Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild the Great

As  I read through Fielding’s Jonathan Wild the Great, I started to understand why Watt is uncomfortable calling Fielding a novelist in the same way he considers Richardson the father of the novel: Fielding’s text is a mishmash of allegory (particularly concerning characters like Heartfree), satire, criminal biography, and other genres. While there is obvious attention to tenets of formal realism, the timeline is odd (such that the narrator apologizes for it in Chapter VII) and there is little to no sincere development of interiority.

Peter Ackroyd, who edited the edition I read, has this to say about the text:

[Fielding] seems to have composed Jonathan Wild in the spring and summer of 1742, just after completing Joseph Andrews and immediately following the resignation of Robert Walpole in February of that year – Walpole being the prime minister whose lavish use of bribes and patronage, and whose engineering of plots and cabals, rendered him the epitome of political corruption in the period.

Walpole himself enters the plot of Jonathan Wild only obliquely, but the text is indebted to his example of villainy and chicanery in high places. Fielding does not make the point so deliberately as John Gay in The Beggar’s Opera, staged some 15 years before, but there is a clear resemblance between the sins of high life and of low life. Why should one deserve a peerage, and the other a gallows?

But Jonathan Wild is not a piece of contemporary political analysis, or even a social history. It is a work in which fact and fiction become strangely merged. As Fielding states in his preface to the Miscellanies, “it is not a very faithful portrait of Jonathan Wild himself”. He goes on to confess that “my narrative is rather of such actions which he might have performed, or would, or should have performed than what he really did”. But if it is not a biography, it can hardly be classified as a novel. Some of the events related are indeed authentic, and the speeches as well as the maxims of Wild are not really appropriate in a fictional context. The book is essentially an exercise in irony, a philosophical satire that anticipates Johnson’s Rasselas and Voltaire’s Candide.

Wild was already a famous London figure before Fielding transmuted him in print. Daniel Defoe had written a book on his exploits, and there were other brief lives of dubious authenticity. Wild’s urban career really began as a “thief-taker”, but this was cover for his more profitable activity as a fence of stolen goods. He would direct his criminal associates towards a target, take the proceeds of the theft from them, and then at a price, return the same goods to the unfortunate victim. From his “office” in Cripplegate he would miraculously “find” important items. He would often betray his less successful or less complaisant confederates to the authorities, and thus gained a reputation as an honest member of the common wealth. He posed as a useful citizen, when in fact he was one of the most ruthless and violent men of a ruthless and violent age.

Fielding was not in any case unacquainted with this world. He had been arrested and imprisoned for debt, and the scenes set in Newgate are written with the full force of personal acquaintance. But he also knew the other face of the law, and seven years after writing Jonathan Wild, he was appointed as a magistrate for Middlesex with his court at Bow Street. It was he who set up a plan for two full-time police officers, who later became known as the “Bow Street Runners”.

He knew of what he wrote. He knew London to be a wilderness. It was, as he put it in another context, “a vast wood or forest in which the thief may harbour with as great security as wild beasts do in the deserts of Arabia and Africa”. Wild, and such associates as Fierce, Fireblood and Molly Straddle, are the pitiless creatures of this forest which prey upon their victims. (vii-viii)

Interestingly, though, the text (like Richardson’s Clarissa) maintains a meta-focus on language and writing as they relate to character (in multiple senses of the word; see notes on Deidre Lynch’s text). That is, the textual play with words like “great” and “good,”  questions of veracity and authenticity (the jewels, Mrs. Heartfree’s letters, etc [also see McKeon notes]), and even the narrator’s own accounting of the events of Wild’s life are unbalanced.

For example, the narrator notes that his account will not be completely accurate or true to life. And, I would argue that in Chapter VII, when Wild goes on his “Grand Tour” of the Americas, the narrator’s duplicity regarding the event that made his father decide to send him to the Americas might actually signal that Wild was “transported” to a penal colony. The typical period for transportation was 7 years (according to Edward Kelly in the Norton Critical Edition of Moll Flanders pg. 239 note 4). Although this is just conjecture on my part, Fielding’s narrator’s reasoning for Wild’s journey is itself unsound:

We are sorry we cannot indulge our reader’s curiosity with a full and perfect account of this accident…Certain it is that, whatever this accident was, it determined our hero’s father to send his son immediately abroad for seven years; and which may seem somewhat remarkable, to his majesty’s plantations in America – that part of the world being, as he said, freer from vices than the courts and cities of Europe, and consequently less dangerous to corrupt a young man’s morals… (21-2; my emphasis)

Most of my thoughts about this text really lead into discussion of Lynch’s The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning, so I will save further commentary until then.

(Okay, I lied. One more thing: Fielding’s imagined audience is MALE. So weird. See notes on Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction for more on this).

Oxford English Dictionary entries for “Great”

6. Of the heart, soul, speech, etc.: (orig.) full of emotion or an emotional quality, as courage, anger, or pride; angry, grieved; proud, arrogant; (now) filled or bursting with emotion, significance, etc. (cf. sense A. 5b). great of heart: courageous, noble (now arch. and rare). Cf.great-hearted adj., and also sense A. 18b. Now literary.

9f. Of knowledge, experience, ability, influence, etc.: considerable in range or extent; thorough; wide.

14. Of a person or (less commonly) an animal or personified thing: exceptional in ability or achievement; outstanding in the activity, field, or context specified; eminent, important. Later also in weakened sense: having considerable knowledge of a subject or skill in doing or dealing with something.

16. a. Of a person (or family): of high social or official position; of high birth or rank; having much wealth or power; occupying a position towards the top of a hierarchy. Now chiefly hist.

17. With a personal name or unique designation: usually combining other senses, as pre-eminent, admirable, famous, illustrious, exceptional in ability, achievement, or personal qualities, but sometimes simply as a conventional honorific epithet.

18.  a. Of a person: having the highest qualities of mind, character, or conduct; of the most admirable kind; in later use often implying magnanimity and integrity. Esp. in great man and (in later use) great woman.


Watt, Ian. “Fielding and the Epic Theory of the Novel.” The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: U California P, 1957. 239-60. Print.

 In this chapter, Watt first outlines the reasons Richardson and Defoe objected to the epic as a mode of writing, and then details Fielding’s use of the epic in his writing. He notes that Fielding primarily favored “a comic variant” of the epic form. He plays with characteristics of scale, surprise (coincidence), and mock-heroic battles. Watt argues that using these characteristics disrupts formal realism and ultimately detracts from the novel’s project. He uses Fielding, then, to illustrate the formal realism comes as a complete package or doesn’t really work at all.

However, Watt also argues that Fielding used the epic form to lend gravitas to an upstart genre that had yet to gain respect and continued to come under fire for its very novelty. He also notes that “Fielding’s major claim on our attention” is not the comedic epic amalgam, but that the use of this device was intended to “suggest one of the high standards of literary achievement which he wished to keep in mind when he began on a new path in his fiction; it was certainly not intended as yet another of the innumerable eighteenth-century ‘Receits to make an Epick Poem’” (259).

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