Uriah Heep (David Copperfield)

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Uriah Heep is a fictional character created by Charles Dickens in his novel David Copperfield.

The character is notable for his cloying humility, obsequiousness, and insincerity, making frequent references to his own "'umbleness". His name has become synonymous with being a yes man.[1] He is the central antagonist of the later part of the book.

Contents

In book

David first meets the 15-year-old Heep when he is living with Mr. Wickfield and his daughter Agnes, in chapter 15:

Uriah has been employed as clerk to Wickfield for four years, since he was eleven. Uriah's father, who instilled him with the need to be humble, died when Uriah was ten, and for the first part of the novel he lives alone with his mother in their "umble abode". Copperfield takes an immediate and permanent dislike to Uriah, in spite of the latter's persistent, if insincere attempts to win his friendship. Uriah addresses Copperfield as "Master Copperfield" well into their adulthood, an indication of his true patronising view.

Uriah is repeatedly mentioned as ugly and repulsive, even in his youth - tall, lank and pale with red hair and lashless eyes. He may be albino, according to frequent mentions of his pale skin and red eyes, though this is never clearly stated. Dickens negatively emphasizes Uriah's movements as well, described as jerking and writhing; this leads some literary scholars[2] to believe Dickens is describing a form of dystonia, a muscular disorder, to increase Uriah's snakelike character. Uriah explains in another part of the book that his ambition and greed are fueled by resentment from the double-standard of his schooling and from his treatment as a child, and by encouragement from his parents. As Uriah works for Wickfield for the next five or so years, he teaches himself law at night, and by blackmailing Mr. Wickfield, gains control over his business.

He eventually succeeds in having himself made a full partner in the business. His eventual ambition is to marry Agnes and gain control of the Wickfield fortune. Like most of Dickens' villains, greed is his main motivation. Heep is eventually stymied by Mr. Micawber and Tommy Traddles, with help from David and Agnes. Once his fraud and treachery are unmasked, he persists in hounding Micawber and Copperfield. Towards the end of the novel, he is last seen in Mr. Creakle’s prison where we find that he has returned to his "umble" ways, and puts himself forward as a model prisoner. He is said to be sentenced for transportation for life, which likely means he will eventually be sent to one of the penal colonies in Australia.

Origins

Much of David Copperfield is autobiographical and some scholars[3][4] believe Heep's mannerisms and physical attributes to be based on Hans Christian Andersen whom Dickens met shortly before writing the novel. Uriah Heep's schemes and behavior are more likely based on Thomas Powell,[5] employer to a friend of Dickens, Thomas Chapman. Powell "...ingratiated himself into the Dickens household" and was discovered to be a forger and a thief, having embezzled 10,000 pounds from his employer. He later attacked Dickens in pamphlets, calling particular attention to Dickens' social class and background. Powell was later deemed a lunatic.

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