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
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.
He encounters more treacherous places with very loaded names. He'll emerge victorious against temptation each time until he encounters a friend named Faithful and arrives at a place called Vanity, which has a famous fair, called Vanity Fair. You may have heard of a novel that's called Vanity Fair, there's a very popular magazine called Vanity Fair; that novel was made into a movie with Reese Witherspoon - those all come from the Vanity Fair of Pilgrim's Progress. Because Christian and Faithful are able to resist the temptations of Vanity Fair, they are put in prison (because the people of Vanity Fair are not nice). Faithful is unfortunately executed - something that Evangelist predicted; he thought one of them would die in Vanity Fair. Christian, luckily, is able to escape the prison and continue on his journey. He'll keep encountering more lands and people that tempt him, but he will best them at every step of the way. Part 1 ends with Christian and his friend, Hopeful, reaching the Celestial City.
In case all of the names don't really give it away, what's going on here is that Christian is on a quest to fulfill a religious vision toward the Celestial City, which we assume should represent Heaven. He's meeting all these different people, some who try to help and guide him, like Interpreter, some who try to detract him, like Mr. Worldly Wiseman. He listens to the people that are trying to help him and, eventually, ignores the people who are trying to tempt him. We see that Christian is a model of Christian virtue, really. It's not that there's no temptation, but that he's able to resist it and continue toward his quest. That's what happens in Part 1.
Part 2: Christiana's Journey
Part 2 is called 'Christiana,' and Christiana is Christian's wife's name. Yep, Christian and Christiana. John Bunyan was as creative with coming up with names as he was subtle.
Part 2 focuses on Christiana and their four sons' journey to follow Christian to the Celestial City. They're accompanied by a maid named Mercy, and they'll encounter a lot of the same people and a lot of the same obstacles that Christian does. They're able to overcome them each time on their way to the Celestial City, where Christiana will meet her maker, known as the Master.
Some of the people that they encounter that we didn't see in Part 1 have names like Contrite, Standfast, Mr. Ready-to-Halt, and my personal favorite, Valiant-for-Truth, who I imagine to be some sort of combination of He-Man and Fabio. You know, he has a big sword, and he comes at the end of Part 2 to help Christiana and the boys along their way. That's Part 2; his family follows along the same quest that Christian did.
Just to sum it up, Pilgrim's Progress is a Christian allegorical story written by John Bunyan in the late 1600s. John Bunyan was really strong in his religious convictions, and that's really evident in the way he lived his life (considering he went to prison for preaching to more than five people outside of the Church of England). It really shines through in his best-known work, Pilgrim's Progress, which follows a man named Christian as he journeys toward the Celestial City, besting all these different obstacles and temptations along the way and learning about the story of Jesus and the virtues of a Christian lifestyle.
Because this is an allegory, nothing that Christian encounters on his journey should really be taken at face value; all of the places he goes and the people he encounters are meant to stand for something larger than what they are. Because Bunyan gave everybody names like 'Evangelist' and 'Mercy,' it's not terribly difficult to interpret what they're supposed to represent and what the larger meaning is. Not all allegories are quite so transparent; sometimes you can see something that's an allegory and maybe just enjoy the story for what it is and not realize that it's supposed to represent something larger. But, because he gives people names like Mercy and Contrite, it's pretty obvious what they're supposed to stand for. Bunyan helps you out there a little bit.
Part 2 of the story follows the journey of Christian's wife, Christiana, and his sons and their families to follow him in the Celestial City.
Like I said, this story might not be terribly heavy on excitement; it's not the most fun thing you'll ever read. But, it's really influential; it's inspired writers like Charles Dickens and E.E. Cummings. It's been translated into over 200 languages (it's still in print) and there's even an episode of Family Guy dedicated to it (it's called Peter's Progress). So, something that influential and long lasting really deserves our attention, so I hope you check it out.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify John Bunyan and the reason he was imprisoned for a time
- Summarize the plot and allegorical content of Pilgrim's Progress