“Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way,” Mia Warren tells Izzy Richardson, referring to Bebe Chow’s loss of her daughter, May Ling, to the custody of the McCulloughs. “Like after a prairie fire.” Fire—literally and figuratively—is omnipresent throughout the novel. It is in the book’s title, and a mysterious fire is the plot’s first major event, placed at the beginning of the first chapter and used as a framing device for the rest of the book as it delves into the months leading up to the blaze. Fire, again and again, serves as a metaphor for renewal and a symbol of the scorched physical and emotional landscape that the Richardsons, and the whole town of Shaker Heights, don’t yet know they’re living on.
Tied inextricably into themes of order and disruption, fire symbolizes both loss and the potential for beginning anew. May Ling Chow—adopted by the McCullough family and renamed Mirabelle—is abandoned by her birth mother, Bebe Chow, at a fire station. When Izzy Richardson, fascinated by Mia Warren’s art and lifestyle, begs to become her photography assistant, Mia describes feeling as if “something inside Izzy [has] reached out to something in her and caught fire.” Whenever fire appears in the text, it denotes the arrival of a moment of renewal, as well as a character’s encounter with a point of no return. The mystery around which the novel rotates is who set the fire that claims the Richardsons’ house, and why. The fire is revealed to be the product one of those points of no return—a culmination of the messy interweaving of families and blurring of boundaries that develops between the Richardsons and the Warrens. Izzy Richardson, miserable over Pearl and Mia’s sudden departure and the prospect of “going back to life as it had been before [they arrived,]” plots to burn down her own home. Mia’s words of encouragement echo in her ear as she uses a can of gasoline from the garage to cover each room of the house in accelerant—“Sometimes,” Mia told her earlier in the narrative, “you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow.” Inspired by the prospect of renewal, angry at her family for driving the Warrens away, and desperate to regain the sense of acceptance she felt with Mia, Izzy starts a series of “little fires everywhere” throughout her own home, reducing the grand structure to a burnt-out hull before running away, perhaps for good.
Fire Quotes in Little Fires Everywhere
“Is she going to be okay?”
“She’s going to survive, if that’s what you mean.” Mia stroked Izzy’s hair. It was like Pearl’s, like her own had been as a little girl: the more you tried to smooth it, the more she insisted on springing free. “She’s going to get through this because she has to.”
“I don’t know, honestly. But she will. Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way. Like after a prairie fire. I saw one, years ago. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.”