Places: Jonathan Wild

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great, 1743

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Late seventeenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSnap’s house

Snap’s Jonathan Wildhouse. London residence of Mr. Snap the younger, a bailiff. He uses part of his home as a sponging-house, where debtors are imprisoned until they are either bailed out or transported to jail. Since the debtors mix freely with the Snaps and their guests, the house becomes young Jonathan Wild’s college of crime, with a resident tutor, the card sharp and confidence man, Count la Ruse, who has to stay with Snap until he can satisfy his creditors. The house is also significant because it is there that Wild meets Snap’s daughter Laetitia, who convinces him that she is chaste, when in fact it is only Wild whom she will not admit to her bed. This bit of bad luck at Snap’s house indicates that like every other “great” man, Wild has his weaknesses. In the end, it is his arrogance that brings him down.

On another level, Fielding intends Snap’s house to represent the palace or castle where the king might be holding court. At both places, men talk of honor and women of chastity, but nothing really matters except not getting found out. At both places, everyone and everything is for sale; for example, during the eighteenth century, it was well known that one could buy one’s way out of a sponging-house like Snap’s, and it was just as well known that under the Whig prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, whom Fielding equates with Wild, one could buy one’s way into any post or out of almost any difficulty.

*Newgate Prison

*Newgate Prison. Largest prison in London until 1902, when it was torn down; an annex of the Old Bailey, the largest common law court in England. Newgate was crowded, dirty, and disease-ridden. In it, male prisoners were mixed with women, the young with mature criminals, and debtors with felons. As Mr. Heartfree discovers, anyone entering Newgate would first have to pay off the authorities and then would be stripped of everything he still possessed by the brutal gangs who ran free in the prison. On the other hand, someone as unscrupulous as Wild could eliminate his rivals and become a virtual monarch.

As a journalist and as a law student, Fielding knew Newgate well, and his sympathy for the unfortunate people who landed there, often through no fault of their own, is evident in his description of Heartfree’s experiences. However, Fielding also utilizes Newgate for broad thematic purposes. Specifically, Newgate is a place where an evil man, Wild, corrupts those who fear him, just as Walpole corrupts his inferiors in the government. More broadly, Newgate is a microcosm of human society, which is dominated by a reverence for power, however attained, and by scorn for principle, which to the evil is mere weakness. Thus Newgate the prison stands as a symbol for the world itself, a prison in which human beings are confined both by their mortality and by the sins in their hearts.


*Tyburn. Public execution place, once located where Oxford Street now meets Edgware and Bayswater Roads. Wild is taken to Tyburn in a cart, accompanied by a chaplain. At the “tree,” or scaffold, the noose is placed over his neck while members of the crowd variously cheer for him and pelt him with stones and clods of dirt, sending the chaplain fleeing to the safety of a hackney-coach. Then the horses are driven on, leaving Wild to hang. Though Wild richly deserves his fate, the bloodthirstiness displayed by the onlookers and the chaplain’s cowardice suggest that they are not much better than he. Literally, Tyburn is an extension of Newgate.

BibliographyBattestin, Martin C., with Ruthe R. Battestin. Henry Fielding: A Life. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1989. A standard biography, detailed but highly readable. Includes a chronological bibliography of Fielding’s works and letters.Dircks, Richard J. Henry Fielding. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Argues that Fielding’s target was not Robert Walpole himself, but what he represented. Includes chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography.Irwin, William Robert. The Making of Jonathan Wild: A Study in the Literary Method of Henry Fielding. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1966. The first book-length study of the novel, still an important source. Discusses biographical and historical background, ethical import, and genre.Nokes, David. “Jonathan Wild.” In Henry Fielding, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Comparing the novel to some modern works, Nokes points out subtleties that he feels other critics have overlooked. Interesting introductory comments place the novel in its historical context.Shesgreen, Sean. Literary Portraits in the Novels of Henry Fielding. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1972. Believes that Fielding reveals character as much through description, both physiological and psychological, as through action and dialogue. Unlike the fully developed characters in his later works, those in Jonathan Wild are types, representing extremes in what is intended to be a moral allegory.
Categories: Places