The Pilgrim’s Progress

by: John Bunyan

Motifs

Sleep

Sleep represents a symbol that can either be inspirational or paralyzing on a pilgrim’s journey toward the Celestial City. Whenever the pilgrims grow sleepy on their journey, danger awaits. The Enchanted Ground threatens to lull travelers into sleepy forgetfulness of their spiritual mission and derail their salvation. Indeed the two saddest failed pilgrims that Christiana meets on her journey are Too-bold and Heedless, who make it to the very outskirts of the Celestial City only to fall asleep in the deceitful arbor. Their sleep appears more than a natural failing and seems like a spiritual disaster. When they babble incoherently in their sleep, their guide explains that they have lost the use of their reason and thus cannot attain their spiritual goals. Sleep here symbolizes loss of direction and spiritual bankruptcy. But loss of direction can also be positive, and sleep can spur pilgrims on their spiritual journey. The narrator has lost his direction in life at the very beginning of the book, but when he falls asleep, sleep brings him a vision of spiritual improvement. He cannot dream without sleeping.

The Wilderness

The pilgrims in Bunyan’s book begin in a city and end in a city, and in between they wander through huge stretches of wilderness. The wild outdoors frame the journeys they undertake throughout most of the book. The motif of the wilderness has famous biblical precedents. Christ spent forty days in the wilderness, and the Israelites wandered through it for forty years. The uncivilized outdoors symbolize not just solitude but a place of spiritual test, a place of despair and hardship that strengthens faith. The difference between the biblical instance of wilderness and Bunyan’s wilderness lies in their locations. In the Bible, wilderness is an actual desert, a physical locale. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, wilderness shines as a motif of an inward state, except perhaps at the very beginning when the narrator says he wandered in the wilderness before dreaming of Christian. However, in every example of wilderness that follows, from the Slough to the hill of Difficulty, the outdoors remains a symbol of inner struggle, the hard path that the soul must follow every day. When Christian almost drowns and fails to reach the Celestial City in the end, he recalls his faith in Jesus Christ and is suddenly filled with renewed strength and hope to reach the Celestial City. These inner struggles in the wilderness test the pilgrims and separate the spiritually strong from the weak.

Sensual Pleasure

The Pilgrim’s Progress portrays sensual pleasure both negatively and positively. In one way the pleasure of the senses are devalued in the book. Christian and Christiana and her group hardly express any wish to stop and reflect on their previous lives because an important journey lies ahead. Examples of sensual pleasure often threaten to thwart the pilgrims’ advancement, as when Christiana’s son enjoys the taste of the devil’s fruit and then falls sick, or when Madam Bubble tempts Standfast with sensual pleasures. Bunyan seems to affirm the basic Puritan attitude toward all pleasures of the flesh, which views the senses as dangerous diversions for the soul that must be rejected. However, Bunyan actually admits that in the right circumstances, sensual pleasure can be acceptable and even beneficial for pilgrims. When the pilgrims stop at the Palace Beautiful, sensual beauty surrounds them, and they eat tasty food with no danger to their immortal souls. When they rest with the shepherds in the Delectable Mountains, they are free to hear the birds sing and savor the whole experience. And finally the Celestial City itself is as a strong affirmation of sensual pleasures, including fragrant flowers and golden streets. Sensual enjoyment is perfectly acceptable if it is in the service of spiritual progress.