Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pilgrims on the road

The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan

I bought this book at a library sale a couple of years ago for 50¢. I'd always meant to read it someday, because it is a classic of English literature, and because it plays such a big part in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, a book I've read probably twenty times (and am now re-reading). I was reminded of it again when I read Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, which is subtitled "The New Pilgrim's Progress."

From the Introduction, I learned that the author, John Bunyan, was a Nonconformist preacher in the north of England. He was imprisoned for twelve years, starting in 1660, for refusing to conform to the practices and teachings of the Church of England. He may have begun writing this work while in prison, though it was not published until 1678. After his release he continued to minister in Nonconformist churches, and to write on religious topics, but The Pilgrim's Progress remains his best-known work.

From Little Women, I knew that The Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory of the Christian life. The unnamed narrator dreams of a man named Christian, the pilgrim of the title, who meets with various adventures and perils as he makes his way to the Celestial City, "from This World to That Which Is to Come." Allegory isn't a literary form with which I am very familiar, though as I read this I was reminded of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. Many of the characters and places that Christian encounters I recognized from Alcott, such as the Slough of Despond in which new pilgrims often find themselves bogged down, the monster Apollyon who terrorizes pilgrims in the Valley of Humiliation, and the valiant Great-Heart who guides them safely through trials. I was particularly struck by the the town of Vanity Fair, which sits on the pilgrims' road, a place of great peril. William Thackery must have known it, "not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy" (his Vanity Fair has just moved to the top of the TBR pile).

I also recognized images taken from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, like the River of God on whose banks Christian finds rest, with the trees of every kind "that bore all manner of fruit, and the leaves of the trees were good for medicine" (cf Ezekiel 47). Bunyan constantly quotes and references the Scriptures, and the editors of this version helpfully included citations and explanatory notes. But I am sure that as someone born in the 20th century I missed many of the allusions and references that would have been obvious to Bunyan's readers in the 1680s. There are also constant discussions on theological matters between the various characters, in the form of dialogues, and I sometimes found the subtleties of the arguments difficult to follow, partly because I'm not familiar with 17th century Nonconformist theology.

At least there is no subtlety in the names, which makes it easy to tell the good characters from the bad. Christian sets off on his pilgrimage with Pliable and Obstinate, who soon desert him. He finds better companions in Faithful and Hopeful. Along the way they meet characters like Money-Love and Vain-Confidence, who seem destined for their bad ends - though at the end there is some hope for poor Ignorance, always lagging behind.

This book is worth reading for the language alone. I was reminded both of Shakespeare and of the King James Bible.

Then said Evangelist, "If this be thy condition, why standest thou still?" He answered him, "Because I know not where to go." Then he gave him a parchment roll, and there was written within, "Fly from the wrath to come."
The man therefore read it, and looking upon Evangelist very carefully, said, "Whither must I fly?" . . . Then said Evangelist, "Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto; so shalt thou see the gate, at which when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do."

At other times, I felt like I was listening in on the day to day speech of Bunyan's time. Instead of "have," his characters constantly say "she might a drawn me" or "I might a had," which sounds very modern (and American Southern) to me. There are constant references to bowels, as in "the children of my bowels," where I think we might say heart.

I did not realize until half-way through the book that it included two different works. The first is Christian's journey. There is a "Second Part," published six years later, which tells the story of Christian's family. In the first book, thinking Christian crazy, they remain behind in the City of Destruction as he sets off for the Celestial City. Later, as reports of his adventures and eventual triumph reach them, they feel called to follow him. So his wife Christiana and four sons set off on their own journey, in company with Mercy, a young townswoman. Where Christian has to fight his own battles and find his own way, Christiana and her party get guides and protectors, including the mighty warrior Great-Heart. Where his journey feels like a quest, theirs feels more domestic. Their instructions and advice are presented in homely metaphors, hens with chickens, spiders in their webs, birds seeking food. Along the way, the four sons are even married off. They bring their wives along on the pilgrim road, and soon grandchildren appear (some of which, bizarely, are left along the way with shepherds). I admit, I was expecting some diatribes about women's weaknesses and their tendency to draw men into sin, but while the pilgrims are taken to see Eve's apple in one house they visit, their host also "[speaks] on the behalf of women, to take away their reproach," talking about the holy women of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. That was unexpected, and refreshing.

This book turned out to be more interesting than I expected, and I am very glad that I read it, even if some of its meaning escaped me.


  1. Little Women is one of my favourite books so I'm familiar with The Pilgrim's Progress but have never thought about reading it. I would like to try it, even if just for the beautiful language, but I'm sure a lot of the meaning would escape me too!

  2. I don't know that I would ever have gone looking for a copy, but then one turned up on the library sale shelves, and I'm glad it did! I was surprised to find so much of the first story familiar, from Alcott - but there was still so much that was new, even in that part, let alone the second.

  3. I think I was supposed to read this in college, but somehow escaped the experience. It seems a shame now, although I would probably enjoy and appreciate it more at this point in my life then I did back then.

  4. I did have a copy of this book but it didn't appeal to me and I gave it away, maybe I shouldn't have. I think you'll enjoy Vanity Fair too.

  5. Anbolyn, this seems like it would make for great literary analysis - all kinds of layers of meaning and figurative language.

    Katrina, I had it for two years and started it a couple of different times, before it finally clicked. I actually thought it was going to be a tougher read than it was.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!