John Bunyan and Pilgrim's Progress

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  • 0:05 John Bunyan and…
  • 2:28 Part 1: Christian's Journey
  • 7:40 Part 2: Christiana's Journey
  • 8:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Pilgrim's Progress is a Christian allegory by John Bunyan. It was published in 1678 and is a highly influential work of religious text in the English language. Follow along as you learn about some of the most memorable characters from this novel.

John Bunyan and Pilgrim's Progress

I'm not going to sugarcoat it, Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, or, to use its full and proper name, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, is not known for being the most exciting work of 17th century literature - though that may be a dubious honor to begin with. That being said, it's an enduring and influential work, and no student of English literature should ignore it.

Writer John Bunyan
John Bunyan

Something that is actually pretty interesting about Pilgrim's Progress is that John Bunyan (who is not Paul Bunyan, although I'm probably going to make that mistake at some point, so I apologize now), wrote at least some of it while he was imprisoned. Pretty badass, right? It's less so when you find out why he was put in prison. John Bunyan spent time in the Bedfordshire county gaol (jail, but spelled old-e time-y) for violating the Conventicle Act. What, you don't know what the Conventicle Act is? The Conventicle Act prohibited holding religious services outside the auspices of the Church of England, which was the state-sanctioned religion at the time. A conventicle is a religious assembly of more than five people (you know, in case you want to bring that out at an upcoming social gathering).

As a Baptist, John Bunyan was essentially preaching without a license and jailed - or gaoled - for his crime. Clearly, someone who's willing to risk imprisonment for the sake of pursing his religious practices is someone who takes his beliefs and practices seriously, so it's really not surprising that John Bunyan wrote a religious work like Pilgrim's Progress.

We're going to take a look at what happens in the book and discuss why it's so important and still widely-read. A few things to keep in mind before we jump in: this book is divided into two parts (cleverly named Part 1 and Part 2), and it's an allegory, or a work in which the characters and plot symbolize other ideas. Nothing is really meant to be taken at face value; they're all supposed to represent something more lofty and moral, and because this is a religious work it's pretty obvious.

An example of a modern-day allegory is the movie Avatar. You can think of it as just a fantasy story about a journey to a magical land, but there's also that deeper meaning about respecting the environment and protecting the earth and the people who were there before you. So, that's sort of what we're heading into. So, let's follow Pilgrim's Progress.

Part 1: Christian's Journey

Bunyan begins by stating the story he's about to tell is actually a dream. Saying that something was 'all a dream' is considered a bit of a literary cop-out these days; you may have used it in a short story you wrote in junior high where you didn't know an ending so you were just like, 'Oh, then I woke up.' But this was the late 1600s, so it wasn't quite the cliché that it is today; so, we'll give him a pass.

Here's how Pilgrim's Progress begins:

'As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept I dreamed a dream.' I did a lot of research to see if this 'I dreamed a dream' was the source of the song 'I dreamed a dream' from Les Misérables, but it doesn't seem like it is. But that's all that I think about when I read that first passage. That's neither here nor there.

The dream was about a man named Christian, which is an interesting choice considering this is a Christian allegory. Christian is having a little bit of a crisis of faith, and he receives a visit from a sort of fairy-godfather-like character named Evangelist. Bunyan didn't reach too far when trying to come up with character names; it's like if Harry Potter's name was Wizard with Glasses and Voldemort's name was Super Bad Guy.

This guy, Evangelist, encourages Christian to leave the place he currently lives, called 'City of Destruction,' which he says is currently doomed, and he should seek God's redemption in the 'Celestial City.' And he goes without his wife or children because they refuse to join him. I guess because it sounds a little nuts.

The rest of Part 1 follows Christian's journey. He visits a lot of different places and he meets a lot of people. Because it's an allegory, each of these places and people represent a larger idea. He meets too many people and goes too many places to talk about them all in detail, so we're just going to touch on the big ones:

First, he goes to the Slough of Despond. It's a miserable bog-like place that you would sink into as soon as you walked across it. It's meant to represent Christian sinking against the weight of his own sins, so that's cool. While he's there, he encounters someone named Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who is nothing like the Three Wise Men in the story of the birth of Jesus. In fact, he tries to deter Christian from continuing towards the Celestial City and encourages him to stay in the village of Morality (where things are more intellectual) and forget about pursuing religion.

Christian is intrigued by the offer, but he ultimately decides to continue on his quest. He encounters someone named Good Will (like I said, Bunyan didn't leave a whole lot to the imagination when it came to naming these characters), who directs Christian towards the home of someone named Interpreter, who really emphasizes the values of the Christian faith and the lifestyle to Christian. So, he's talking up being a Christian to someone named Christian. So, that's not confusing.

Next, Christian will head to the Wall of Salvation, where he thinks he sees the cross and the tomb where Jesus died. That vision throws him to his knees, and he eventually falls asleep. While he's asleep, he loses his certificate, which is meant to serve as his entrance ticket into the Celestial City. He's real hard on himself for that. Never fear, he'll eventually retrace his steps and find it again and continue on his quest.

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