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Set This House on Fire

Set This House on Fire, is a novel by William Styron, set in Italy centred on the themes of evil and redemption. The narrator, Leverett, is a lawyer from the American Southeast, but the story is primarily told through the recollections of its protagonist, a troubled artist named Cass.

Plot introduction

The novel's title refers to a line from one of John Donne's epigraphs:

His mercies hath applied His judgments, and hath shaked the house, this body, with agues and palsies, and set this house on fire with fevers and calentures, and frightened the master of the house, which is my soul, with horrors, and heavy apprehensions, and so made an entrance into me.

This epigraph describes the basic theme of the novel: a troubled soul, the alcoholic Cass, is badly shaken by the "fire" of an encounter with evil, in the form of the aristocratic Mason Flagg. Ultimately, Cass' experiences with Flagg provide Cass with the inspiration he needs to redeem himself.

Plot summary

The day after Peter Leverett met his old friend Mason Flagg in Italy, Mason was found dead. The hours leading up to his death were a nightmare for Peter - both in their violence and in their maddening unreality. The events were ignited by a conflict between Flagg and a self-destructive painter.

"What this country needs... what this great land of ours needs is something to happen to it. Something ferocious and tragic, like what happened to Jericho or the cities of the plain - something terrible I mean, son, so that when the people have been through hellfire and the crucible, and have suffered agony enough and grief, they’ll be people again, human beings, not a bunch of smug contented cows rooting at the trough." - William Styron, from Set This House on Fire

Characters in "Set This House on Fire"

  • Peter Leverett – a lawyer from America
  • Mason Flagg –
  • Cass – an artist
  • Luigi – a police-officer

Major themes

Like most of Styron's works, Set This House on Fire is concerned with sex and death, as well as with aspects of Styron's personal life -- in this case, the experience of growing up in Newport News, Virginia.

Literary significance & criticism

The novel received mixed reviews, some of which criticized its supposed heavy-handedness (particularly in the character of Luigi, a police-officer-cum-philosopher) and slow pacing, thought to detract from the writing.


  • Styron, William Set This House on Fire. 1st, Random House. ISBN 0679736743.
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