thorough and perceptive chapter on Set This House on Fire. Notes the novel’s existential bent and purgatorial suffering implications.

Friedman, Melvin J. William Styron. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1974. Argues that the novel is a caricature of traditional detective fiction and notes the importance of setting but incompletely explains the symbolism.

Pearce, Richard. William...

(This entire section contains 176 words.)

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Styron. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971. Focuses upon the class conflict implications of the economic disparities depicted and the violence underlying the superficial sophistication in American culture as presented by Styron.

Rubin, Louis D. The Faraway Country: Writers of the Modern South. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963. One of the best analyses of the novel, depicting some of the Southern themes implicit in it and sensitively analyzing the psychological portrait of Cass Kinsolving.

Ruderman, Judith. William Styron. New York: Ungar, 1987. A thorough study of the novel that utilizes prior criticism in effectively interpreting some of Styron’s symbols and astutely analyzes Mason Flagg’s sexual obsessiveness.


Critical Essays