In his Apology, Bunyan affirms his aim to strengthen religious belief through fiction. He attacks the popular misconception that religion and fiction are enemies, asserting that the Bible contains many fictional parables. Bunyan also states that he wrote his work mainly for himself, to further his own spiritual development.
Beginning the allegory, the narrator tells of his wandering through the wilderness, entering a den to sleep. He dreams that he sees a man in rags holding a book and crying. The man, named Christian, is visited by Evangelist, a spiritual guide who tells him he must leave his hometown, the City of Destruction, with a heavy burden on his back. Christian tries to convince his family to come with him, but they think he is mentally unwell and will recover. Instead of attempting to persuade them further, Christian leaves home.
Christian tries to convince his neighbors Obstinate and Pliable to accompany him. Obstinate refuses, but Pliable agrees, though he is soon discouraged when he and Christian fall into a muddy pit called the Slough of Despond. Christian sinks because of the burden on his back. A man named Help pulls him out. Disappointed, Pliable turns back home. Walking alone now, Christian meets Worldly Wiseman, who urges him to throw down his burden. Although Christian distrusts Wordly Wiseman, he nevertheless listens to Wordly Wiseman speak. Later Evangelist returns to reproach Christian for listening to Worldly Wiseman.
Evangelist kisses Christian goodbye and wishes him well, and Christian resumes his journey. He comes upon a Wicket Gate and reads a sign hung above it that says to knock. A serious-looking attendant named Goodwill appears. Goodwill asks where Christian is heading, and Christian tells him he is on his way to Mount Zion, also known as the Celestial City, to be saved from the wrath soon to be unleashed on the City of Destruction.
Goodwill announces that he wills the gate to open. As it opens, he pulls Christian in, explaining that he is saving his guest from Beelzebub’s arrows shot from a nearby castle. With Christian safe inside, Goodwill requests an account of his journey so far. Before agreeing, Christian asks whether he can first set down his burden. Goodwill says no, explaining that it must be carried and will drop off naturally when no longer needed. Christian reports his progress so far. Satisfied, Goodwill then sends Christian to a nearby house where the Interpreter lives, saying that the Interpreter may show Christian many helpful things.
The Interpreter invites Christian into his home. He shows Christian a picture of a serious man in a crown. Christian asks who it is, and the Interpreter tells him that the man saves souls and promises a better world beyond this one. Next Christian enters a large, dusty parlor where the Interpreter orders a man to sweep. Then at the Interpreter’s command, a woman comes in and sprinkles water on the floor, cleaning it further. Christian asks what this means, and the Interpreters explains that the man’s sweeping is the law of the Old Testament, while the woman’s washing is the gospel of the New Testament. Both are necessary parts of faith.
Christian enters another room where a fire burns against a wall. A man pours water onto the fire, but the fire only burns higher and hotter. Christian is puzzled until he sees another man on the other side of the wall pouring oil to rouse the flames. The Interpreter tells Christian that the water-pourer is the devil, who tries to put out the fire of faith, while the oil-pourer is Christ, who nurtures it. Another man standing at a doorway prepares to fight a crowd inside the room. He puts on a helmet, grabs a weapon, and lunges in, fighting fiercely. Though he appears to be failing, the man wins in the end. Christian on his own understands that this is the valor a true pilgrim must show.
Finally the Interpreters leads Christian into a very dark room where a man sits, hands folded, in an iron cage. Christian asks what he is doing there, and the man explains that the cage is his despair. Once a successful professor confident he would reach heaven, the man experienced a crisis of faith that he could never overcome. Now he remains in misery. The Interpreter asks Christian what he feels at seeing all these things. Christian says he feels fear, and the Interpreter says that is a good thing, for fear will spur him on his journey.
The Pilgrim’s Progress aims to tell religious truths indirectly. The author says this in his Apology when he answers critics who complain that religion should not tolerate storytelling. The author, Bunyan, replies that the Bible itself contains literature and the New Testament in particular uses many parables, or indirect illustrations, to communicate its truths. Bunyan explains that he can make up something from his head to spread God’s word. And this is exactly what Bunyan does when the narrator makes up his dream, rather than explain his own experience. The narrator does not discuss his own actual autobiography but makes up another person named Christian, an unreal character. Here again, Bunyan uses the “unreal” to deliver a very real message.
Bunyan demonstrates the importance of interpreting indirect meanings by focusing on Christian’s experience with the Interpreter. The scene in the Interpreter’s house is one of the longest in any dwelling place in all of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian spends a lot of time with the Interpreter because he has a lot to learn about interpretation. Like any religious believer, in Bunyan’s view, Christian cannot get to heaven by just obeying a few moral rules. Instead, he must figure out how to understand meanings behind objects and events. Christian’s perception of what occurs in the Significant Rooms emphasizes the importance of interpretation. The Interpreter shows Christian not just one example of a thing that requires interpretation to be understood but half a dozen. Some of the interpretation is fairly straightforward, like the portrait of Christ that represents the religious figure himself. Others require more thought and guidance. Christian doesn’t know that the fire represents the believer’s faith and water represents the devil. Nor is it obvious in the dusty parlor that the dust symbolizes sin, and the sweeper is the law of the Old Testament. Christian must be guided to these meanings. In this, Christian is like the reader of The Pilgrim’s Progress who must be guided to find meanings behind the obvious layers of the story.
The opening also portrays the most central idea of the work: the journey. The Pilgrim’s Progress is about travel and the meaning that one man’s travel comes to acquire. The trip is one of discovery and learning new things. Christian is journeying not to come home but to leave home, or rather to make a new home for himself in an unfamiliar place, the Celestial City. Because he believes his town is destroyed, he literally cannot go home again. He heads for a better place through his journey to the Celestial City. Therefore the geographical wandering across the land is also a mythic advancement, a spiritual development, which is the “progress” referred to in the title. The journey to the Celestial City is a solitary experience. Christian is first introduced alone and crying with a book in his hand, and he remains alone for large portions of the story. Secondary characters come and go, but Christian remains. In part, his solitude is a necessary aspect of his Protestant faith, which holds that salvation comes not through church attendance and group ritual but through private prayer and introspection. Bunyan shows the reader that faith is individual, so Christian must be alone to practice it.
Solitude reveals a dark side in Christian. One of the more disturbing aspects of Christian’s character is his relative indifference to the fate of the wife and family he leaves behind. He tries to persuade them to come along on his trip but gives up quickly, and he is never shown thinking about them or missing them after. Salvation matters more to him than worldly relationships, but his total lack of family feeling casts a shadow over his personality to many modern readers. Similarly, friendship is portrayed in a stilted way. Christian almost finds a fellow traveler in Pliable but hardly considers him a friend. When Pliable goes back home, Christian barely registers his departure. Christian may be so intent on spiritual improvement that his personal relationships suffer as a result.
Bunyan clearly draws on his experiences in prison to detail the scene at the Interpreter’s house: the haunting sight of a despairing man in an iron cage. Bunyan himself was in an iron cage of his own when he started writing the book, and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Bunyan saw himself in this former professor who had a religious crisis from which he never quite recovered. No doubt Bunyan’s time in jail was marked by deep despair and hopelessness. But by sending Christian on his journey, Bunyan shows that he is freer than the caged man. In his imagination and spirit he can create a character that progresses, even if his body is behind bars.
I would take a certain issue with the observation that Bunyan invokes his own imprisonment when he writes about the man in the iron cage. Certainly Bunyan would have been sensitive to the idea of imprisonment, and this sensitivity could very well have emboldened his passion to warn others of the unwanted consequences of certain behaviors, but I believe there the similarity ends. Bunyan had been imprisoned for preaching the gospel without an official sanction from the religious establishment of the day; the unjust result of extreme obedienc
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