Pilgrim’s Progress is a work of genius, a truly original work that does not borrow grandeur from classics but becomes a classic by its own simplicity and profundity. Bunyan writes with clarity and structure, and insights into human nature.
In his easy Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell lists disbelief in a literal Hell as one of the reasons. I didn’t get far into this book on my first attempt more than twenty years ago, because of the same disbelief. I could not (and still cannot) relate to the feelings of “Christian” concerning the Last Judgment, which compelled him to escape the “City of Destruction” and venture on a journey to the “Celestial City”.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan shares the story of his Christian life, not as a preacher from the pulpit, but as a fellow traveller on a journey, warning others of the pitfalls and dangers along the way, and sharing the knowledge he gained by painful experience. The Pilgrim knows where he came from and where he is going, for the Lord Who went before him is the Way, and this book is a good travel companion for comfort and guidance; for an unbeliever, however, life is not a spiritual journey, but a drunkard’s walk, without origin, progress or destination, and this book is nothing more than another drink from the cup, which neither quenches the thirst nor wakes the drunkard.
Bunyan labels all his characters at the outset when he introduces them, so the reader starts with a preliminary knowledge of them. However, he does not stop at that level of acquaintance, for Bunyan takes special care to delineate each of his characters. The close reader contemplates their attributes by observing their entrance and exit on stage, so to speak, their relations and residences, appearances, actions and conversations. Bunyan weaves all of these details into a few lines, and creates very convincing characters out of them.
Bunyan’s allegorical characters are diverse, human and identifiable in everyday life. He set them up as mirrors for his readers, so that when we see the speck in their eyes, we may remember to remove the plank in our own eyes.
The reason I didn’t like this book twenty years ago is perhaps due to a lack of experience in Christianity. It was near impossible for me to understand what the characters represent and the message Bunyan is trying to get across, but now I find PP edifying and enjoyable, though not in the same way as classic literature.
Criticism of Bunyan’s Allegory
C.S.Lewis criticized Bunyan’s interpolation of sermons in his allegory. “Bunyan—and, from his own point of view, rightly—would not care twopence for the criticism that he here loses the interest of irreligious readers. But such passages are faulty in another way too. In them, the speakers step out of the allegorical story altogether. They talk literally and directly about the spiritual life. The great image of the Road disappears. They are in the pulpit. If this is going to happen, why have a story at all? Allegory frustrates itself the moment the author starts doing what could equally well be done in a straight sermon or treatise… The right process is the exact reverse…moving always into the book, not out of it, from the concept to the image, enriches the concept. And that is what allegory is for.”
C.S.Lewis wrote an updated version of PP for his time, and titled it Pilgrim’s Regress.
I think it is very likely that Kierkegaard read PP, and the story of the Giant Despair in the Doubting Castle inspired the writing of Sickness Unto Death.
It beareth the name of Vanity Fair because the town where it is kept is lighter than vanity; and, also because all that is there sold, or that cometh thither, is vanity. As is the saying of the wise, “all that cometh is vanity.”
Almost five thousand years agone, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, and Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the city lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein, should be sold all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all the year long: therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.
And, moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be seen juggling cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind. Here are to be seen, too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false swearers, and that of a blood-red colour.
And as in other fairs of less moment, there are the several rows and streets, under their proper names, where such and such wares are vended; so here likewise you have the proper places, rows, streets, (viz. countries and kingdoms), where the wares of this fair are soonest to be found. Here is the Britain Row, the French Row, the Italian Row, the Spanish Row, the German Row, where several sorts of vanities are to be sold. But, as in other fairs, some one commodity is as the chief of all the fair, so the ware of Rome and her merchandise is greatly promoted in this fair;
The River of Death
Now I further saw, that betwixt them and the gate was a river; but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep. At the sight, therefore, of this river the pilgrims were much stunned; but the men that went with them said, You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.
The pilgrims then, especially Christian, began to despond in their mind, and looked this way and that, but no way could be found by them by which they might escape the river. Then they asked the men if the waters were all of a depth. They said, No; yet they could not help them in that case; for, said they, you shall find it deeper or shallower as you believe in the King of the place.
Then they addressed themselves to the water, and entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me. Then said the other, Be of good cheer, my brother: I feel the bottom, and it is good. Then said Christian, Ah! my friend, the sorrows of death have compassed me about, I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey. And with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him. Also here he in a great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember nor orderly talk of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. But all the words that he spoke still tended to discover that he had horror of mind, and heart-fears that he should die in that river, and never obtain entrance in at the gate. Here also, as they that stood by perceived, he was much in the troublesome thoughts of the sins that he had committed, both since and before he began to be a pilgrim. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits; for ever and anon he would intimate so much by words.
Then said Hopeful, My brother, These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters, are no sign that God hath forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of his goodness, and live upon him in your distresses. Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was in a muse a while. To whom also Hopeful added these words, Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole. And with that Christian brake out with a loud voice, Oh, I see him again; and he tells me, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” Then they both took courage, and the enemy was after that as still as a stone, until they were gone over. Christian, therefore, presently found ground to stand upon, and so it followed that the rest of the river was but shallow. Thus they got over.
- Lewis, C. S. Selected Literary Essays. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013
- “Pilgrim’s Progress” at Gutenberg
- “Pilgrim’s Progress” (Part I) at Gutenberg
- “Pilgrim’s Progress” at CCEL