His life is captured in stages in each print, starting with his youth, where he is shown being cruel to animals. As he grows older, he progresses through various stages of cruelty before finally killing his pregnant lover, after which he is prosecuted and hanged.
The First Stage of Cruelty, Plate 1: Tom Nero and the Cruelty of Unsupervised Boys. This is the first scene in the series of four. William Hogarth vividly describes the cruelty of unsupervised boys. On this print, Tom Nero, a slum boy, is at the centre of a large gathering of boys; he is holding on to a post, plunging an arrow into a dog’s rectum. Tom Nero is the boy in a wide-brimmed hat above his accomplices who are holding the dog. On the scene there’s also a well-dressed boy, who perhaps is the owner of the dog, he is pleading with Tom Nero and the boys to stop.
There are various other episodes to this first stage; where the boys appear to be burning a bird’s eye, torturing a rooster, hanging cats that are fighting, tying bones to a dog and tossing animals from windows.
The Second Stage of Cruelty, Plate 2: Tom Nero in adulthood. In the second scene, Tom Nero’s violence in adulthood has escalated. He is a violent coach driver; he is seen beating up his horse which has collapsed because of a heavy load of barristers. Tom Nero hacks his horse to an extent of gouging its eye. On the side, there’s a concerned citizen, who appears to be taking the drivers number, in order to report this brutality.
Cruelty in Perfection, plate 3: Tom Nero Caught in the act of violent murder. In this plate, Tom Nero is a thief. He has been caught in the act of murder, his pregnant lover, Ann Gill is his victim. Her body is on the ground bleeding surrounded by articles that were stolen. These articles appear to have been stolen from her mistress at Nero’s command. The woman’s hands appear to be pointing at an open book written on 'God's Revenge against Murder'. Tom Nero and his weapon have been apprehended by a group of farmers.
The Reward of Cruelty, Plate 4: Conviction and execution of Tom Nero. This is the last and also the most famous of the plates. Here, tom hero has been executed and his body has been delivered to a lab. He seems to be paying for all the cruel acts that he did over his lifetime. The students at the Royal College of Surgeons, seem to be enjoying using his body. His head has been screwed to an abnormally tall crane and his eye is being gouged by one of the students. On the foreground, a dog is eating his heart; this scene symbolizes revenge on his cruelty to animals in his life. William Hogarth's inspiration to do these prints was from the streets of London, where he often saw people treating animals with cruelty.