Charles Dickens and Work-Life Balance in a Pandemic

Great Expectations, “home,” and “work.”

One of the great joys of being an English Major is getting to find out a little about which classics are actually good, actually bad, and actually so good that you need to read them cover to cover. And, sometimes, the assigned classics lead not only to a passing knowledge of the canon, but an introduction of a favorite author (and, consequently, the encouragement to continue seeking out classics for fun).

I had to read Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, in high school, and I hated it. I think everyone in the class hated it. So when it turned out my senior English seminar in college was to focus on Dickens, I was not thrilled.

We started with Oliver Twist, and I was like oh this is kind of exciting I kind of like this. And then we read David Copperfield, and just looking at the size of that book I was skeptical but then I read the entire thing and was like wait is Dickens good what is going on here okay prove it Charles. By the time I finished Great Expectations, Chuck D had become one of my most favorite authors, and I was lambasting my teenage self who had watched that particular masterpiece sail over his head.

Dickens is one of the classic authors who is actually good, and who is actually so good he demands to be read. Part of what makes him great is, despite writing over 150 years ago, he is still so relevant and readable. I just revisited Great Expectations, which is his greatest work and one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, and I was blown away by the pertinence and poignancy of its characters and thematic elements. As a work of literature, it’s a riveting mystery, a quintessential coming-of-age tale, and a novel of comedic[1] and Gothic elements in equally affecting measure. It also has much to say about class, crime, wealth, ambition, alienation, imperialism, goodness, and redemption (for starters). And, while some readers can’t get past the sentimentality which colors so many of Dickens’ novels, Great Expectations, as G.K. Chesterton writes, is “the only book in which the expectation was never realized” and it “has a quality of serene irony and even sadness, which puts it quite alone among his works.”

He’s an author for all-times, and Great Expectations is a novel for any time, but on this reread I found some elements to be especially applicable to these times[2], which brings me to Wemmick and the separation of home and work.

About midway through the novel, Pip (the protagonist and narrator), visits the home of John Wemmick, the focused, unsympathetic clerk for Pip’s guardian, the lawyer Mr. Jaggers. But, while Wemmick is cold and ruthless at work, Pip finds a very different man at home. The house itself is eccentric, a cottage designed to look like a castle (complete with a moat and a battery with a live cannon) with a garden and spaces for farm animals. Wemmick jokes that “if you can suppose the little place besieged, it would hold out a devil of a time in point of provisions.” In response to Pip’s compliments, Wemmick explains that he is is own engineer, plumber, gardener, “and my own Jack of all Trades.” Wemmick lives with his father, an elderly deaf man who Wemmick refers to as “the Aged,” and the clerk shows great care and patience for the man. Pip observes the way Wemmick leaves work behind when he comes home, and the way he transforms back again as they walk to work the next day:

By degrees, Wemmick got dryer and harder as we went along, and his mouth tightened into a post-office again. At last, when we got to his place of business and he pulled out his key from his coat-collar, he looked as unconscious of his Walworth property as if the Castle and the drawbridge and the arbour and the lake and the fountain and the Aged, had all been blown into space together by the last discharge of [the cannon].

Wemmick is aware of the difference – the twin Wemmicks, as Pip sees it – and is particular about how he conducts himself at home and at work. When Pip asks Wemmick’s advice on a financial question, Wemmick gives him one answer at work, but suggests that if he should see him at home, he might have a different, more sympathetic answer, and this understanding continues to play out between the two of them as Wemmick proves to be as caring and faithful friend away from work as he is a shrewd and mechanical operator away from home.

All of us who work fall on some spectrum on which the split-identity of Wemmick is at one extreme. Even if our disposition doesn’t change between home and work, we might still keep our work life and home life very distinct. Compared to Europeans, Americans work long hours, often bring work home with them, and take very little time off, and I think it’s reasonable to say that when home and work overlap, it’s more often the case that work is infringing on home. But whatever the individual case may be, it has now, for millions, changed very much in the last three or four months, as so many have been working some or all of their hours at home. People have dealt with the practical and existential challenges presented by this with varying degrees of success.

At the risk of looking past the pandemic we are still very much living through, what interests me is how this time of blurring the lines of home and work might change the way we think about the distinction (or lack thereof) between home and work. For some, the experience has underscored the difficult of thinking about and doing work while in the home, but, for others, it has demonstrated that work can be done without the added burden of physically going “to work.” Is a strict bifurcation mutually beneficial, or is the ability to customize and adapt an advantage?

In one scene late in Great Expectations, Pip confers with Jaggers and Wemmick and reveals to the imperious lawyer that his clerk has “pleasant and playful ways,” making for an awkward few moments between the professional colleagues:

You with a pleasant home?’ said Mr. Jaggers.

‘Since it don’t interfere with business,’ returned Wemmick, ‘let it be so. Now, I look at you, sir, I shouldn’t wonder if you might be planning and contriving a pleasant home of your own, one of these days, when you’re tired of all this work.’

Mr. Jaggers nodded his head retrospectively two or three times, and actually drew a sigh.

Jaggers then savagely dunks on Pip, and the awkwardness is only dispelled when Wemmick takes the opportunity to berate a client for crying as he supplicates before his boss[3]. And so Wemmick is, despite this friction, able to for the time being maintain his preferred dichotomy, but perhaps the potential strain shows itself in a moment like this.

While Wemmick is a “successful” example of a split character in Dickens, I think the novel also contains a critique of this mode of living. Pip is raised by his abusive older sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, who is at times like Pip’s brother, father, and best friend. Joe is an uneducated and unrefined blacksmith, but is also kind, selfless, honest, and full of love. Joe’s home and work are almost one and the same, as the house and forge are adjoined, his wife always within hearing distance, and, for a time, his adopted son Pip working as his apprentice. He is the same at all times, whether he is hammering hot metal, enduring Pip’s sister at dinner, or smoking his pipe by the fire.

His life and work are humble, but Joe Gargery joins a collection of noble blacksmiths in literature. One such blacksmith appears in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1840 poem, “The Village Blacksmith.” He is described as a “mighty” and “brawny” man whose “brow is moist with honest sweat.” He happily toils day in and day out and is an inspiration to the speaker and the other members of the village. When I used to teach 100-level English Composition, I used vocation as a theme of sorts for the course, and I presented my students with this poem as an example of being satisfied by one’s work, plebeian as it might be. I juxtaposed it with Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1897 poem, “Richard Cory,” in which a wealthy and outwardly-kind man admired by all goes home one summer night and puts a bullet in his head. This is not at all to suggest Wemmick is a parallel character to Richard Cory, but I think we can deduce that Richard Cory’s public and professional persona differed a great deal from his private life and inner thoughts. Furthermore, I’d suggest the difference between the blacksmith and Richard Cory goes beyond two individual temperaments to a sociological factor – in 1840, 89% of Americans lived in rural areas; in 1890, that number dropped to 65%. More and more work was done outside the home instead of at family farms and shops. This bears out in Great Expectations, as Joe Gargery lives outside of a small village amidst the marshes, while Wemmick lives and works in London.

In short, there might be something to the idea that the melding of home and work might not necessarily be to the detriment of the home, and work-life balance might not necessarily depend upon fewer hours at work or physical removal from the workplace.

This brings me to Wendell Berry, that singular American man-of-letters. In an op-ed in The Progressive magazine, Berry makes a case for easing the burden of “work” by changing the way we think about work and what kind of work we make an economic priority rather than shortening the grueling American workweek. Allow me to quote at length:

The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.

Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as “less work, more life” or “work-life balance,” as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.

But aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work?

And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?

And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?

More important, why should you think of your life as distinct from it?

Things get tricky here, of course. Working at Culver’s was not my vocation, but I absolutely believe I was able to honor and glorify God through that work, and when I remembered that was the case it made going to work much more enjoyable. I mostly left work at work (though I did bring home a fair amount of frozen custard), and while I mostly kept my personal life out of work and didn’t make my co-workers into friends, I did express my personality and interests at work, and, again, that made work more enjoyable (and of course the custard made home a little more enjoyable too!). But despite the spectra, exceptions, and variations, there remains the compelling notion that blurring the lines between home and work might be for our good remains.

As we gradually make a return to normalcy and begin to think about changes to be made in response to the lessons learned from this pandemic, employees and employers should both reconsider the distinctions we do and don’t make between home and work. Some workers might find that it is better for them to be able to express more of their home life at work, or that it helps if they can do a larger proportion of their work at home. Others might think now more than ever that work is work is work, and that they should keep it as removed from the rest of their life as possible. Employers should be attentive to the needs and preferences of their employees, and should make decisions based on more than just the bottom line.

Again, this varies very much from person to person and job to job, and so I hesitate to make generalizations about what we should learn from the pandemic about work and how we should change, but I think there are still guiding principles that we can take from Wemmick, Joe, and the rest of Great Expectations. They are, well, to be good. Be kind. Be faithful. Be genuine. Wemmick is not a kind man at work, but he is a devoted and reliable employee, and while he lacks compassion while on company time, his kindness wins out just as soon as he is able to get away. We might critizice Wemmick for his conduct at work, but it is clear that he is acting in the way he sees best to be able to be gainfully employed and able to be a devoted caretaker to his father, a faithful friend to Pip, and an eccentric Jack of all Trades to boot. Joe’s work is not glamorous, and it’s not even clear that he has a particular love for the work itself, but it is inextricable from his home life and he is no worse off for it. He is his good self at all times.

Sure, Jaggers should be a more compassionate lawyer, which would allow for a more compassionate clerk, and, sure, society should allow for a blacksmith’s upward mobility without the contribution of a mysterious benefactor. Rugged individualism and self-improvement should never be considered a bailout for the failing of systems and societies. But, while we strive to shape a healthier working American life in the wake of this pandemic, we would all do well to let the best in us guide both our career pursuits and our conduct at work.

This has been a trying time, but we have the power to make the most of it. As Estella says to Pip in the final chapter: “I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.”

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria



~click the number to return to the text~

1 I know, I know, we literary types tend to oversell how “funny” books are, but Dickens is legitimately funny. Like he can actually make me laugh out loud while reading, and you know something has to be damn funny to make you do that.

2 If you’re reading this in the future, I’m writing this in the middle of the COVID-19 global pandemic. If you don’t know what that is, then we who lived through it did something very wrong. Google it and read The Plague and hopefully you’ll have some idea of what it was like to be alive right now.

3 It’s a pretty funny scene, but it’s also a tough look for our guy Wemmick. I think Wemmick is a great character and a good man, but it’s also right to criticize his behavior at work.


2 thoughts on “Charles Dickens and Work-Life Balance in a Pandemic

  1. Pingback: Looking Back at Notable Characters with a Conspicuous Disability | eloquent mumbler

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