‘I am born’ begins David Copperfield, famously. According to the nurse who delivers him and sage women of the neighbourhood, this is a birth, however, which is blighted by its timing: twelve o/clock on a Friday night, at precisely the time the clock began to strike. Such untimeliness meant that David ‘was destined to be unlucky in life’ and would be ‘privileged to see ghosts and spirits’. A dubious privilege, perhaps, but does David grow up to see ghosts and spirits? Well, yes and no, or rather it depends what is meant by ghosts and spirits. David does not see ghosts and spirits in the way that Scrooge does. Scrooge sees real ghosts. Real ghosts - what on earth might they be? Ghosts are, by their nature, not real, yet we speak quite unself-consciously of ‘real ghosts’ as Terry Castle points out, with wry provocation, in her discussion of nineteenth-century phantasmagoria. Phantasmagoria, as Castle has shown, are the visible cultural sign of the internalisation of the phantasmagoric and ghostly. From the early nineteenth-century, it is no longer the world which is haunted, but rather the human mind, and specifically the imagination. To use Castle's own phrase there was ‘a spectralization or ‘ghostifying’ of the mind.’ Dickens’ work is haunted, not only by such real ghosts as those of Jacob Marley and of Christmases past, present and to come, but also by metaphorical spectres. I will resist the temptation to say the books are haunted by metaphors, but they abound with haunting metaphors (in all senses). In Dickens’ writings ghostly metaphors, or ghostly figures, and hauntings, are returns, recognitions, manifestations of memory, some willed, others involuntary.

In David Copperfield ghosts and other supernatural phenomena are invoked in relation to a range of (male) characters and situations. David is haunted by memories of people and of places he has been before. It is in the character of Uriah Heep, however, and in David's perception of and relationship with him, that the book is at its most supernatural.

The relationship between David and Uriah is discussed by Harry Stone and Badri Raina.4 In the former the focus is on Uriah's gothic characterisation, whilst in the latter he is read as part of one of a number of triadic relationships in which David is located. Raina is critical of what she sees in Stone as an over-emphasis on the gothic of Uriah, and favours linking Uriah in David's perceptions to Steerforth, to make a moral point about David's judgement of others, and also to politicise the David - Uriah relationship by reading it as a critique of the new self-interested ethics of capitalism. I would like to situate my own reading, in one respect, in between these two. I think that the gothic, or ghostly, dimension of Uriah Heep should not be understated, and at the same time I think also that a political dimension should be asserted. The latter I will return to at the end.

If Uriah is the embodiment of the supernatural in the novel, his first appearance is as a disembodied thing:

When the pony-chaise stopped at the door, and my eyes were intent upon the house, I saw a cadaverous face appear at a small window on the ground-floor (in a little round tower that formed one side of the house), and quickly disappear. The low arched door then opened, and the face came out. It 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 observed in the skins of red-haired people. It belonged to a red-haired person-a youth of fifteen, so 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.

“Is Mr. Wickfield at home, Uriah Heep?” asked my aunt.

Seen initially through the threshold of the window, and cadaverous as he is, Uriah seems to David, who is staring intently on the house, in a kind of reverie, to come from some other place, to be not quite of this world at all. The face comes out of the house, but what of the rest of the body? We assume that it is there, but we are not told this. The relationship between face and body would here appear to be one of synecdoche. However, it seems more like an example of metonymy, in which attribute represents abstract whole. What guarantee is there that this face is attached to a body. It is rather, disembodied. After all, Uriah's body is oddly abstract. (And is there more to Uriah than a body and the traits of character which are manifest in the physicality of this body?) Timothy Clark, who reads Dickens through Maurice Blanchot's description of the image as pure exterior and object of fascination, suggests that ‘the Dickensian villain is invariably a body in animation’. Clark concludes his essay by suggesting that ‘Blanchot's work enables us to articulate a pervasive anti-idealist aesthetic in Dickens’ work, at odds with his expressed romanticism and with individualist and humanist models of subjectivity.’

In this interest in exterior, Clark places his reading in that vein of Dickens’ criticism which can be traced back to Robert Garis's’ 1965 book The Dickens’ Theatre. Whilst it may be an overstatement on Clark's part to say that all of Dickens’ villains are ‘bodies in animation’, this goes some way in offering us a means of understanding Uriah Heep, who Clark refers to more than once.

It is clear that Dickens means his readers to not always accept David's view of things and especially people, so that many of David's judgements are devices to draw the reader into judging him, and often not to his advantage. Attitudes which David expresses regarding Tommy Traddles are a case in point. Raina suggests that criticism has, however, often been all too willing to take David's judgements at face value, and not subject them to the scrutiny which Dickens at least implicitly invites. In one of Raina's triadic relationships Traddles is located at various times between David and the Micawber's. Where Traddles attitudes to the Micawber's are always born of a spirit of generosity, David's countenance is more often one of prudent calculation. For Raina, David is in the wrong, though given the profligacy of Mr Micawber, and given too that exchanges in this triangle are almost invariably of a financial nature, David's suggestion to Traddles that he doesn't lend Micawber any money, strikes me as good advice. Another of these relationships includes David, this time in the middle, with James Steerforth on one side, and Uriah Heep on the other. Steerforth is all David reveres, and indeed desires, while Heep is all that disgusts him. Or so it might appear.

In a passage which fascinates me, Dickens discloses, I think, rather more than he might have been aware, or even have felt comfortable with, about David. Of all the encounters, actual and imagined between David and Uriah, this moment seems to me to be the most revealing:

the poker got into my dozing thoughts besides, and wouldn't come out. I thought, between sleeping and waking, that it was still red-hot, and I had snatched it out of the fire, and run him through the body. I was so haunted by this idea at last, though I knew there was nothing in it, that I stole into the next room to look at him. there I saw him, lying on his back, with his legs extending to I don't know where, gurglings taking place in his throat, stoppages in his nose, and his mouth open like a post office. He was so much worse in reality than in my distempered fancy, that Afterwards I was attracted to him in very repulsion, and could not wandering in and out every half hour or so, and taking another look at him. Still, the long, long night seemed heavy and hopeless as ever, and no promise of day was in the murky sky.

This passage is an example of how the terms of the discourse of psycho-analysis make an uncannily earlier appearance in Dickens’ writings. The Freudian symbolism is the first thing that one notices, and it is so overt, as to be almost without need of comment: the poker, and the way in which David is ensnared by Heep, or rather what Heep is in David's mind, in the condition of fascination which is the simultaneous attraction and repulsion which he feels. This is the only moment in the novel when Uriah, sleeping, is passive and vulnerable. There is a strong element of desire in David's relation to Uriah, even though this desire is entwined with an equally strong dose of repulsion and disgust. To be fascinated, however, by someone, or something, is to be in some way trapped by it. If one is fascinated, one is not free. David is aware not only of his fascination with Heep, if not perhaps of all of its implications, he is aware also of his not wanting to be thus fascinated: ‘I was so haunted by this idea at last, though I knew there was nothing in it, that I stole into the next room to look at him.’ ‘Though I knew there was nothing in it’ sounds more like its opposite in the context of the whole passage. To get rid of it, David turns thought into action, by ‘stealing” - doing something one shouldn't and feeling the guilt which is entailed by a consciousness of wrong-doing - ‘into the next room to look at him.’ But why such guilt when no real crime is being committed? It is guilt born of David's repulsion at the desire and repulsion he feels for Uriah.

Besides the mediative relationships described by Raina, it is illuminating to invoke a different kind of relationship through which the book might be read. Eve Kosofsky-Sedgewick describes what she calls 'homosociality' in a range of nineteenth-century novels, including Our Mutual Friend. Analysing the dynamics of male homosocial desire, Sedgewick identifies triangular relationships in which desire between two men, is channelled through a woman. The relationship between the two men may include an element of homosexual fantasy, and indeed this may be its basis of it, but the homosocial is not only about sexual desire between men. The woman becomes the destination to which the most likely barely perceived and barely perceptible sexual dynamic of various kinds of social, and non-sexual, relationships between men is directed.

With adjustment to the structure, we can read our passage with help from Sedgewick. The poker does not make its first appearance here in David's reverie. A couple of pages earlier, in a scene at a social gathering at the Waterbrook's. David has found Uriah also present. Uriah more than hints, maliciously no doubt, to David of his interest in Agnes Wickfield, David's ‘more than sister’. Uriah tells David that he ‘love(s) the ground my Agnes walks on. The use of the possessive pronoun is almost more than David can stand:

I believe I had a delirious idea of seizing the red-hot poker from the fire, and running him through with it. It went from me with a shock, like a ball fired from a rifle: but the image of Agnes, outraged by so much as a thought of this red-headed animals, remained in my mind when I looked at him, sitting all awry as if his mean soul griped his body, and made me giddy.

The symbolism of the poker, and David's fantasy intentions with regard to it, disclose a hidden sexual desire. The desire, however, is not for Uriah. (It is for Agnes). Earlier in the book, whilst living at Mr. Wickfield's house during his school-time in Canterbury, David muses upon how good Agnes is, thinking of the kind things she does, like making tea and reading with David (wife and mother). In the narration, he tells us that he can ‘hear her beautiful calm voice, as (he) write(s) these words’ There immediately follows this passage:

The influence for all good, which she came to exercise over me at a later time, begins already to descend upon my breast. I love little Em’ly, and I don't love Agnes - no, not at all in that way - but I feel that there are goodness, peace, and truth, wherever Agnes is; and that the soft light of the coloured window in the church, seen long ago, falls on her always, and on me when I am near her, and on everything around.

Shifting the letters of Agnes’ name around a little, and substituting an ‘l’ for the ‘s’, one has angel, and Agnes is the earthly angel upon the light of heaven, via the church window, falls. this is , of course, a familiar enough Victorian stereotype. The ‘later time’ is the point of story-telling, after the novel, so to speak, and the book ends, of course, with David about to marry Agnes. Even from that position, however, she is still described as ‘the influence for all good’.

Returning to the scene at the Waterbrook’s, there is a distancing effect in the way David describes his thoughts and feelings. ‘I believe I had’ rather than ‘I had’ ‘a delirious idea’. More telling still is his displacement of his outrage from his own mind onto the ‘image of Agnes’, which is made to seem as though it exists outside of David's mind. All of the women in the book, including Martha, who is forced into prostitution, are de-sexualised, and none more than Agnes. The homo-erotic charge in the scene when Uriah is sleeping, then, is really a re-direction of the repressed desire which David feels for Agnes. Uriah is not, I think, David's double, though Raina suggests, as have others, that he is. He is certainly the other, above all others, for David, but his origin is not as the projection of David's revulsion at his own unconscious, unacknowledged desire. ‘He was so much worse in reality than in my distempered fancy’: confronted with the actuality of Uriah, or the actuality of this cadaverous body, with its skeleton hand which so haunts David's dreams and imaginings This contrast between ‘in reality’ and David's ‘distempered fancy’ ruptures that possibility of Uriah’s being simply David's double. If Uriah’s origin is elsewhere, where is it, and can we, or indeed, could (or does) David (or Dickens) know. My suggestion would be, I think, the ‘I don't know where’ to which his legs inhumanly extend, just as his disembodied face had appeared at the window, and then seemingly by itself at the door.

Raina’s reading of the book, without actually using the word, considers the book in terms of ethics. David's passage from birth, through childhood, to mature adult and finally marriage, can be called self-making. This self-making happens in relation to others, and particularly in moments of judgement, where a gap is opened up in the narrative between David's judgement, and the readers judgement of David's judgement. In Canterbury, a short while after David's first encounter with Uriah, the two meet by chance in the street, and Uriah reminds David that he has not yet visited Uriah and his mother at home, despite having made a promise to do so. David accepts the restated invitation, out of a sense of not wanting to be thought proud. During this brief meeting in the street, in narrative voice, David tells us that I really had not me able to make up my mind whether I liked Uriah or detested him; and I was very doubtful about it still, as I stood looking him in the face in the street.

‘Liked’ or ‘detested’ and the pre-varicating between these two positions, might be read as a conscious version of the unconscious and involuntary attraction and repulsion. There is more, though, to this scene. Suspension of judgement in the face of the other brings to mind the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, for whom ethics is first philosophy, and endless obligation to the other, with whom each of us is face to face, is the condition of our being. Now, in Dickens, this relation is not analysed or conceptualised with the intricacy of Levinas, but it is suggestive enough of Levinas, I think, to make the link reasonable. Ethics intervenes in the moment that thought turns into action, or word into deed. ‘Promise’ is interesting here too. J.L.Austin, in his speech act theory, makes promises and promising exemplary of performative utterance. When one makes a promise, one is not merely saying something, one is doing something. The word is the act.

Again, in London, after the evening at the Waterbrook’s, David offers to let Uriah stay at his rooms for the night. David tells us that

I had decided in my own mind that I disliked him intensely. It made me very uncomfortable to have him as a guest, for I was young then, and unused to disguise what I so strongly felt.

This is after David has begun to suspect Uriah’s intentions regarding Agnes, though a little before Uriah has spoken of them himself. Again, there is something odd in this passage. Why does David say ‘in my own mind’? Why not simply ‘I had decided that I disliked him intensely’? Like the poker fantasy, the emphasis on possession in this seems to suggest its very opposite: that David is aware of the hold Uriah has over him. Despite no longer suspending judgement, David does not want his negative feelings to show. In the face of the other, he wishes to hide what he fears his countenance will involuntarily betray. It is like an obligation: do not judge, or rather here do not disclose your judgement. the ‘in my own mind’ serves to distance David from his own judgement, exploiting the space between the narrative voice and the self narrates. Where does the injunction come from? From a world of spectres and ghosts, another place, a place projected out of the mind, of memory, recognition, and which can only be represented, as exteriorised, through figures of ghosts and hauntings. It is also, in a way which cannot be explained, where Uriah comes from, this cadaverous body in animation, which invokes a place between the worlds of the living and the dead.

Uriah, then, in the symbolic economy of the book, has two values. He is a screen between David and his own desire for Agnes. In the scene when David watches Uriah sleep, following shortly after David had been horrified and revolted at the thought of Uriah with Agnes, the attraction is really for Agnes, the repulsion is repulsion at that desire. Agnes the angel cannot be for David an object of sexual desire, for she is his angel. To be sexually desired, and to be sexually desiring, would give Agnes bodiliness. To be touched by Uriah, the only image disgusting enough to David's conscious mind to represent such a violation, is also to become bodily, or embodied. When a person touches Uriah, his trace remains, like a snail. At parting, after their first meeting, in a gesture of friendship, David offers his hand to Uriah. This is a handshake, however, which David quickly regrets:

But oh, what a clammy hand his was! as ghostly to the touch as to the sight! I rubbed mine afterwards, to warm it, and to rub his off.

The Uriah of David's mind is the figure of repression of David's desire for Agnes. The real Uriah, the body that seems so unearthly, is the figure of the ethical, the endless obligation which comes from elsewhere, which just is, as Uriah somehow just is, in the irreducible materiality of his corpse-like bodiliness. And it is this ghostly touch brings David face to face with the ethical demand of the other which is the basis of his fashioning of himself.

To conclude, I want to suggest a means by which these two meanings of the figure of Uriah can be brought more closely together. I said earlier that I wanted to keep hold of Raina’s politicisation of the relationship between David and Uriah. In doing so, I will also suggest something more about this realm of ghosts which Dickens conjures up (or perhaps out). ‘A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of communism’, begins The Communist Manifesto. Like the novels of Dickens, the writings of Marx are haunted, and there is only a year between The Communist Manifesto and David Copperfield. The most mystical and ghostly thing of all in Marx is the commodity, the product of capitalist manufacture. The commodity is a fetish object, cut loose from its origins. Is this not also the condition of Heep. Rather than simply a grotesque example of capitalist individualism in all its self-serving greed, which is how Raina reads him (and which he is: Uriah’s malice is entirely worldly), we can bring Heep back to earth by reading him as a kind of negative version (or an inversion) of the fetishised commodity of capitalism, all exterior, dislocated from his origin, fatherless like David. Uriah is at once a subject in the nexus of exchange, and its object. Agnes, too, is reduced to the condition of a commodity, as she is competed for by David and Uriah: the object of exchange between David and Uriah. And this inflects the novel's discourse of ethics in terms of gender. Ethics is something which is ‘between men’: a masculine discourse in David Copperfield.

Other materials from the March 1998 6th METU British Novelists Seminar


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens

Last modified 2000