Published in 1678 and begun while its author John Bunyan was in prison, The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most influential books in the English language. After the Bible (in various English translations), it’s thought to be the biggest-selling book in English: one count, from 1692, just fourteen years after the book’s first publication put the number of copies sold at 100,000: a huge number by seventeenth-century standards. It was ‘popular’ in both senses of the word: it enjoyed great success because it was aimed at ordinary people rather than the select few. Several phrases from the book, including Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair, are known even to people who’ve never read it.
A work of allegory and even thought by some to be the first English novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a classic. But what makes it so, and what’s it about?
Before we proceed to an analysis of this classic work of religious literature, it might be worth summarising the plot of Bunyan’s book.
The Pilgrim’s Progress: summary
The Pilgrim’s Progress begins with a man named Christian, who lives in the City of Destruction, having a dreamlike vision of a man dressed in rags, who is facing away from his home. In one hand the man carries a book, the Bible, while on his back he carries a great burden: his sins. Christian interprets this vision as a symbol for his own life, and resolves to leave behind the City of Destruction.
He meets a man named Evangelist who points Christian’s way to the Celestial City. Setting out on his quest for this destination, Christian is pursued by two neighbours, Obstinate and Pliable. The former turns back, but Pliable catches up with Christian – and the two of them get caught in a mire called the Slough of Despond.
While Pliable manages to free himself, Christian requires the assistance of a figure known, aptly, as Help, who frees him. A number of figures sent to tempt Christian now approach him: Mr Worldly Wiseman tells him to leave off as his journey to the Celestial City isn’t necessary, while Mr Legality and Mr Civility promise to consolidate all of his sins into one handy burden which he can then write off. Christian is saved from these figures by the reappearance of Evangelist.
Reaching a gate, on which are written the words ‘knock, and it shall be opened to you’, Christian is treated to a vision of the Day of Judgement, which terrifies him. Next he sees the Cross of Christ, and the burden on his back – representing his sins – falls off. He eventually, after encountering Sloth, Hypocrisy, and other figures, reaches House Beautiful, where he is given a sword and shield by the maidens Charity, Prudence, Piety, and Discretion. From House Beautiful he can see the Delectable Mountains; once he reaches them, he will be able to see his destination, the Celestial City.
Many trials follow on the way, including a fight with the Prince of the City of Destruction, a journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and – accompanied by a fellow pilgrim named Faithful – a visit to Vanity Fair, which has been set up by Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. When they refuse to be tempted by any of the goods for sale, they are arrested.
They find themselves on trial in front of a crooked judge, Lord Hate-good, and the corrupt jury finds them guilty!
Faithful is burned to death, but Christian breaks out of jail before he can suffer the same fate, and Hopeful helps to smuggle him away … only for them both to be imprisoned again, this time by the Giant named Despair, who lives at Doubting Castle. They find a key called Promise, which releases them from the Giant’s dungeon, and they reach the Delectable Mountains.
They arrive, at long last, at the Celestial City, its buildings covered in gems and its streets paved with gold. After fording the dreaded River of Death, Christian arrives at his destination … and then wakes to find that the whole thing was a dream, in what is probably the only acceptable use of this hackneyed literary device in all of literature.
The Pilgrim’s Progress: analysis
The pioneering fantasy author Michael Moorcock said that reading The Pilgrim’s Progress when he was a child showed him an important truth, which is that a story should always have more than one meaning. Whilst the Christian allegory is inescapable and unmissable for adults, for younger readers Bunyan’s book can read like an exciting fantastical adventure featuring more than its fair share of peril, drama, and creative invention.
But as the name of the central character, Christian, makes clear, as well as the names of the various figures whom Christian encounters over the course of the narrative, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a deeply allegorical work about salvation and what the individual believer must undergo in order to attain it. Those wanting to reach the Celestial City of Heaven when they die had better make sure they are not tempted by Mr Worldly Wiseman or the wares on offer at Vanity Fair, or that they don’t succumb to the overwhelming power of the Slough of Despond (i.e. melancholy, or depression) or the darkest pit of despair (the dungeon in the Giant Despair’s Doubting Castle).
And many of these features of The Pilgrim’s Progress were inspired by the area that John Bunyan knew well, around the county of Bedfordshire in England, around 50 miles north of London. For instance, the Slough of Despond was modelled on the grey clay deposits around the model village of Stewartby. Similarly, Doubting Castle in the book is based on the real (though sadly now destroyed) Ampthill Castle.
Is The Pilgrim’s Progress a novel? The word was unknown in Bunyan’s own lifetime, and many critics and commentators prefer to name Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book Robinson Crusoe the ‘first novel’, because of Defoe’s realist focus on the everyday which came to be considered such an important part of the novel form. But in the broadest possible sense, Bunyan’s book is a fictional prose narrative whose length certainly qualifies it for the title of ‘novel’.
What it is, though, is a specific kind of Christian allegory, which reveals Bunyan’s own adherence to a dissenting tradition. Bunyan was a Puritan who believed in the Calvinist idea of the Elect: some people were predestined for heaven, while others, sadly, would probably never get there. Indeed, as Bunyan wrote in ‘Reprobation Asserted’:
This act of God in electing is a choosing or fore-appointing of some infallibly unto eternal life. Election according to God’s good pleasure is: (1) eternal, having been executed before the foundation of the world, (2) unconditional, being totally independent of foreseen faith or good works, and (3) effectual, in that no impediment can hinder the realization of God’s purposes. Finally, (4) election is ‘in Christ,’ since the Saviour is the one in whom the elect were always considered and without whom there is neither election, grace, nor salvation.
This may explain why Christian’s burden of sin miraculously drops off his back before he reaches the Celestial City: it’s nothing to do with his good works, and everything to do with God’s grand plan, which has been foreordained long before Christian, or anyone before him, was born.