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Through his novel Great Expectations, Charles Dickens emphasizes the perpetually domineering nature of 19th century England’s uncompromising class structure system. Dickens satirizes the socially vital and inflexible natures of this system through characters such as Mrs. Pocket, whose failure to realize her low-class status drives her to neglect her family and sensibility, and Mr. Pumblechook, who only respects main character Pip after he comes into a large inheritance. However, Dickens most effectively highlights the seriousness of one’s place in this society through Mr. Wemmick, whom Pip befriends in the novel’s second volume. Through this character, Pip learns not only how to separate the confinements of social stratification from a humble lifestyle, but also to appreciate the modest pleasures and lessons of his own “lowly” roots. Dickens uses Wemmick as a meaningful instrument to convey these important messages, and does so convincingly through his use of details to describe Wemmick’s home versus occupational lives, language to signify his change in tone between the two settings, and images to impart the extent to which Wemmick separates his different worlds.
Dickens, masterful in the arts of amusing and meaningful description, uses a liberal supply of details in describing Wemmick’s beloved, if low class, dwelling and family life. Before Pip is introduced to Wemmick’s alternate suburban society, he only interacts with Wemmick in a strictly professional capacity; thus, he has no notion of Walworth, Wemmick’s alternate-reality fortress in which Wemmick consistently takes on an , emancipated identity. Pip, somewhat ashamed of his own beginnings in Victorian England’s lowest tier, is initially unimpressed with the rural meagerness of Wemmick’s residence: “It appeared to be a collection of black lanes, ditches, and little gardens, and to present the aspect of a rather dull retirement. Wemmick’s house was a little wooden cottage in the midst of plots of garden…I think it was the smallest house I ever saw, with the queerest Gothic windows…and a Gothic door, almost too small to get in at.” (pg 192) As Pip later discovers, however, Walworth is, and represents, everything a rigid London occupational life is not: quaint, romantic, simultaneously thrilling and calming. Wemmick creates for himself simple pleasures at Walworth, which are small enough for him to maintain and appreciate: “The bridge was a plank, and it crossed a chasm about four feet wide and two deep. But it was very pleasant to see the pride with which (Wemmick) hoisted (the flag) up, and made it fast; smiling as he did so, with a relish, and not merely mechanically.” (pg 192.) By employing sufficient details to describe both Walworth’s charm and its supreme importance to Wemmick, Dickens conveys the extent to which Walworth allows Wemmick to shed the blackest layers of inner London’s austere, demanding society, and become someone of whom no one in his conventional community would respect or approve.
Dickens paints a bold and meaningful picture of the importance of social paradigms on the mentalities of 19th century Englishmen by creating a profound contrast between Wemmick’s language in his London profession and that in his country home of Walworth. While working in London by day, Wemmick communicates with his boss and clients in an entirely businesslike fashion, saying exactly what needs to be said to complete his job and take home money in his pocket. Completely wary of the opinions of fellow society members, he remains tight-lipped in matters that may in any way hinder his work or social standing. Upon arriving home to Walworth, however, his clipped speech and habitually limited responses transform into cheery banter, good-natured teasing and an obvious display of hospitality. While at work, Wemmick grimly dismisses the city in which he works by informing Pip, “You may be cheated, robbed, and murdered in London. But there are plenty of people anywhere who’ll do that to you.” (pg 158) By contrast, Wemmick’s diction assumes an undeniably brighter tone when he addresses his “Aged Parent” and boasts of his role as handyman at Walworth: “I am my own engineer, and my own carpenter, and my own plumber, and my own gardener, and my own jack of all trades. Well, it’s a good thing you know. It brushes the Newgate cobwebs away, and it pleases the Aged.” (pg 193) This division of expression is certainly no accident; Wemmick draws a line so prominent between his two vastly opposite ways of speaking that he classifies the submissions he feels discouraged from making in London as “Walworth sentiments,” only to be imparted in the liberation and ease of Walworth: “No; 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. If it’s not in any way disagreeable to you (Pip), you’ll oblige me by doing the same. I don’t wish it professionally spoken about.” (pg 194) The seriousness with which Wemmick verbally addresses issues in his occupational life, when juxtaposed with his informal, lighthearted manner of addressing those same (or vastly different) matters in his residential life reveal his concerns over his reflection in the societal body’s eyes, and the extent to which he fights to preserve the segmentation of his two lives.
Dickens effectively uses imagery to further display Wemmick’s daily metamorphosis from taciturn businessman to affable family man, as well as Wemmick’s struggle to live normally and appropriately in each habitat. Throughout the book, Dickens imparts the image of Wemmick’s mouth as a post office, widening and narrowing depending on his emotions and environment. While at Walworth no description of Wemmick’s mouth distinguishes it from any other, Pip observes in London how, “(Wemmick’s) mouth was such a post office of a mouth that he had a mechanical appearance of smiling.” Wemmick’s wide-mouthed, liberal emissions at Walworth remain controlled under the post office key in London, and just as Wemmick must release himself from his world of indulging pleasures within miles and minutes as he enters the world where none of this is possible, so must he regulate the similar operation of his post office: “By degrees, Wemmick got dryer and harder as we went along, and his mouth tightened into a post office again.” (pg 195) Through this prominent image, Dickens is able to humorously yet significantly display how careful and obedient regard of society’s social commandments, and the importance of isolating this obedience from the freedoms of home life, can manifest themselves involuntarily in physical expressions.
While Dickens consistently unveils the faults and inconsistencies of Victorian England society through the exaggerated conduct of most his characters, Wemmick serves as the primary, conscious observer of how these flaws become immersed in one’s being. By establishing a stable barrier between his occupation and dwelling, and thus building a mental machine to regulate his actions and expressions in both places, Wemmick proves himself to be aware of and responsive to what society demands of him, and what he demands of himself. Because of this separation, Wemmick is able to enjoy the life he feels compelled to live at home while still being able carry on a certain degree of shrouded respectability in London; if he neglects to do this, his worlds will inevitably become entangled, thereby both diminishing the enjoyments of rural life and betraying this life to the scrutiny of society. Whether this mutual isolation is necessary to preserve personal identity, or whether identity is better formed with the influence of society, is open to reader interpretation; but Dickens undeniably, effectively poses this question through his use of details, language, and imagery in delineating Wemmick’s character.
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