Uriah Heep

This article is about the Dickens character. For the musical band of the same name, see Uriah Heep (band).
Uriah Heep
David Copperfield character

Drawing by Fred Barnard
Created by Charles Dickens
Gender Male
Occupation Lawyer
Nationality British

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 sycophant.[1] He is one of the main antagonists of the book.

In book

David first meets the 15-year-old Heep when he comes to live with Mr Wickfield and his daughter Agnes, in chapter 15:

[Heep's face] was quite as cadaverous as it had looked in the window, though in the grain of it there was that tinge of red which is sometimes to be observed in the skins of red-haired people. It belonged to a red-haired person—a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older—whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention, as he stood at the pony's head, rubbing his chin with it, and looking up at us in the chaise.

Heep has been employed as clerk to Wickfield for four years, since he was eleven. Heep's father, who instilled in him the need to be humble, died when Uriah was 10, 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. Heep addresses Copperfield as "Master Copperfield" well into their adulthood, an indication of his true patronising view.

Heep is repeatedly described as ugly and repulsive, even in his youth – tall, lank and pale with red hair and lashless eyes. Dickens negatively emphasises Heep's movements as well, described as jerking and writhing; this leads some literary scholars to believe Dickens is describing a form of dystonia, a muscular disorder, to increase Heep's snakelike character.

Like most Dickens villains, Heep is motivated mainly by greed, but in his character there is a commentary on the English class system. Heep eventually reveals his lifelong resentment at being the object of charity and low expectations. "They used to teach at school (the same school where I picked up so much 'umbleness), from nine o'clock to eleven, that labour was a curse; and from eleven o'clock to one, that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness, and a dignity, and I don't know what all, eh?" His thwarted ambition is the driving force behind his machinations. As Uriah works for Wickfield over the years, he teaches himself law at night, and by blackmailing Mr Wickfield, gains control over his business. His ambition is to marry Agnes and gain control of the Wickfield fortune.

Heep is eventually stymied by Mr. Micawber and Tommy Traddles, with help from David and Agnes. With his treachery exposed, he is allowed to go free. He turns up later in prison, sentenced for "fraud on the Bank of England" and awaiting transportation to an Australian penal colony.


Art by Frank Reynolds (1910).

Much of David Copperfield is autobiographical and some scholars believe Heep's mannerisms and physical attributes to be based on Hans Christian Andersen,[2][3] whom Dickens met shortly before writing the novel. Uriah Heep's schemes and behaviour are more likely based on Thomas Powell,[4] employee of 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 from his employer. He later attacked Dickens in pamphlets, calling particular attention to Dickens' social class and background.

The characteristics of grasping manipulation and insincerity can lead to a person being labelled "a Uriah Heep" as Lyndon Johnson is called in Robert Caro's biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Seymour Fleming, a character in the play Babes in Arms, is also called thus. Author Philip Roth once compared President Richard Nixon to Uriah Heep.[5] More recently, historian Tony Judt used the term to describe Marshal Philippe Pétain of the French Vichy government.[6] Pakistani-British historian and leftist political commentator Tariq Ali likened Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to the character. Late Australian journalist Padraic (Paddy) McGuinness writing in the Australian Financial Review referred to former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating as Uriah Heep, after a fawning interview on ABC television in which Mr Keating, the owner of extensive real estate holdings and a man generally acknowledged to have a robust ego, affected great humility.

Film and television

In film and television adaptations, the character has been played by, amongst others, Peter Paget (1934),[7] Roland Young (1935), Colin Jeavons (1966), Ron Moody (1969), Martin Jarvis (1974), Paul Brightwell (1986), Nicholas Lyndhurst (1999) and Frank MacCusker (2000).[8]

Cultural references


The British rock band Uriah Heep is named after the character.[9]


In the BBC television series Blake's 7, the computer character Slave was described by Peter Tuddenham, who voiced it, as "...a Uriah Heep type of character...."[10]


A reference to the "'umble' Uriah Heep is the arrant hypocrite" is given in Augustus Hopkins Strong's, Systematic Theology[11]

In Robert A. Caro's The Path to Power Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have resembled the personality of Uriah Heep. [12]


  1. Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. "Who's who in Dickens", by Donald Hawes. Thursday 1 October 2009.
  3. "Masterpiece Theatre: David Copperfield". Retrieved 2009-10-01.
  4. "The Extraordinary Life of Charles Dickens". Retrieved 2009-09-02.
  5. Philip Roth. "Breast Baring." Vanity Fair October 1989: 94.
  6. Tony Judt, Postwar,Vintage 2010, p. 113
  7. "Peter Paget". British Pathé. Retrieved 2012-02-07.
  8. "Uriah Heep". IMDb. Retrieved 2011-12-26.
  9. Kirk Blows. "Uriah Heep Story". www.uriah-heep.com. Retrieved 2007-03-15.
  10. Tony Attwood; et al. (1994). Blake's 7: The Programme Guide. London: Virgin Books. p. 225.
  11. Strong August Hopkins (1907). Systematic Theology. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society. p. 832.
  12. Robert A. Caro (1982). The Path to Power. New York: Random House, Inc. p. 489.
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