Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557
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.
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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 herself at him, they become involved in a passionate affair, which continues until she dismisses him for being too possessive.
The Civil War ends the political debates in the Fairchild household and gives both Dexter and Rosalie an opportunity to live purposeful lives. Dexter works with his father-in-law to raise money and acquire supplies for the troops. Rosalie nurses wounded soldiers until Dexter becomes ill from overwork, and then she cares for him. They do become closer. However, Rosalie needs another cause, and she finds it in women’s rights. Again, Dexter is appalled, but by now the two of them have learned to ignore their basic incompatibility, which in their youth was not considered an impediment to marriage.
After the war, Fred seeks his fortune by becoming involved with the speculators around Cornelius Vanderbilt. When Selby is killed in a train wreck that was the direct result of their machinations, Fred is devastated. However, he recovers, marries a Vanderbilt, and succeeds in the field of law. The book ends in 1895 with Dexter Fairchild at the graves of his wife and his son Selby, who, he says, are still trying to keep him from making a fool of himself.
In Watchfires, Auchincloss tells the story of a past era through the eyes of two well-meaning but very different people who lived through it. As the story progresses, Dexter keeps trying to reason out what is right and then to do it, only to find himself in the wrong. By contrast, Rosalie lets her heart lead her but too often is disappointed in the people who share her beliefs. Throughout the book, Auchincloss never lets his readers forget that power and wealth can accomplish anything. During the war, there is some honest patriotism. Before the war, however, men such as Rosalie’s powerful father and his friends own everyone around them, and after it the gospel of greed engulfs the nation.