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Who is Uriah Heep?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Uriah Heep is one of writer Charles Dickens’ ultimate villains. He appears in the novel David Copperfield as an antagonist, a suitable obstacle to most of David’s plans. Dickens describes him as tall and lanky, pale white with pale red hair and having a propensity for constant movement or wiggling. This last feature has suggested to modern physicians and literary critics that Dickens was describing Heep as having a physical disorder, which some suggest was dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes repetitive motion, odd postures and twisting, uncontrolled movement.

Medical Metaphor

The wriggling motions of Uriah Heep are considered to be an extended metaphor. When young David first shakes Heep's hand, David describes it as cold and fishy. Heep is compared to an eel and a fish. His coldness of heart and scheming ways suggest that Heep's condition might have been used to enhance these metaphors. Some critics might think that Dickens was attempting to defame people who have illnesses by giving Heep a medical disorder, but others point out that the book also contains the admirable Miss Mowcher, who has dwarfism and displays a true heart and good purpose, and that other characters in Dickens' novels who have physical disorders are excellent folk.

What most distinguishes Uriah Heep is not his supposed medical condition but his constant claim of being “umble,” or humble. Many people believe that a truly humble person would not proclaim his or her humility, because that would be the opposite of being humble. Uriah Heep uses his claim of being "umble" to refuse favors and thereby work behind the scenes to corrupt the law practice of his employer, Mr. Wickfield, and to deliberately steal money from David’s great aunt and other clients of Wickfield’s practice.

Scheming Revealed

As Uriah Heep grows in stature, ultimately becoming the upper-hand partner in Wickfield’s law practice, he begins to express hopes of ultimately marrying Wickfield’s daughter, Agnes, with whom David ultimately discovers that he is in love. Uriah Heep also begins to display his resentment toward and jealousy of David more and more because he suspects that Agnes has feelings for David and because David appears to him to be a son of fortune who in no way deserves to be loved or appreciated. Late in the book, Heep admits that he has always hated David and has done everything in his power to ruin him financially.

As suits a Dickens novel, Uriah Heep ultimately gets his comeuppance, in a scene where he is criticized by David’s friend Wilkins Micawber as a “Heep of infamy!” Heep's schemes are uncovered, and he ultimately is jailed. When David visits him in jail, Heep has returned to his former posture of humility, which is much admired by the jailers as showing true repentance.

Memorable Villain

Much of David Copperfield endorses the Victorian theme of earnestness, so Heep provides a suitable contrast to David, who gradually becomes successful by working hard and earnestly. Heep uses shortcuts instead of earnest means and is a master of deception who wants success in life only through crooked and evil methods. For the novel's theme to work, Heep must be outed for being a villain, and virtuous hard work must be extolled instead. Nevertheless, Heep is one of Dickens' most memorable characters. The extended metaphor of his “fishiness” and coldness works well and creates a character that might cause some readers to feel a few chills up the spine.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon206346 — On Aug 16, 2011

wow this has been of great help! thank you all!

By Windchime — On May 16, 2011

@Valencia - That's a hilarious story, thanks for sharing it. I've heard of people being called a 'Uriah Heep' when they are always agree-ing with the boss, and as a lit major I'm more than happy to see a crossover of classic writing into modern culture.

By Penzance356 — On May 14, 2011

This information is exactly what I needed to help with an English literature assignment. I have struggled to get through the book but with this basic outline it makes more sense.

My task is to outline at least two metaphors in the book, and now I have a clue what I am looking for it should be a piece of cake.

By Valencia — On May 13, 2011

I once went on a blind date and the guy turned out to look and act just like Uriah Heep! I kept waiting for him to reveal he was an actor practicing his character, but of course that wasn't the case. Overall that was the longest two hours of my entire life!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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