Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1017

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.

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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.

However, given the polarity on which Fielding has based his novel, Wild’s need to destroy Heartfree is understandable. If indeed human beings are inherently selfish, then Wild is right in his view of the world, and Heartfree is insignificant. However, Wild is threatened by the possibility that another view is correct, that represented by Heartfree. Like many other eighteenth century thinkers, Fielding was an adherent of Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, who in his Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) argued not only that it is natural for human beings to have “affections” for others but also that people are born with a “moral sense” that enables them to distinguish between right and wrong. Following Shaftesbury, Fielding presents Heartfree as a “natural” man and Wild as an “unnatural” representative of the human species whose interpretation of life is fatally flawed.

Wild’s obsession with getting rid of Heartfree, then, is motivated by his need to prove himself “natural” and his own worldview correct. Surely, Wild wants to believe, he will someday find happiness. What he does not realize, however, is that, like Alexander the Great regretting that there were no more worlds to conquer, Wild is enslaved by his own will. Nothing satisfies him. Every trick calls for another, even cleverer;...

(The entire section contains 1017 words.)

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