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Uriah Heep is not a person; he's an evil machine. He's like a really slow-acting version of the Terminator, bent on the destruction of anyone and everyone who has it better than him. And he will never stop – at least, not until he runs up against the unlikely resistance of all-too-human Mr. Micawber.
David first meets Uriah Heep when Uriah is 15 years old and working as a clerk in Mr. Wickfield's law office (this is while David is boarding at Mr. Wickfield's home and going to school in Canterbury). We know from the outset that this is going to be a bad guy because he looks so completely repulsive: he's got a pale face, red eyes (like Voldemort!), and "a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention" (15.21).
These cold, long, white hands of Uriah Heep stand in for the inhumanity of the rest of him: he is like a dead thing, totally immune to any kind of human warmth or sympathy. David is only 11 at this point, but even he is smart enough to see that Uriah Heep isn't trustworthy. But in spite of the clear foreshadowing, Mr. Wickfield's judgment is too weakened by his own problems to realize that he shouldn't be employing this creepy kid.
Uriah Heep lives with his mother, who is completely devoted to him. She's a lot like Uriah, actually, and they're both totally obsessed with maintaining the appearance of humility. Uriah assures David: "I am well aware that I am the umblest person going [...] My mother is likewise a very umble person." (16.90). Everything, for Uriah Heep, is "umble" (a.k.a. humble).
But weirdly, if you take pride in being the lowliest, most kowtowing, crawling fellow out there, isn't that a kind of arrogance? Uriah Heep is constantly congratulating himself for being the best at something – even if that something is groveling in front of his social betters. Oddly, "umbleness" is Uriah Heep's chosen road to power. Uriah Heep's ambition is all twisted in on itself. He can only express his desire to climb the social ladder by emphasizing how low he is on it.
Uriah Heep's scheme is this: he is a law clerk for Mr. Wickfield. But he knows that Mr. Wickfield is depressed over his wife's death and has a severe drinking problem. So, Uriah Heep encourages the drinking. Slowly, he takes over more and more of Mr. Wickfield's daily affairs, until Mr. Wickfield relies on Uriah Heep completely (even though Mr. Wickfield never really likes or trusts him – he feels that he has no choice).
To make the trap even harder to get out of, Uriah Heep starts showing Mr. Wickfield receipts for crazy investments and loans with Mr. Wickfield's name attached to them. Mr. Wickfield can't remember signing them, but he also can't explain the evidence of his own financial wrongdoing that Uriah Heep has shoved in his face.
So, Uriah Heep blackmails Mr. Wickfield into signing Uriah Heep as a partner of his law office. (By the way, all of this comes out at the end of the novel, in a confrontation with Mr. Micawber. Until everything is revealed, all we know is that Mr. Wickfield is slowly fading away, while Uriah Heep sinks his claws more and more deeply into the business.)
Uriah Heep has two goals in mind: (1) he wants to take over Mr. Wickfield's life; and (2) he wants to guilt Agnes Wickfield into marrying him. This part of the plan – the marriage with Agnes – Uriah Heep tells David point-blank when the Wickfields come to visit London while David is working at his proctor's office.
David is absolutely outraged that a fiend like Uriah Heep could have designs on a lovely girl like Agnes. But he doesn't feel like he can actually warn Agnes of the danger because it's not his place, and he doesn't want to worry Agnes. After all, it's not like there's anything she can do directly to save her father from the grips of Uriah Heep.
Uriah Heep's biggest miscalculation is to hire Mr. Micawber as a clerk. Because Uriah Heep is all about plotting, conniving, and calculation, he can't imagine that another person would genuinely act against his own self-interest. And it really seems as though Uriah Heep has Mr. Micawber over a barrel: Mr. Micawber is (as always) unemployed and knee-deep in debt when Uriah Heep swoops in and offers him a job with an advance on Mr. Micawber's salary. For the first time in the whole novel, Mr. Micawber is financially secure. So, Uriah Heep doesn't think for a moment that Mr. Micawber will rock the boat by working against Uriah Heep.
But Uriah Heep happens to be wrong. Mr. Micawber grows steadily more and more outraged at the way Uriah Heep is exploiting Mr. Wickfield and trying to force Agnes into marrying him. So, he writes to David and Traddles and asks them to be present when he confronts Uriah Heep with evidence of his wrongdoing.
Mr. Micawber has receipts and notebooks (which Uriah Heep thought he had burned) proving that Uriah Heep has been forging Mr. Wickfield's signature and cooking the books. Uriah Heep has been making it look like Mr. Wickfield has lost his clients' money when he actually hasn't. So, Miss Betsey isn't a pauper after all!
In order to protect Mr. Wickfield from further public humiliation, Traddles demands two things: Uriah Heep has to surrender his partnership in Mr. Wickfield's business, and he has to return all of the money he has stolen. Uriah Heep agrees to both of these terms (extremely reluctantly) and goes free.
But that's not the last we hear of him: we see Uriah Heep in the prison Mr. Creakle is running. He is Prisoner Number Twenty-Seven. Uriah Heep is still up to his old tricks, though, pretending to be so "umble" and repenting of all of his sins. But it's clear that he's as full of malice and hatred for the whole world – and especially for David – as ever.
Foolish Mr. Creakle is absolutely taken in, though, and treats Uriah Heep as a model prisoner. But anyway, it has been confirmed that Uriah Heep hasn't learned a thing from his run-in with Mr. Micawber.
What has set Uriah Heep on this road to crime is actually pretty interesting. He comes from a very poor background and was raised in a school run by a charity (39.125). Uriah has spent his entire life being told that he has to be grateful for everything that he receives (shades of Mrs. Gargery and Pip in Great Expectations – check out our Shmoop guide!). He has been told that he has to be humble, because he's lucky to get anything from all of these people who are better than him. The humiliation and degradation of this kind of treatment has filled him with such rage against the whole world that he'll do whatever he can to ruin the lives of people in higher social classes.
In the moral universe of this novel, we have seen plenty of signs that Dickens approves of men improving their lives through hard work at a profession – after all, like Uriah Heep, both David and Traddles become law clerks and achieve some social stability as a result. What differentiates Uriah Heep from these two is that he never connects his desire to improve his own life with a general, sympathetic interest in the lives of other people. He is entirely, totally selfish, which may be his greatest moral fault.
But this selfishness is the result of a long history being ground down: the Heeps have been kept humble for generations. David is a gentleman, and even when he is poor, he is allowed to expect better of himself. After all, even in the factory, men like Mick Walker maintain respect for David. Perhaps one reason Uriah Heep is such a dangerous character in this novel is that he really challenges class boundaries, in a way that none of the characters who are content with David's superior birth and opportunities do.
One last note on Uriah Heep: once Uriah meets up with David once more in London, when David is an apprentice proctor, you'll notice that he keeps confusing "Mister" and "Master" Copperfield. He claims that this confusion is accidental, because he has such affectionate memories of young Master Copperfield. Really, it's a power play: "Master" is a form of address for little boys, while Mister (obviously) is for grown men. Uriah Heep is trying to throw David off by reminding David how young he is, and that Uriah Heep has known him since he was a ragged little boy. Just another piece of psychological warfare from this master manipulator!
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