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,...

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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.

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; every betrayal accomplished demands the next; and every sexual conquest is fast forgotten in the need for the next. In fact, in his relationships with women, Wild admits his weakness. As he himself is tricked and cheated by the likes of Molly Straddle, he feels more like a slave to his own desires than the master he wills himself to be.

As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that even in the public arena, where he seems so successful, Wild is not truly free. He may be able to wrest control over the criminal world from another “great” man, but he cannot overcome the foolish desire to adorn himself, thus alienating his followers. As a result, when society decides that Wild is no longer of more value outside prison than in, there is no shortage of people to betray him. In fact, however, Wild has already been betrayed, both by his own weakness and by his misreading of the world.

Fielding’s statement about the antipathy of great men toward “liberty” is thus revealed as doubly ironic. While on one level it reminds readers that Walpole used censorship to drive Fielding and his plays from the stage, the comment has a broader application. While the “great” believe themselves at liberty to do whatever they wish, they do not have the moral independence that Heartfree and his wife experience, even in their darkest hours. Fielding has already proven his point about virtue and happiness, even before he works out a providential happy ending for the Heartfrees and their family.

Admittedly, one can hardly expect total consistency from a writer whose own philosophy was so peculiar a compound of Deism, Christianity, and Platonism and whose own habit of mind was so playfully ironic. Fielding’s disquisitions on Fortune, for example, contradict each other. Similarly, it is not clear whether he expects those who are neither villains nor saints, but only half-hearted and easily swayed, to suffer like Wild or to be pardoned by a divinity as generous as Heartfree. What is clear, however, is that in this novel Fielding takes up the weapon that “great” men employ to deceive the world and instead uses language as “good” men do, in the service of virtue and truth.

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