Jonathan Wild appeared almost two decades after the real master criminal of that name had been hanged and a year after the fall from power of the corrupt British prime minister Robert Walpole, who was frequently likened to Wild. Henry Fielding did not intend to write another biography of Wild, who was no longer at the forefront of public interest, nor was there any point in reiterating the points of similarity between Wild and Walpole, which had been pointed out by so many others, most unforgettably by Fielding’s friend and fellow Tory John Gay in The Beggar’s Opera (1728). It is true that shortly before his death Fielding revised his novel, removing a number of references to Walpole. However, even in its original form, Jonathan Wild was not primarily an attack on Walpole or on his Whig party, which remained in power after his departure from the government. Instead, Fielding’s book is philosophical in nature, an examination of two ways of life, which may be contrasted through the use of one familiar character from the annals of crime and a whole set of characters from the author’s imagination. Fielding wanted to show his readers that, whatever their circumstances, they had the power to choose between being “great,” and ending in misery, and being “good,” which would lead them to happiness or at least to inner peace.
As the full title of the book indicates, Wild represents the first alternative. His hero is Alexander the Great, and he sets himself to become “great.” His purpose in life is not only to obtain power over as many people as possible but also to prove to himself that he is superior to everyone else. Thus he cheats the wily count and betrays the members of his gang not merely to enrich himself or even to inspire fear in others, but, more important, to give himself an excuse for admiring his own intelligence.
On the other hand, in keeping with his name, Thomas Heartfree is generous to a fault, giving and forgiving. Honest himself, he expects others to be the same. As a result, as Fielding says, he seems to be the natural victim of “great” men such as Wild, who consider “goodness” to be just another name for “silliness.” It is not surprising that Wild and his confederates take advantage of Heartfree. What at first seems more puzzling is Wild’s determination to annihilate the inoffensive Heartfree, who on the face of it is a far less worthy opponent than a clever crook such as the count.
(The entire section is 1017 words.)