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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1101

Jonathan Wild has been prepared by nature to be a “great man.” His ancestors were all men of greatness, many of them hanged for thievery or treason. Those who escaped were simply shrewder and more fortunate than the others. Jonathan, however, is to be so “great” as to put his forefathers to shame.

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As a boy, he reads about the great villains of history. He learns little at school; his best field of study is picking the pockets of his tutors and fellow students. When he is seventeen years old, his father moves to town, where Jonathan is to put his talents to even better use. There he meets the Count La Ruse, a knave destined to be one of the lesser “greats.” La Ruse is in prison for debt, but Jonathan’s skill soon secures his friend’s freedom. Together they have many profitable ventures, picking the pockets of their friends and of each other. However, neither becomes angry when the other steals from him, for each respects the other’s abilities.

For unknown reasons, Jonathan travels in America for seven or eight years. Returning to England, he continues his life of villainy. Since he is to be a truly “great” man, he cannot soil his own hands with too much thievery because there is always the danger of the gallows if he should be apprehended. He gathers about him a handful of lesser thieves who take the risks while he collects most of the booty. La Ruse joins him in many of his schemes, and the two friends continue to steal from each other. This ability to cheat friends shows true “greatness.”

Jonathan admires Laetitia Snap, a woman with qualities of “greatness” similar to his own. She is the daughter of his father’s friend, and she, too, is skilled in picking pockets and cheating at cards. In addition, she is a lady of wonderfully loose morals. No matter how hard he tries, Jonathan cannot get Laetitia to respond to his passion. The poor fellow does not at first know that each time he approaches her, she is hiding another lover in the closet. Had he known, his admiration would have been even greater.

Jonathan’s true “greatness” does not appear until he renews his acquaintance with Mr. Heartfree, a former schoolmate. Heartfree will never be a “great” man because he is a good man. He cheats no one, holds no grudges, and loves his wife and children. These qualities make him the sort of person Jonathan likes to cheat. Heartfree is a jeweler; he becomes moderately prosperous through hard work and honest practices. With the help of La Ruse, Jonathan is able to bring Heartfree to ruin. They steal his jewels and his money and hire thugs to beat him unmercifully, all the time convincing the good man that they are his friends.

La Ruse approaches the greatness of Jonathan by leaving the country after stealing most of their booty. Poor Heartfree is locked up for debt after the two scoundrels ruin him. Then Jonathan performs his greatest act. He also has a strong passion for Mrs. Heartfree, a good and virtuous woman, and he persuades her that her husband asked him to take her and some remaining jewels to Holland until her husband could obtain his release. He talks so cleverly that the woman does not even tell her husband good-bye, although she loves him dearly. Instead, she puts her children in the hands of a faithful servant and accompanies the rogue on a ship leaving England immediately.

When a severe storm arises, Jonathan is sure that death is near. Throwing caution aside, he attacks Mrs. Heartfree. Her screams brings help from the captain. After the storm subsides, the captain puts Jonathan adrift in a small boat. The captain does not know that Jonathan is a “great” man and not destined to die in an ignoble fashion. After a while, he is rescued. He returns to England with tall tales of his adventure, none of which are the least bit true.

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