(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Watchfires is set in New York during the Civil War period. When the protagonist of the novel, Dexter Fairchild, was sixteen, his father, a prominent Episcopal clergyman, left his wife, his children, and his parish to run off to Italy with a married woman. As a result, Dexter lost his faith, but he replaced it with a strict ethical code. Now a lawyer, Dexter Fairchild considers himself a model of probity and self-control.

As the novel begins, Fairchild, now forty, is deeply troubled. It seems increasingly unlikely that a compromise between the fire-eating Southerners and the fanatical abolitionists will be reached, even to save the Union. The conflict has reached into his own household: Fairchild’s wife, Rosalie, has espoused the cause of the abolitionists, and the two Fairchild boys, Fred and Selby, have taken to debating the issues loudly all over the house.

However, Dexter has a more immediate problem. His cousin, Charles Fairchild, has discovered an amorous note that his wife, Annie, received from Jules Bleeker, a journalist. Since Annie is Rosalie’s younger sister, Dexter considers it his moral obligation to put Bleeker in his place. He has Bleeker fired by the newspaper where he works and ousted from society. Rosalie is furious; her husband, she says, is like a self-ordained priest, a watchman over everyone else’s conduct. Ironically, like his father, Dexter proves unable to practice what he preaches. When Annie throws...

(The entire section is 557 words.)