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.
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...
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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.
In the meantime, Heartfree begins to suspect his friend of duplicity. When Jonathan returns, he is for a time able to persuade Heartfree that he did everything possible to help the jeweler. He tells just enough of the truth to make his story acceptable; for “in greatness,” the lie must always contain some truth. Jonathan, however, goes too far. He urges Heartfree to attempt an escape from prison by murdering a few guards. Heartfree sees his supposed friend as the rogue he is and denounces Jonathan in ringing tones. From that time on, Jonathan lives only to bring Heartfree to complete destruction.
While Jonathan is plotting Heartfree’s trip to the gallows, Laetitia’s father finally gives his consent to his daughter’s marriage to the rogue. It takes only two weeks, however, for his passion to be satisfied; then the couple begin to fight and cheat each other constantly.
After his marriage, Jonathan continues in all kinds of knavery. His most earnest efforts are directed toward sending Heartfree to the gallows. At last, he hits upon a perfect plan. He convinces the authorities that Heartfree plotted to have his wife take the jewels out of the country in order to cheat his creditors. Mrs. Heartfree did not return to England. Although Jonathan hopes she is dead, he thinks it better to have her husband hanged at once in case she should somehow return. Before Heartfree’s sentence is carried out, however, Jonathan is arrested and put in jail. He is surprised by a visit from Laetitia. She comes only to revile him. She was caught picking pockets and is also a prisoner. Her only wish is that she can have the pleasure of seeing Jonathan hanged before her turn comes to die on the gallows.
On the day that Heartfree is to be hanged, his wife returns. After many adventures and travel in many lands, she comes back in time to tell her story and to save her husband from hanging. She brings with her a precious jewel that was given to her by a savage chief she met on her travels. Heartfree is released, and his family is restored to prosperity. It is otherwise with Jonathan, whose former friends hasten to hurry him to the gallows. On the appointed day he is hanged, leaving this world with a curse for all humanity. His wife and all his friends are hanged, save one. La Ruse is captured in France and broken on the wheel. Jonathan was a “great” man because he was a complete villain.