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.
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.
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.
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.