The Pilgrim’s Progress

by: John Bunyan

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols

Houses

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

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

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.