What is the significance of the character of Wemmick in Great Expectations?
With his sharply split personality, which expresses itself in completely opposite ways depending on whether he is at work or at home, John Wemmick is among the most peculiar figures in Great Expectations. Dickens creates this unusually divided man as a way of showing how living and working in a capitalist society forces individuals to develop public personas that are different from their private ones.
Wemmick’s brusque manner and inflexible features strike Pip upon their initial acquaintance. Wemmick is so impervious to feelings of sympathy and generosity that Pip says that he appears to have been chiseled out of wood. Pip repeatedly describes Wemmick as mechanical and refers to his mouth as a “post office,” a perfectly rigid slot that betrays no emotions at all. Wemmick’s demeanor seems as hardened as his face, and Pip becomes deeply disconcerted by the clerk’s familiarity with unsavory people and places and his casual way of referring to nefarious activities as though they were completely normal. The only thing that seems to interest Wemmick is “portable property,” which he describes as his leading concern in life. All of this distance from what Pip views as the normal course of behavior, coupled with Wemmick’s association with the seemingly vicious Jaggers, leaves Pip wondering if he has not aligned himself with men as disreputable as the criminals whose affairs they handle.
The first hint that Wemmick’s cynical exterior may mask another side to his personality occurs when he tells Pip that Jaggers does not want Pip to know his true intentions. Pip is visibly struck by this remark, and Wemmick tells him that “ ‘it’s not personal; it’s professional: only professional.’ ” This statement suggests that Wemmick believes in a sharp division between personal life and professional life, and that people should leave their feelings at home when they go to work. The extent of this separation becomes even clearer when Pip accompanies Wemmick to his home, a bizarre suburban castle complete with a moat and drawbridge. This fortified building allows Wemmick to leave his public life completely behind, and once at home he becomes a totally different person. He is jovial and generous, and displays a great deal of sympathy toward his father, whom he lovingly calls the “Aged P.” Later Pip discovers that Wemmick even has a fiancé, Miss Skiffins, to whom he is deeply attached. When they leave Wemmick’s house, Pip notices that the clerk’s features grow more and more wooden the closer they get to the office, until Wemmick has changed back into the dry mercenary he first appeared to be.
Wemmick’s two sides are clearly at odds. In fact, Wemmick tells Pip that his sentiments at home and his sentiments at work have nothing to do with each other, and suggests that they are so unrelated that they cannot even be said to be in conflict. This point is underscored by the fact that in the office Wemmick tells Pip that helping Herbert Pocket would be the equivalent of throwing money straight into the river, but at home he shows his eagerness to support Pip’s plan for advancing his friend. Wemmick has created a hardened, cynical shell so that he can get through his workday, during which his primary concern must always be helping his employer make a profit. The profit motive for workers in a capitalist economy is so great, Dickens suggests, that people must transform themselves into amoral machines just to get through their workdays.
Dickens calls attention to this feature of capitalism so that he can subsequently suggest ways to reform it. The change Dickens seeks to introduce occurs when Pip wants Jaggers to confirm Estella’s identity. As Jaggers continues to refuse to help, Pip pleads with Wemmick, reminding the clerk that he has a family and home that he loves, and asking him to open his heart to Pip’s case. Jaggers is stunned by the revelation of Wemmick’s other life, and Wemmick tells him that he kept it hidden because it had nothing to do with work, hinting as well that Jaggers ought to have a home life instead of merely a professional existence. Jaggers is so moved by this that he instantly reveals the details Pip seeks about Estella. In crafting this scene, Dickens proposes an alternative version of the relationship between private and public life, one in which the feelings of the home can be brought into the workplace, thereby relieving workers of the burden of living double lives and infusing the workplace with sympathy and generosity.