The Pilgrim’s Progress
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Knowledge Gained Through Travel
The Pilgrim’s Progress demonstrates that knowledge is gained through travel by portraying Christian and his companions learning from their mistakes on their journey. Pilgrimage depends on travel, and so a pilgrim must be a voyager prepared to go far and wide. Yet in Bunyan’s book, voyage in itself does not make a traveler a pilgrim. The pilgrim must advance spiritually as he or she advances geographically. The key factor is knowledge, which must increase as the pilgrim proceeds forward. Christian never makes the same mistake twice or meets the same foe twice, because he learns from his experiences. Once he experiences the Slough of Despond, he never needs to be despondent again. Other pilgrims who lack understanding may advance fairly far, like Heedless and Too-bold, who almost get to the Celestial City; however, they do not understand what they undergo, and so they only babble nonsense and talk in their sleep. They are travelers but are not pilgrims because they cannot verbalize or spiritually grasp what they have been through.
The Importance of Reading
The importance of reading is emphasized throughout The Pilgrim’s Progress because the pilgrims reach salvation and happiness by understanding the Bible. The pilgrims who have not read and do not understand the Bible are viewed as disappointments, who will not gain entry to the Celestial City. For example, when Christian dismisses the good lad Ignorant, he does so only because Ignorant cannot grasp divine revelation as conveyed by the Bible. In effect, he rejects Ignorant because he cannot read. Another example is in the first stage of the book when the narrator falls asleep and first glimpses Christian, who is crying and holding a book. The book is the Bible and it strikes pain into the heart of the believer who has strayed from its message. Though pilgrims may read the Bible, they also must believe its message and apply it to their everyday lives. Reading is necessary even for death. When Christiana receives her summons to the Master and takes leave of the world, the summons is sent in the form of a letter. If she could not read it, she would never meet her maker. Reading is not merely a skill in life but the key to attaining salvation.
The Value of Community
The value of community is portrayed in Part II through Christiana’s journey to the Celestial City with her children and a few other companions. As a result, Christiana experiences pilgrimage itself as a communal activity. Every time she makes a stop and picks up more pilgrims to accompany her, the group grows substantially. Her strengths as a pilgrim involve reaching out to others, as when caring for her children, receiving weak or disabled pilgrims into her group, and marrying off her sons. In contrast, Part I portrays pilgrimage as a solitary activity. Though Christian finds companions in Faithful and Hopeful, he never seems to need them. He could progress just as well without them. In fact, when Christian experiences his original spiritual crisis and decides to leave his home and city, he does so alone, as if solitude were necessary to feel the divine word. Yet when Christian cries after the four mistresses of the Palace Beautiful ask why he left his family, he displays a hidden longing for his family. Bunyan emphasizes here that spirituality is best when it is communal. Christian does not end up in solitary bliss wandering alone in heaven but in the Celestial City filled with happy throngs of residents. His community is a large group of similar-minded people. Yet Christiana instinctively knows what Christian learns in the end: spiritual existence should involve togetherness.
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 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.
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.
Pilgrimage means travel and movement, but even the houses in The Pilgrim’s Progress serve an important and necessary function for travelers. Certainly many houses in the book are places of imprisonment; places where movement is denied and salvation rejected. Giant Despair’s Doubting Castle exemplifies a house that thwarts pilgrims’ movement forward by holding them hostage. But other houses are necessary way stations in which the pilgrims have the opportunity not only to take rest and nourishment but also to process the knowledge they have acquired along the way. Christian needs the house of the Interpreter to learn how to read his own experience and to interpret what he sees on his journey. Similarly, he needs the Palace Beautiful not just to relax but also to receive counsel and weapons from the mistresses. Christian could have continued onward in unending movement, bypassing these houses. But if he had, he would have missed crucial learning opportunities. Pilgrimage demands understanding as well as travel. Houses often provide the necessary down time in which to process the experiences of one’s travels and convert them into understanding.
Christian’s certificate, or the roll that he receives from the one of the three Shining Ones after losing his burden, symbolizes Christian’s first accomplishment toward salvation. Appearing right after the burden drops to the ground, the certificate symbolically exchanges that burden as Christian’s worldly cares are replaced by a spiritual mission. But the certificate is not a guarantee that he will enter the Celestial City. As a pilgrim, he can only rely on his own strength and fortitude to make it that far. Yet if he does arrive there, his certificate symbolizes his readiness to enter. Significantly it appears to be a written document, a rolled-up manuscript presumably penned by the Shining Ones that delivered it. Christian never tries to read it or even to sneak a peek at its message. He reads other written documents, like the book he holds at the beginning of the narrator’s dream, but some writing is not for human viewing or comprehension. The certificate speaks about Christian, yet not to him. His only duty is to carry the certificate. As such, the certificate symbolizes the nature of every devout pilgrim, trying as hard as possible, but knowing that much of his or her success relies on powers beyond individual control and effort.
Gates test spiritual faith and commitment. To reach the Celestial City, Christian and Christiana not only have to avoid a number of dangerous creatures and slippery sloughs and hills, but they must pass through two gates. These gates are important because not just anyone can pass, as seen with other characters, such as Ignorance. In Part I, when Goodwill commands the Wicket Gate to allow Christian through, Goodwill lets him pass because Christian states he is traveling to Mount Zion. Goodwill is a good judge of character and lets him pass. Many other characters, such as Formalist and Hypocrisy, would not gain entry because they cheat throughout their journey, as seen when they climb over the wall of Salvation. Christian also possesses a certificate of entry, which allows him entry to the Celestial City gates. He has earned his certificate because he maintained a spiritual journey and did not fall victim to any of the characters who tried to pull him off course. In contrast, when Christiana approaches the gate leading to the Celestial City, she and her group are immediately allowed entry after she mentions she is Christian’s wife. Christian’s story is so widely known on the outskirts of the Celestial City that Christiana need only say his name, and she is allowed in. Without Christian’s name, the gatekeeper tells them he judges the pilgrims who seek entry by how they react to his ferocious dog. The two gates leading to and into the Celestial City represent a new life and journey that not every pilgrim can access. These gates might also be compared to the gates of heaven. After all, those allowed past the gates of heaven have been judged before Christ and allowed entry because of the good that they represent.
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