Subtitled ‘From This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream’.
This is the third time I have recently tried to read ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ – each time previously I gave up simply due to lack of interest. Bunyan’s style is said to be straightforward, but I found the insistent preaching and sermonising soporific. This completed reading was finally achieved only through gritted teeth and from a stubborn determination not to be beaten a third time. Yet here’s the thing – ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ has been in print for almost 350 years, has a strong claim to be the first novel written in English (it has characters, tells a story, and is in prose) and had a profound influence on many novelists. All stories of personal development or growth own a debt to Bunyan, and many including ‘Little Women’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Vanity Fair’ acknowledge their debt explicitly. Wikipedia claims that the novel “is regarded as one of the most significant works of religious English literature” and goes on to claim that it has been translated into more than 200 languages. So my challenge was to find the value in this novel despite the teeth gritting.
You will be familiar with the plot, such as it is. Christian, fearing for his immortal soul, leaves his life of sinfulness and goes on a pilgrimage to find the Celestial City. He meets a range of challenges to his faith, some trivial, some less so, all of which he overcomes, to finally arrive at the Promised Land and be welcomed into heaven. A sequel, published several years after the first part, follows Christian’s wife and children as they follow a very similar path to that of the first novel – after a bit of an internal debate I decided not to read the sequel, despite it being described on publication as the second part of the story.
The circumstances of the publication of this novel are almost as well-known as the story itself. Bunyan belonged to a very small non-conformist church in Bedford, and took to preaching around the countryside in direct convention of the strict laws of the time, following the restoration of the monarchy. His original sentence was three months, but as he refused to undertake to not repeat his offence his sentence was extended repeatedly – he eventually served twelve years, leaving his young wife and four children destitute.
It is easy to overlook the positives in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. The problem in part is one of familiarity – we have all grown up with Giant Despair, The Slough of Despond, and Mr Worldly-Wiseman, and take their inventiveness for granted. But apart from this quality, taking the text as it reads in the present, I found very little else of value. Bunyan uses his parable to preach unremittingly at the reader. The formula he adopts is rigidly adhered to – his pilgrim, Christian, meets a character representing the personification of a sin, is tempted, (sometimes not), overcomes the challenge, and moves on. I am simplifying of course, but this is the structure for the whole novel, and there never comes a moment where the reader expects anything else to happen. Bunyan quickly runs out of serious sins, and has to resort to relatively innocuous offences – formalism, timorousness, discontent and talkativeness to name a few, which gives these sections of the novel a slightly ridiculous tone.
Later, Christian sees his fellow pilgrim, Faithful, brutally executed in Vanity Fair:
“They therefore brought him out, to do with him according to their law; and, first, they scourged him, then they buffeted him, then they lanced his flesh with knives; after that, they stoned him with stones, then pricked him with their swords; and, last of all, they burned him to ashes at the stake. Thus came Faithful to his end.”
Despite the horrors of this death, Christian takes Faithful’s martyrdom in his stride and through divine intervention escapes a similar fate. Later he meets with another pilgrim, Hopeful, and together they bully a third pilgrim, whom Bunyan labels Ignorance. Ignorance is not English, nor a follower of the Church of England. He comes from “the country of Conceit”. He is described as “a very brisk lad”, and speaks respectfully to Christian:
“Sir, I was born in the country that lieth off there a little on the left hand, and I am going to the Celestial City.”
In answer to Christian’s questioning about his credentials – “what have you to show at that gate, that may cause that the gate should be opened to you?” he replies again respectfully
“I know my Lord’s will, and I have been a good liver; I pay every man his own; I pray, fast, pay tithes, and give alms, and have left my country for whither I am going.”
Christian is having none of this
“But thou camest not in at the wicket-gate that is at the head of this way; thou camest in hither through that same crooked lane, and therefore, I fear, however thou mayest think of thyself, when the reckoning day shall come, thou wilt have laid to thy charge that thou art a thief and a robber, instead of getting admittance into the city.”
In other words, living well, paying your way, and knowing the Lord’s will, isn’t enough for Christian. He takes it on himself to challenge Ignorance’s right to aspire to redemption in the first place. Ignorance politely asks him to leave him alone – this is becoming suspiciously like bullying:
“Gentlemen, ye be utter strangers to me, I know you not; be content and follow the religion of your country, and I will follow the religion of mine”
That’s not enough for Christian who speaks to Hopeful, “whisperingly,
“There is more hope of a fool than of him.””
When Ignorance finally arrives at the Celestial City he is dealt with brutally,
“the King…commanded the two Shining Ones… to go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away. Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell”
None of those nasty foreigners in our Celestial City, thank you very much!
Christians might enjoy having their beliefs confirmed by this novel, but otherwise I would not recommend exhuming this one from the archives.