BENGALURU: Sometimes in literature, writers create such characters that not only inspire adulation but also inspiration. However, the former stands incorrect and the latter partly correct – and unfortunately so – in the case of Charles Dickens’s Uriah Heep.
Perhaps one of the vilest characters ever to be in literature, Dickens introduced Uriah in David Copperfield, when the young narrator, all of 11, met the ‘’umble’ 15-year-old Uriah at Mr Wickfield’s house.
From the beginning, David knows that Uriah, who works as a law clerk for Mr Wickfield, is far from being the ‘umble person he makes himself to be. And Uriah, with his actions, proves David right.
The giant chip on Uriah’s shoulder is the charitable school that he attended, which could also be blamed for his insistence that he was morally upright, yet being otherwise in real life. Here’s Uriah describing his schooling experience: “Or as certain as 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? You preach, about as consistent as they did. Won’t umbleness go down?”
A proud sycophant with a generous smattering of insincerity, Uriah is everything that a stereotypical bad boy is. He slowly but sincerely starts draining Mr Wickfield’s resources as he wants to usurp his business and daughter, Agnes. But what makes us hate him more is how he does that as Uriah encourages a drunk Mr Wickfield to keep drowning his sorrows over his wife’s death in the bottle.
Interestingly, Dickens pays a lot of attention to Uriah’s body language. The way he clasps and unclasps his long, pale fingers becomes a manifestation of the insincerity inside him. He hardly had any colour in his body, as did he have sincerity as David describes him: “(He) 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.”
When I first read David Copperfield as an impressionable 12-year-old who had watched her fair share of films, Uriah Heep struck me similar to most villains on the silver screen – a man spurred into evil by a deprived childhood.
But a man who went to such great lengths to maintain his charade of sincerity could be anything but sincere, right?
Uriah’s undoing was when an honest man, Mr Micawber, decided to stand up for the right and expose his less-than-honourable workings to cheat the honourable Mr Wickfield.
Through the years, Uriah has become a well-loved malevolent character in literature – as ironic as that may sound. And true to his version of ‘umble, Uriah Heep puts on another new pretence – this time that of a ‘model prisoner’, that ensures that he remains undeterred till the very end.