The Pilgrim’s Progress

by: John Bunyan

Study Questions

1

In some ways Christian seems to learn various things in the course of his pilgrimage, but in other ways he hardly appears to change at all from the beginning to the end of the book. Does Christian evolve or develop as a character?

Christian does not appear to evolve as a character in the same way that characters in modern novels change over time and expand as individuals. Partly he does not change much because he hardly displays any personality in the first place. Bunyan’s emphasis is not on representing Christian as a unique and distinctive individual embarking on a certain course in life that will affect him. Many novels represent their characters as “changed” individuals at the conclusion, but Bunyan is not a novelist. He is an allegorist. Characters in allegories are simply vehicles for abstract ideas, and Christian represents the idea of devout faith. He grows as his faith grows, but there is little change in him from when the story began.

Still Bunyan becomes more like a novelist as he proceeds with Christian’s story, and in Part II he veers even further from pure allegory. In Christian’s tale, the pilgrim displays some signs of a changing. For example, in the Palace Beautiful the mistresses ask Christian about his family left behind in the City of Destruction. As an allegorical character bent only on spiritual progress, Christian should not care about his ties to the old corrupt world. But Christian shows emotion when he tells of his wife and sons. He at least displays the glimmers of a full human personality. Nevertheless, these changes in Christian do not owe so much to his emotional evolution as to his love for his family.

The near-drowning scene in the river offers another glimpse of Bunyan’s change of focus on Christian as a character. As Christian sinks beneath the waves and nearly gives up hope of reaching the Celestial City, he almost resembles a character in modern fiction gripped by despair and angst. He seems more “human” with everyday feelings than an allegorical vehicle. Yet here again, the depth in Christian is caused more by Bunyan’s changing artistic style than by any growth in Christian himself.

2

While Bunyan hardly mentions money or social status in his book, social differences do exist in The Pilgrim’s Progress. How do differences in social rank in the book play into the characters’ experiences of pilgrimage and the religious doctrine that supports it?

Bunyan largely upholds the view of pilgrimage as a social equalizer. Traditionally pilgrimage was seen as an experience of equality before God. The actual practice of pilgrimage no doubt reflected certain differences in income level, social status, and educational background, but in theory such discrepancies did not matter. Social ranks supposedly vanished when a group of pilgrims set forth on the road together, and a servant girl was theoretically of the same rank as a duchess. Thus a group of pilgrims in a sense formed an ideal community governed by the absolute equality they would enjoy later in heaven.

Bunyan’s portrayal of Mercy shows his tender sympathy with and respect for a woman of the lower classes. Mercy is treated with every bit as much dignity and honor as Christiana. Christiana speaks to her as an equal, and they share their possessions on the road at Christiana’s behest. This is also apparent in Part I when Christian addresses the gatekeeper as “sir,” displaying politeness to everyone he interacts with. Bunyan bucks the traditions of his era by insisting that gatekeepers, porters, and maids should be treated as attentively and humanely in literature as everyone else is.

The upper classes come under attack in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Except for the Master of the Celestial City who is presumably God, virtually every character that asserts his or her social superiority displays evil tendencies. Apollyon claims to be a prince and a god, but he is neither, at least as far as Christian is concerned. His educated upper-class speech rings a false note when he addresses Christian. Anyone who owns a castle in the book is wicked, from Beelzebub to Giant Despair. A castle in medieval literature was the possession of the good hero, the knight. But Bunyan reverses the moral associations of castles and makes them the evil lairs of the malignant rich. By contrast, the good have houses or palaces. The mistresses of the Palace Beautiful clearly enjoy social standing, since after all they have a palace. But they do not lord their status over their guests and rejoice to receive even lowly pilgrims like Mercy.

3

Standard Christian doctrine in Bunyan’s day taught that women were created by God to be the servants and inferiors of men. How do the female characters in the book support or refute official Christian teaching about female status?

The plot of The Pilgrim’s Progress does suggest male primacy. Christian is more sensitive to the higher calling of heaven than his wife. Christian hears the Evangelist’s word long before his wife does. And when he tries to persuade his wife to accompany him, she refuses. The male emerges as the spiritual go-getter, while the female plays the role of the shirker. At this point, the reader would leave with a strong impression that Bunyan believes men to be more religious than women.

However, the rest of the book powerfully contradicts the idea of female spiritual weakness. Strong and spiritually assertive women also appear regularly on Christian’s pilgrimage. The four mistresses of the Palace Beautiful not only feed and wash Christian in stereotypical female fashion, but they also give him armor and weapons as custodians of military force who understand masculine battle. They do not sit back and watch Christian but engage with him in discussing points of Christian doctrine. Bunyan presents them as active and assertive.

In Part II, women become even stronger. Christiana appears no longer as the stay-at-home shirker but boldly decides to follow her husband and take her four children along wit her. Mercy shrugs off a suitor who stops courting her. She calmly states that faith matters more than marriage. Finally, the appearance of Madam Bubble shows that powerful women can be evil as well as good. She may be bad, but she is certainly not weak. Women in Part II often seem even better pilgrims than the men were in Part I. Christian arrived in the Celestial City with one friend, while Christiana arrives with a whole flock of righteous pilgrims.