Wemmick was right

How a minor Dickensian character foresaw-and tackled-our trouble with work/life balance

given charles dickens’s penchant for outrageous character names, the hero of Great Expectations falls a little short. I’m not talking about narrator Philip Pirrip, whose “infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip” and whose youthful ambition steers the 1861 novel. I’m talking about John Wemmick, law clerk to Pip’s guardian, Jaggers, and a role model for recession-weary, summer-vacation-starved 21st century office workers.

Wemmick’s goals may, on a first reading, seem too modest to be heroic. While Pip must journey to London to seek out his fortune, Wemmick just needs to eat lunch at his desk without getting crumbs all over the floor. Pip chases convicts; Wemmick longs to get home in time for supper without his job following him. At the office, he presents as the kind of tired, middle-aged employee who is easily overlooked for promotions: “a dry man, rather short in stature, with a square wooden face, whose expression seemed to have been imperfectly chipped out with a dull-edged chisel.”

Yet Wemmick achieves a feat that eludes the other Victorian professionals of the novel—and is the envy of a lot of modern American ones. With determination and ingenuity, he creates a “work/life balance” more than a century before life coaches and yoga instructors will dream up the phrase. His methods merit attention from anyone who regularly checks work email at 11 p.m. or is right now struggling to figure out if she can squeeze in a real vacation this summer. If you’ve ever yearned to cut the technological cord that ties you to your office, Wemmick can help.

The way Wemmick sees it, any white-collar worker who wants a personal life must guard it fiercely—and literally. He models his tiny cottage after a Gothic castle, replete with moat and all the defense machinery. He tells Pip, “The office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me.”

Like many Dickensian characters, Wemmick is both a comic figure and a prescient one. There, at the dawn of modern corporate life, he sees how a white-collar profession can consume all aspects of an employee’s life and personality, a possibility embodied by his boss Jaggers, whose clients follow him home to dinner. Wemmick also sees that the crossover occurs not because Jaggers actively encourages it, but because he never forcibly discourages it. So Wemmick creates barriers between office and home that are artificial and a little ridiculous. But you know what? They work.

The boundaries work even though they don’t genuinely cut Wemmick off from his place of employment. Their effectiveness comes from Wemmick’s decision to abide by them. Modern workers who want a private life distinct from their professional one must create similar boundaries, however gimmicky they may at first seem.

I’m fortunate not to toil in a cubicle, but in the years I spent as a high school teacher, I often felt like a slave to the 24-hour email culture of teenagers. Students would ping me late at night with questions on the next morning’s homework, and I would either stay up answering them or stay up thinking about the ones I hadn’t answered. So a few years ago, while teaching Great Expectations, I vowed to Wemmick-ify my life.

My town of Arlington takes a liberal view of many things, but amateur arsenals and personal moats aren’t among them. (Besides, I wasn’t sure how effective a drawbridge could be against an email onslaught.) Making promises to spend less time online didn’t work so well either. So when a new semester began, I wrote on all my course syllabi: “Please note that I don’t check email after 5 p.m.” At the time, it was a total lie, yet once the words were in print there was something mandatory and moat-like about them. I don’t check email after 5 p.m. I don’t. I don’t. Eventually, I really didn’t. Evenings became mine in a more deliberate way; no matter how I spent them, I had a sense of separation, of life distinct from work.

Even after changing to a career that doesn’t involve syllabi, I’ve largely stuck to my system. Sometimes 5 becomes 6 or 7, but it rarely becomes 10. My friends report a wide variety of moats (as well as some unsuccessful experiments with them). One locks her Blackberry in a drawer during the evening; the lock helps her keep her hands off it, never mind that she’s also the keeper of the key. Another claims that by removing his saved username and password from his email—and having to type them in anew each time—he broke his habit of checking messages every two minutes.

Meet the Author
Artificial? Sure. Ridiculous? A little.

Wemmick would be proud.