Thoughts on Pilgrim’s Progress

I recently slogged through sections from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The entire text is intended to be a metaphor for the struggle of the Christian life, but very little actually moves the plot forward in this novel. The main character is not so subtly named “Christian” and he encounters a variety of wooden characters like “Pliable” and “Charity” and “Hopeful” and “Evangelist” to name a few. The arc of the story follows Christian living his provincial life, when he suddenly fears eternal damnation after reading his “book.” He promptly runs away from his wife, family, and town in an effort to gain salvation for himself. He abandons his duties for his own personal gain.


(First Edition of Pilgrim’s Progress, first published in 1678)

Although the text is only an allegory, the underlying message is laid bare. The world is bad, and should be avoided. Christian goes so far as to plug his own ears when his family and neighbors shout at him as he runs off in search of the light. He is a fearful man, afraid of punishment for his innate sin, and he rejects his life and his family in favor of his own personal redemption. This is no classical hero who sacrifices himself nobly for his friends and family. His struggle is to avoid temptations and seductions as they attempt to thwart him on his journey to the Coelestial City (“Celestial City”), all the while Christian trembles in fear at the thought of possibly not being accepted into the city. At the end of the first part, he is finally welcomed into the city after a lengthy journey, and the second part of the book traces Christian’s family as they make the same journey without him.

In summary of Christian’s journey, he runs away from his home across a plain, through the “slough of despond,” over the “Mount Sinai,” to the village of “Morality,” through the “wicket gate,” into a town and over a fence, up a “difficult hill,” across the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” through “Vanity Fair” (from which William Makepeace Thackery derived the title of his most famous novel) which is a worldly city built by Beelzebub to please human delights, then across the “River of Life,” and onward to a castle, up into the mountains, through a land called “Beulah,” and finally across a deep river to arrive at the Celestial City.

“Christian Reading His Book” by William Blake (1824-1827). Note Christian’s large “burden” that he carries with him through much of the early part of the book.

Echoing other Christian writings, like the Shepherd of Hermas, Pilgrim’s Progress is a framed narrative. The entire story is a detailed dream written by John Bunyan. By making the story a mere dream, Bunyan removes a certain degree of blame from himself (he was once imprisoned for his radical beliefs). Also like other classical and Christian writings, the central plot is about a journey that concerns the supernatural, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy. However, the title of the book is enlightening. Instead of titling the book “Pilgrim’s Destination” or something along those lines, the title reveals the subject of the book to be progress. This is to say that the pilgrim is capable of moving upward, or advancing beyond his current state. By rejecting the wrong ways of the world, the pilgrim can advance toward a superior state of life, namely the life that comes after death. The original title for the book was: “The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come.” Pilgrim’s Progress is sometimes called the first novel written in the English language and it often tops various lists of the greatest novels ever written. It was written during one of John Bunyan’s two visits to prison in Bedfordshire for radical Puritanical preaching. At one time, illustrated versions of this book could be found in every colonial home in America.

What was Bunyan’s purpose in writing Pilgrim’s Progress? Was it to inspire others to pursue the Christian life? Was it to merely showcase the struggles of a Christian? John Bunyan gives a clue as to his purpose in his “apology” at the outset:

“This Book will make a traveller of thee,
If by its Counsel thou wilt ruled be;
It will direct thee to the Holy Land,
If thou wilt its directions understand:
Yea, it will make the slothful active be;
The blind also delightful things to see.” 

Mr. Bunyan makes quite bold claims for himself with this book. He advises us to allow Pilgrim’s Progress to be a guidebook of sorts -apparently it is an allegory for our lives and how might also achieve salvation, like the main character Christian. Perhaps Bunyan sees his allegory as an addendum or even an improvement upon the Bible.

NPG 1311; John Bunyan by Thomas Sadler
Portrait of John Bunyan, 1684

John Bunyan (1628-1688) was something of a fanatic, and it shows in his writing. He was born and raised in Bedfordshire, a beautiful rural region of East England. He was raised by tradesmen and ploughmen, while attending a local grammar school. All throughout his life he was plagued by certain nervous dreams, according to his autobiography. His guilt took the form of pathological delusions. As a young man, his mother and sister died, and when the English Civil War broke out, Bunyan was called up in defense. He became involved in left-wing Protestant religious sects (Quakers, Seeker, Ranters, Puritans and so on). Bunyan’s conversion to Puritanism came after marriage and the birth of several children. His first wife died and Bunyan later remarried. His paranoid visions continued throughout his life. He believed he heard the voice of Satan in his head, and he felt shame toward Christ. He got involved in the Bedford separatist church as a lay preacher, and he was thrown in prison at least twice as a result of tensions between non-conforming Protestants and Catholics. Bunyan died in London while on one of his preaching escapades.

For this reading I used the Harvard Classics 1937 edition of Pilgrim’s Progress.

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